November 13, 2005

Translation vs. Transliteration

Note about this post: it's long, and the interesting stuff is at the end, so feel free to skip ahead. The beginning of the interesting part, which is not as long as the (comparatively) boring part, is marked with a boldface note like this one.

Transliteration is the practice of taking words from one language, written in one alphabet, and putting them in another language with another alphabet. Bible translators often choose to transliterate words and thus create new words in English, instead of using existing English words with equivalent or nearly equivalent meanings (sometimes because they don't think English has a nearly equivalent word). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following words entered the English language through (or at least are first attested in) translations of part or all of the Bible in the years indicated:

  • Angel - 950
  • Apostle - 950
  • Christ - 950
  • Evangelize - 1382
  • Evangelist as agency noun of evangelize (it was previously used only to refer to the authors of the four Gospels) - 1535
  • Messiah - First appears in the West Saxon Gospels, date unknown

These are just a handful of words I thought to look up.

Transliteration is often a good thing, depending on the word, the intended audience, etc. In particular, when translating a technical term whose meaning is given almost entirely by the context, and not by any pre-conceived meaning the audience has, transliteration may be a good idea. On the other hand, the word does have some pre-conceived meaning, either because it already existed, or because it has a recognizable etymology (people don't just make words up from nowhere!) and if that can be duplicated in the translation it's generally a good idea. Then there's the question of the purpose of a translation. If, for instance, one is translating the fragments of Heraclitus, and the intended audience is academic philosophers/philosophy students, then transliterating words like logos, kosmos, etc. may be a good idea. Another alternative is to do what the Irwin and Fine volume of selections from Aristotle that I have do and indicate the word by a subscript (for instance, when ousia is translated "being" or "essence", the word is followed by a subscripted o). Yet another alternative is to pick an English word that is a close equivalent of the original language and use the word always and only to translate the one single original language word, and note it in an introduction.

Of these, only the last is appropriate for a translation intended for casual reading by non-scholars (in my opinion). Of course one might argue that in the case of the Bible we (Christians) should all be "scholars," not in the sense of going to school for it, but in the sense of studying it seriously, and I would agree. However, there is a need for more casual Bible reading as well; for devotional reading, and reading aloud in a church service, for instance. Now the last option, the one appropriate for casual readers, is not always possible. Imagine, for instance, if the English "word" was only used to translate logos. How many other terms for "word" does English have? Do we then (over-)translate rhema as "thing said?" What about epos? What about all the cases (there are a lot of them) where the translation "word" doesn't make sense to an untrained English speaker, as when logos actually means argument, speech, story, etc.? You can mark it off as a technical term with some type of capitalization or typeface, but that won't come across when read aloud.

So what do we do? We translate logos all sorts of different ways, depending on what is most appropriate in the context, to convey the same meaning to English speakers. Now, in a serious study Bible we might write transliterate logos in the first place (I believe there exists a translation that does this, but I don't remember which one), or we might affix a subscript l to indicate the word (or you could memorize the Strong's numbers for all your favorite words, and get a Bible that has those).

Now, in the case of something that was a coinage at the time of writing, as euangelistes (announcer of good news, aka evangelist) seems to have been in the NT, or agape (love) seems to have been in the Septuagint (in both cases the verb form already existed), it might be good to transliterate - but we're still not creating the effect that the original readers experienced, so it might be better to coin a new English word with a similar etymology (as Peter Meinek's translation of Aristophanes' Clouds, a play parodying Socrates which was written and perofmred within Socrates' lifetime, coins the term "Pondertorium," and another translation, I'm not sure which one, coins the term "Thinkery").

There are two cases where I am an enthusiastic supporter of transliteration: the case where the original author transliterated a word from a language different than that of the text, and the case of proper nouns. You would think both of these would be followed by translators almost all the time, but they are not. For instance, the words hAidos (=Hades) and geena (=Gehenna) are both translated "Hell" (with or without capitalization) in most New Testament translations, which is confusing because Hades is not the same as Hell in the New Testament (rather, it is equivalent to OT Sheol, another proper name normally translated "the pit" or various other strange things instead of transliterated). As for the second case, most New Testament translations translate Aramaic words like maranatha and raca instead of transliterating (the NASB is an exception to these - it transliterates a lot).

Note: the interesting stuff starts here.

Several of the words mentioned above are NOT technical terms in the original language, but ordinary words used with more or less ordinary meanings. They may have developed technical meanings, but these meanings were not contradictory to their original meanings. Almost all of them had English equivalents to begin with (the exceptions are of course Christ and Messiah, which could be translated "anointed one" or "chosen one," but are not really equivalent and were definitely theological terms). The word for "angel" was just the normal everyday word "messenger." The word "apostle" meant "ambassador," or "emmissary." Now in the introduction to The Source New Testament (which I did finally get my hands on, although not the version with the lexical notes), Ann Nyland says she has "chosen to translate rather than transliterate many words, not following the usual tradition of Bible translation." This, I think, is a good idea, as words like angel have become technical terms in English when they were not in Greek. However, I can't imagine her justification for deciding to translate christos while still transliterating apostolos into apostle. Today, we think of the word "apostle" as referring specifically to the Twelve, and only after Pentecost (before that they are usually called "disciples"). In fact, the word means, according to LSJ, "a messenger, ambassador, envoy." I have never seen this word translated. It is always transliterated (of course, before The Source I had never seen aggelos (angel) translated either, so a step in the right direction). I don't understand the reason why not. I suppose tradition/habit is one reason - if you talked about Jesus' twelve ambassadors no one would know what you meant - but Dr. Nyland doesn't care about that part, and she still didn't translate apostolos. Is there something I'm not getting here? Why is apostolos a better candidate for transliteration than logos - or, in Dr. Nyland's case, even a better candidate than christos? How many non-Greek speakers read the word "apostle" and know that it means, literally, "one sent forth?"

On a side note, I very much appreciate Dr. Nyland's translation in Matthew 5:22, where the NKJV's "hell fire" becomes "Burning Garbage Pit Gehenna" (capitalization original).

Posted by Kenny at November 13, 2005 09:10 PM
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Good post, Kenny. I'm going to link to it.

Posted by: Wayne Leman at November 15, 2005 03:43 PM

I happened to come across another version which does not transliterate "angel", the Concordant Literal New Testament, at But the reason is quite different from what you suggest; because ἄγγελος also sometimes refers to human messengers and this version insists on a concordant rendering (even when this makes no sense!), it is forced to avoid the transliteration.

Posted by: Peter Kirk at November 16, 2005 04:55 AM

Peter, this is very interesting. Thanks for the link. I hope to have a chance to look at it in more depth later, but the first thing I notice is that logos is not translated concordantly (for instance, it is "word" in John 1:1 and "saying" in Acts 2:40). I wonder how this squares with their desire to render everything "concordantly"? As I said, I haven't look at it very closely, but will later.

Posted by: Kenny at November 16, 2005 08:55 AM

In regards to transliteration of names, I am of the opinion that it is impossible to translate a name. It is however possible to transliterate a name. I started studying this matter when I learned the true name of the Messiah vs what modern Christianity claims as his name. I am a Christian don't worry, I only wish to know the truth. If we are supposed to recieve salvation in His name, then don't you think we should get the name right? The word mentions in reference to salvation that there is salvation in no other name! I welcome your thoughts on this matter, being that most of this is new info for me. Thanks!

Posted by: kevin swiney at December 2, 2005 04:02 PM

Kevin, thanks for your feedback. Firstly, allow me to point out that the term Christ is derived from the word the New Testament actually uses. Secondly, it is not properly a name, but more of a title (although Matthew uses it as though it were a surname). Messiah is the Hebrew form used in the Old Testament prophecies predicting the coming of Christ.

Secondly, I don't think that Acts 4:12, John 14:13, and other verses like them are intended to be read in the way you suggest. The Greek word for name admits to a more general interpretation. For instance, the end of Acts 1:15 literally reads something like, "and the mob of names on the same thing was about one hundred and twenty." What it means is something like, "the number of people in the group was about 120" (I'm not completely sure what the "on the same thing" part means, but all the translations seem to agree that it means something like "in al" or "total"). For this reason, I don't think we should import our English understanding of the word "name" to the Bible. More likely, I think, the second half of Acts 4:12 is just a slightly more poetic version of the first half.

Besides this point, how do you decide whether to use Jesus' Greek name (as it's recorded in the New Testament), or his Hebrew/Aramaic name (since he actually spoke Aramaic). I think that, on the whole, the Bible doesn't consider this to be a big deal. Compare the "arguments over words" in 1 Timothy 6:4.

Posted by: Kenny at December 2, 2005 06:19 PM

Hi Kenny,

I have just discovered your blog. Great reading. I really enjoyed this post. It shows how no translation can stay within a consistent translation philosophy. MAybe it is better to admit this upfront and say that other issues motivate translation. However, The Source is a great addition to the English translation galaxy.

Posted by: Suzanne McCarthy at December 11, 2005 04:09 PM

Suzanne, I'm not sure it shows that, because I believe that you can maintain a consistent translation philosophy and follow the text rather than your own pre-existing doctrinal beliefs. However, as we can see, this is extremely difficult. Certainly, a translator should own up to any biases (and we all have them) in a preface, and mark any controversial translation decisions in footnotes. Explanations of these would be nice, but this may be the place of a separate commentary rather than footnotes to the text. Anyway, glad you enjoyed it. :)

Posted by: Kenny at December 11, 2005 04:54 PM

Hello Kinny,

I have stumbled onto your blog while googleing up some help for my husband. He is dyslexic and struggles with english grammar, but his current major in Bible college requires a full year in Greek. His professor is not much help to students who aren't understanding this greek stuff. My husband translated sentences but His Prof. returned them with a note to transliterate them and turn them back in. We didn't know there was a difference! I'm wondering if you have any suggestions on how a struggleing Greek student can get some extra help.

Posted by: Tara at October 24, 2006 09:28 AM


I suppose the first advice I would give is to learn English grammar. I know that may not be the most helpful advice, but it really will make everything easier. Some things are very simple. For instance, one should remember that "he" and "they" are in the nominative case, "his" and "their" are in the genitive case, and "him" and "them" are in the accusative case. In English we use the preposition "to" for dative, so in "I give the book to him" we have "I" in the nominative, "the book" in the accusative, and "to him" in the dative. Once you start to see parallels with English things become easier. The verb system, however, is rather difficult and there isn't much for it but hard work. Fortunately, the most difficult parts are not found in the New Testament, and so you won't have to learn them in a Bible college class. Still, the verb system is rather a daunting task, and there are sometimes small variations that are significant but that dyslexia could cause one to miss.

In the end, I guess all I can say is that there is no way to get around the need to (a) understand grammar, and (b) memorize paradigms. In the end I think you will find that highly inflected languages like Greek are ultimately easier than other languages, because once you have the paradigms memorized, the grammar just works itself out (for the most part). I studied Attic and Homeric Greek in school, not Koine, so I only know of one book to recommend, and that is Moulton's Analytical Greek Lexicon. This book contains all the word forms that appear anywhere in the NT (not just the roots) in alphabetical order and explains what form of the word they are. He also has a grammar reference in the beginning. However, many professors consider using this book "cheating," since looking words up in the book means you don't have to spend as much time memorizing paradigms.

Sorry I couldn't be more helpful.

Posted by: Kenny at October 24, 2006 10:47 AM
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