Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive What Translation Is

I am passionate about Bible translation because I have gained insight into virtually all aspects of what it means to be a responsible and free human being through the literature, imagery, and thought of the Bible. I have never been able to draw a firm line between "then" and "now," because the world I know today has so many similarities—in matters that count—with the biblical world. That frequently makes me an oddity in contemporary settings, but I can't help but draw much of my understanding of politics, ecology, social relations, and moral perceptions from the strange mix of biblical literature and thought.

Since the above is true, I have always wanted to work at the question of how best to render the biblical texts into contemporary language and imagery. What is at stake is the very meaning of human life, of my life.

As to examples, Psalm 51:5 (Heb 51:7) in the KJV is rendered literally, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." Who knows how much mischief that translation has done, reflected as it is in the Vulgate's (Psalm 50:7) ecce in iniquitate conceptus sum et in peccato peperit me mater mea. Surely, that misreading (even though a literal rendering of the Hebrew) has helped to skew Christian understanding of human sexuality, offering an (erroneous) biblical support for the notion that sin entered the world in some special connection with the sexual act and was passed along through the birth of children.

The NRSV rendering, "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me," which might not be the best possible translation, accurately focuses the reader's attention on the psalmist's own character, selfhood, in effect denying that the poet's failings before God were somehow a fluke, not characteristic, and thus the more easily forgiven.

Each text presents some general translation problems and some special ones. I remember vividly how with the NRSV translation of Deuteronomy the translators sought to take account of the distinctive style, language, and theological understandings of that body of literature. The result was a translation that used some distinctive English renderings of common Hebrew terms in order to capture something of the distinct thought and style of this biblical tradition. Often one has to make compromises so as not to have a particular body of biblical literature stand out from the rest too sharply.

The author's or editor's intention surely needs to be sought, and yet, translators are left with the need often to try to surmise that intention. Did the author of Job 13:15 wish to affirm confidence in God even in the face of likely death at God's hands, or did the author here, as elsewhere, see God as the Enemy and express a loss of hope in God? Both readings of the Hebrew are preserved; perhaps the author intended for both alternatives to stand side by side.

The translator should work to accomplish a plain task: to bring the reader to the text as the text is likely to have seized thoughtful hearers in its time(s), while at the same time bringing the text into the contemporary world with that world's different language, thought, imagery, prejudices, and the like. Translation is always working to enable the two worlds to overlap as much as possible.

The slogan attributed to Jehuda ben Ilai still stands: "One who translates literally, lies; one who adds to the text, blasphemes." Translators carry out their perilous assignment between those two poles.

Walter Harrelson

Vanderbilt Divinity School, Emeritus

Wake Forest University Divinity School, Adjunct

Citation: Walter Harrelson, " What Translation Is," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:


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