Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Towards an Ethic of Liberation for Bible Translation: Marketing

[Editor's Note: Part 1 of this discussion appeared in the March issue.]


A simple Google search performed on March 27, 2006, on "Marketing and Bible and Translation" resulted in 2,040,000 hits in 0.41 seconds. The relationship between marketing and Bible translation is one that most religious communities would rather ignore. The many non-profit organizations and societies that pursue Bible translation attempt to minimize this reality. Furthermore, it is my impression that Pym,[1] Chesterman,[2] Towner,[3] Lyotard,[4] and Wittgenstein,[5] among others, do not deal with this issue explicitly and overtly. There may be some insinuations present as questions of Who is the client? and What can the client expect? are discussed. This represents only a beginning toward acknowledging the reality and forceful presence that marketing has upon Bible translation. I recognize that this may not be as relevant for Bible translation projects into so-called minority languages, where there may not be a long history of tradition and where no previous Bible translation exists. However, when one is involved in translating the Bible into a majority language such as Spanish for a continent with a long Catholic and Protestant tradition, marketing shows its face over and over.


Perhaps the most accepted understanding of marketing is that which suggests that it involves the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of goods, services, and ideas to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organization objectives. The matter of satisfying individual and organization objectives seems to be the most relevant for our purposes. In other words, how does one develop a translation ethic and at the same time satisfy objectives that are tied into promotion and distribution objectives?


When dealing with modern Bible translations into majority languages, the costs are enormous and the non-profit organization responsible for the project hopes that the product will satisfy the objectives and thus recover part, if not all, of the initial investment, so that other projects can be initiated. The satisfaction of objectives becomes a powerful player at the translation table. As Towner has indicated, satisfaction may be sought by more than one entity in any given project, such as a national Bible society, a particular religious confession, etc.[6] As we will see in the examples below, these and other interested parties can exert a tremendous amount of pressure on the translator or translation team.


The examples that I present here exhibit an interesting overlap between marketing and ideological pressures. It is my intention to demonstrate that these issues must be placed at the forefront of any discussion or development of a Bible translation ethic.


Marketing: Case studies


Example 1


For almost ten years, I participated in the latest UBS Spanish translation project. The goal was to produce a translation characterized by simple contemporary language, which had as its main goal the communication of the message of the Bible. The New Testament was published in the year 2000. This translation is now called Traducción en Lenguaje Actual. This is quite an innovative translation of the Bible, where entire bodies of the text were restructured. The response has been more than positive. I admit that, in part, many leaders accept it because they see that it is intended for children. There always has been a condescending attitude toward children.


The Publications office in the Americas was very happy when they received an order for 100,000 copies of the New Testament from a Catholic bishop in Venezuela. All was well until somebody called the bishop's attention to the translation of Luke 2:7. The text there says in Spanish "primer hijo" (first-born son). Traditional Spanish translations read "primogénito." This word means only one thing: first born. However, it is not a word that is used in common speech, nor would most children understand it. The bishop, however, insisted that we use the traditional historic word. Why? Because the word "primogénito," for this bishop, suggested not only first born, but also "only" son. His ideological presuppositions came into play.


From one side, the pressure is exerted for ideological reasons. From the publications unit side, the pressure is financial and market driven. Why should we jeopardize the sale of 100,000 copies because of one simple, apparently innocent word? And this could lead to other more catastrophic rejections. The irony of it all is that the New Testament was carefully reviewed and approved by Monseñor Armando Levoratti, a member of the Vatican Bible Commission, and was published with a letter of endorsement by the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and president of the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano.


The issue had to be dealt with by those of us who are members of the translation team. What ethical parameters are we to use? Certainly, there are no linguistic, exegetical, or translational reasons for changing the text. The only reason for changing the text would be to satisfy the need to sell 100,000 copies. On the other hand, it compromises our translation philosophy in producing this text. Our studies clearly indicated that the word "primogénito" is not a word readily understood by children.


The questions continue to surface: Are we to change the translation of a biblical text every time somebody with marketing power requests a change? Does a time ever come in Bible translation work when "enough is enough?" As translators we may have a "Hieronymic Oath" that we follow, we may embrace an ethic based on virtues; furthermore, we may have the capacity to differentiate clearly between personal and professional ethics. But the underlying message that we receive seems to be this: When "money talks," translators better "shut up" or "put up."


Example 2


The Traducción en Lenguaje Actual was challenged by a national Bible society. The issue was the translation of 1 John 5:16-17. As translators, we discussed the meaning of the text extensively. After much research, we decided to follow what we considered the best exegetical commentaries, including the UBS Handbook on The Letters of John. Our translation interpreted the text to refer to "spiritual death" or "eternal death" rather than to simply "death," which is quite ambiguous in the context.


This national Bible society sent a letter to the other General Secretaries of the Latin American National Bible Societies, threatening that if we (the translators) did not change the translation of this text in the already published New Testament, they would not distribute the complete Traducción en Lenguaje Actual. They required the translators to change the translation so that the text remains ambiguous, much like the more literal and traditional translations.


Once again the decision to change a given text is not based on exegetical, historical, and linguistic reasons. Nor is it based on some "higher ethic." The change originates within a pre-conceived ideology. That ideology is the one accepted by a majority of the people who are related to a particular local Bible society. This national Bible society then exerts the same kind of ideological pressure on the rest of the national Bible societies in the continent. However, the threat to not distribute the TLA produces a definite marketing pressure. It is quite clear that a translation of this magnitude required a major investment. Those who participated in this project came from different regions in Latin America. They also represented different specializations. The purpose was to have an interdisciplinary team involved at all stages of the translation. All of this is very costly.


The final outcome was that we were forced to make a change in the text because of this threat. We sacrificed a translation that, as specialists, we felt was a much better translation because of marketing pressure. What ethic, if any, is operative here? To what extent can we speak of an ethic of representation where the ethical imperative is to represent the source text? Perhaps the ethics of service applies more closely, where the aim of the translation is set by the client and accepted and negotiated by the translator. And yet, the situation here is somewhat different because the client did not set the aim of the translation. The client in this case receives the translation and then exercises power over the product.


Related to this case, one could entertain Pym's comment that an ethics of translation should be able to address moral dilemmas when they arise, but should not raise them unnecessarily.[7] Did our translation of 1 John 5:16-17 raise a moral dilemma unnecessarily? I am not sure I would characterize the translation as posing a moral dilemma. On the other hand, we as translators are faced with a moral dilemma when we are forced to change a text on the basis of a marketing threat.


Example 3


Still another issue arose when one of the general secretaries of a national Bible society returned from an activity with a church that exhibited Pentecostal characteristics. He was alarmed by some of the comments that people made about the Traducción en Lenguaje Actual. He immediately shared his concern, which was primarily based on the possibility of losing clients. In fact, he also suggested a change in Luke 24:13, where the text talks about two followers of Jesus walking toward Emmaus. In the TLA we translated "dos de los seguidores" (two of the followers). The problem that surfaced was based on the interpretation that the two followers may have been a couple; i.e., husband and wife. Since the word "seguidores" in Spanish is masculine, this translation ruled out the possibility of suggesting that they were husband and wife.


Once again the issue was not an exegetical, linguistic, or translational one. There is no exegetical or historical basis for understanding the "two of them" as husband and wife. However, the possibility of losing clients generated enough pressure that the translators had to struggle with a possible change.


Example 4


One of the ongoing debates in Latin American Protestant circles revolves around the use of the name Jehová. The most accepted translation for these circles is the Reina Valera in its various revisions. The name for the Tetragrammaton is always Jehová. The newer translations have opted for Señor (Lord).


Interestingly enough, a very large and growing neo-pentecostal church known as the Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios came to a national Bible society and demanded the following. They said they wanted a Reina Valera 1960 edition, but without the name Jehová. Instead, they wanted the word Señor. The added point of pressure came when they said that if the national Bible society did not provide this kind of text, they would go ahead and purchase the Nueva Versión Internacional published by the International Bible Society.


The general secretary of that National Bible Society wrote to Dr. Bill Mitchell, the ATCO, requesting immediate permission to publish a Reina Valera 1960 with Señor instead of Jehová. The request was denied, as it should be. However, some time later, this RVR60 was published without the word Jehová in it. This was done by UBS programs and publication committees against the counsel of the Translations Department of the UBS.


The problem with a request like this is that it is motivated purely by competition and by marketing pressures. This neo-Pentecostal church has now purchased thousands of Bibles. Giving up that market to the International Bible Society is not a pleasant thing for the UBS National Bible Society. The real problem, however, is that ethical considerations were totally absent when the request was formulated. The only criterion that was operative was market driven. The correct questions were never asked. To what extent can the translation of Reina Valera be altered and still be called Reina Valera? Who has the right to do a simple "search and replace"? Is there such a thing as respect for the source text, and what does that mean? Hard questions like these need to be posed in order to make valid decisions that are supported by an ethic that is not co-opted and coerced by marketing realities.


Positive Contributions Offered by Marketing


Having presented these examples, and what I consider to be some of the more negative effects of marketing on the Bible translation process, it behooves us to admit that "marketing issues" are not always negative, nor is it always a black and white issue. Marketing has the potential of helping in a very positive way, when it comes to Bible translation ethical matters.[8]


It is no secret that marketing principles help us realize that all our work must have objectives. These objectives must be achieved in the most cost-effective manner possible. Some suggest that we have no moral right to work in any other way. Good stewardship can be greatly aided by an adequate use of marketing techniques.


In fact, the promotion aspect of marketing can help the translators crystallize what they really believe about their translations. In addition, marketing questions can help the translators identify their own blind spots and thus help eliminate excessive cultural baggage and theological subjectivities.


Market questions can also help the translators balance loyalties. Bible translators have a tendency to be extremely loyal to the source text. Academic and exegetical commitments take precedence over everything else. Market questions can help translators be loyal to the client as well. The public for whom the Bible translation is offered deserves the loyalty and commitment of the Bible translator as well. This delicate balance is difficult to achieve, especially when the audience is conditioned by tradition and other factors that do not allow it to accept new knowledge and superior translations.


In conclusion, marketing can act as a most helpful instrument if it is infused with a humanitarian concern and does not force the translator to compromise important ethical decisions. If marketing is driven exclusively by a concern for profits, then the waters tend to get very muddy. It seems to me that there should always be room for negotiating, but at the same time there should always be room for ethical values.


Towards a LIberation Ethic of Bible Translation


The previous discussions have been articulated so as to serve as a catalyst for thinking about a Bible translation ethic. In some sense, the purpose is to begin with the more pragmatic and move on to the more theoretical sphere. It is my contention that real examples need to nurture the development of any theoretical framework.


I stated at the outset that my intention was not to develop a rigid ethic that would provide closure to the discussion. The examples offered suggest that it would be presumptuous to think that one could offer a full-fledged ethic that is capable of embracing all translation issues in all cultures. This is especially true if one is at least somewhat skeptical as to whether any given translation can ever be adequately accomplished. Lyotard is perhaps correct when he says that translation in any form is virtually impossible, since each language has its own set of rules that are culturally determined and temporally specific.[9] Lyotard also contends that translation is not only an infinite task with no closure, but that every translation begets another one. In other words, translation is an ongoing process that is never neat and tidy. Loose ends appear constantly and that is part and parcel of the nature of translation. In fact, Yengoyan may be right when he asserts: "Translation is a form of house-cleaning which might be tidy, but the real beauty of house-cleaning is to keep disorder and partial chaos as part of the process."[10]


This same reality applies to the attempt to articulate a Bible translation ethic. Closure and comprehensiveness may be an impossibility and to a certain degree undesirable.


My proposal for a Bible translation ethic begins by stating that due to the nature of the translation process itself, it will inevitably be subjective, partial, and flexible and will not pretend to bring closure to the discussion. Perhaps what I am proposing is a kind of minimalist picture. This picture is somewhat similar to what the ancient Greeks taught us through Heraclites' insight that one can never step in the same river again. Contexts, language, cultures, and ideas change constantly, and this is what needs to be in the background of any theoretical articulation. This picture, as was stated above, will always be subjective and cannot claim to be absolute in any sense of the word. This is partly due to the fact that Bible translation is always done in a socio-cultural context. In my opinion, these realities do not take away from the possibility of suggesting a course of action that can be considered viable and legitimate.


I will begin by building on Chesterman's suggestion that virtues such as trustworthiness, truthfulness, fairness, and the courage to take risks in caring for others are valid, human qualities to be pursued in developing a Bible translation ethic. Admittedly, one has to be conscious that each one of these terms needs to be more clearly defined. For example, what is fairness? Who defines it? Does the idea, concept, and/or practice of fairness vary from one culture to another? But, whatever the answers are to these questions, I can agree with Chesterman that these virtues involve human relationships. It is at this point that I would like to introduce a concept that could be understood as one that can sustain a Bible translation ethic. I suggest that a translation ethic should be one that "composes," that sets things or persons right, that makes right, that settles. Spinoza speaks of something similar in more ontological terms.[11] I take up Spinoza's suggestion and apply it to the translator and translation process by saying that an "ethical" translation is one that "composes" and therefore empowers. Stated in opposite terms, any translation that diminishes, or "disempowers," is not an ethical translation, subjective as it may sound. I am suggesting that this framework ought to prevail over matters of ideology, religious confession, marketing, and other related issues. The goal of the translator and subsequently of the translation should be to "compose"—in the sense of placing in proper form, of settling, of making right. This in turn, empowers an individual, a community or a situation. A translator should attempt to provide dignity, worth, and value through the translation produced.


I state this in very general categories because the reality of Bible translation is quite complex. First of all, Bible translation is a process that is never finished. It is a never-ending story that for a variety of reasons goes on and on. Second, in my experience the translator-client relationship is never clear cut. By this I mean that we are not hired directly by those who will read our Bible translations. In fact, we may have to speak of multiple clients: a national Bible society, denominational leaders (missionaries), indigenous leaders, and indigenous communities. And yet, none of these pays our salaries directly. Third, it is very different if we are producing the only Bible that any given community will read, or if we are producing a Bible for a majority language. Noorda is quite forceful when he writes:


Because Bible Societies subsidize the production and sale of Bibles that are made available in "poor" areas of the world, they can establish a monopoly and provide the only version of the Bible that many readers will ever see or hear. . . . Those who are not able to choose will be at the mercy, so to speak, of whatever theology or translation principle has driven the one version that they have, a fact that should provide food for thought.[12]

I do not mean to be critical of the work of the Bible Society. After all, one Bible is better than none. All I want to do is to raise consciousness of this reality when trying to articulate a translation ethic. Issues of commercial power, monopoly, and so forth cannot be ignored. It is in light of this that I suggest that a Bible translation ethic should seek to compose and in this way empower the "other" to be, to have life.


A necessary component of this ethic is "service." This is quite different from the ethics of service as explained by Chesterman. Since I am suggesting an ethic for Bible translation, I feel it is legitimate to suggest a more theological nuance for the concept of service. By this, I mean that translators and translations ought to be infused with a spirit of service on behalf of the fellow-human being. The translation should not be an end in and of itself. The translator should continually ask: How can this translation best serve the so-called "client"? At this point, I am not as concerned about loyalty as Chesterman is, for loyalty has the potential of exercising a compromising effect on the translator. I am concerned, however, that a deep sense of service infuse the entire translation process.


Finally, as part of this Bible translation ethic I propose that "liberation" has to go along side the intent to compose, to empower, and to serve.[13] Bible translation should be a process whereby liberation in its broadest sense is achieved. This will certainly be contextually and culturally determined. And yet, the intent to liberate needs to be present throughout the entire process of Bible translation. The translation process of the Bible should not become one more institution, or one more subsystem (Foucault), that directly or indirectly facilitates the "exclusion of the other." We suggest that an ethic of liberation is needed to keep the Bible translation process from becoming an entity of power that places people "outside." On the contrary, it should bring the "other" inside and nurture life in its full expression. The ethic must seek to articulate the feasibility of a horizon of life, rather than the building of walls of exclusion, marginalization, and death. An ethic of liberation must engage in a transformative action by which all of the knowledge employed in the translation process is for the development of life. Many of the Bible translation projects are done on behalf of, in the interest of, for the sake of, and in conjunction with communities of victims, or "victimized communities." That is why an ethic of liberation is so imperative. An ethic of liberation will provide the opportunity for the Bible translation process to intervene creatively in the qualitative progress of history. It represents the channel by which the translation process can transform the sword into a plow that will open the way for the development of life.


An ethic of liberation is an ethic of responsibility for the "other." It could be called an ethic of radical responsibility because it will not pass by on the other side when confronted with a victim. The responsibility for the other who is vulnerable, who is suffering, becomes the litmus test of an ethic of Bible translation. It is my contention that if liberation is absent from any ethical construct, then I would call that construct something else. Given the devastating realities that most people experience on planet earth, a Bible translation ethic needs to demand that liberation become an integral component of its framework. I state this passionately, while at the same time acknowledging that it is a subjective matter.


In conclusion, I consider that these elements, though not absolute or comprehensive, are necessary for a Bible translation ethic, so that matters of ideology, marketing, interest groups, and personal agendas can be addressed in such a way that no single one of them dominates the translation process. What is clear to us is that this discussion, much like Bible translation, is and should be a never-ending process. What I propose is not meant to bring closure to the issue, but simply to provide some principles that in my consideration are essential. Nevertheless, questions still remain. How do we address ethically a situation where a national Bible society decides not to carry forth any more translation projects? Is there an ethical responsibility towards the translator in such a case? How do we infuse an ethical framework with justice?—and by this I mean biblical justice. These and many other questions still remain to be addressed. It is these considerations that lead me to emphasize that a Bible translation ethic must remain provisional, flexible, and open to new horizons.


Steven Voth, United Bible Societies



[1] A. Pym, Translation and Text Transfer (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), chapter 7.


[2] A. Chesterman, "Proposal for a Hieronymic Oath," The Translator 7/2 (2001): 139-54.


[3] P. Towner, "Ethics and Bible Translation: A Working Paper," unpublished paper presented in Rome, April 2004.


[4] Aram Yengoyan, "Lyotard and Wittgenstein and the Question of Translation" in Translating Cultures (ed. P. Rubel and A. Rosman; Oxford: Berg, 2003), chapter 1.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Towner, "Ethics and Bible Translation."


[7] A. Pym, Translation and Text Transfer (New York: Perter Lang, 1992), chapter 7.


[8] I wish to acknowledge and thank my colleague Susan Mills for her insights in this regard. I depend heavily on her ideas in this section.


[9] Aram Yengoyan, "Lyotard and Wittgenstein and the Question of Translation" in Translating Cultures (ed. P. Rubel and A. Rosman; Oxford: Berg, 2003), chapter 1. See also Jean-Francoise Lyotard, La condición postmoderna (Buenos Aires: Red Editorial Iberoamericana, 1995).


[10] Ibid.


[11] Gilles Deleuze, En Medio de Spínoza (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Cactus, 2004).


[12] Sijbolt Norad, "New and Familiar: The Dynamics of Bible Translation," in A. Brenner and J.W. van Henten, Bible Translation on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 26-27, 30.


[13] Enrique Dussel, Ética de la liberación en la edad de la globalización y de la exclusión Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2004), 1-661; a comprehensive treatment on the ethics of liberation for a globalizad World.

Citation: Steven Voth, " Towards an Ethic of Liberation for Bible Translation: Marketing ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2008]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.