Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lost in Translation: A surprising gain in English translations

It's not unusual to have students enter my Greek class with a certain level of anxiety. For many this is their first stab at learning a language since high school and depending on how that went, it may be the first time they actually learn a language. I remember one year I had a student who was so nervous he sat their with a paper bag so as not to hyperventilate. He was only partly joking.

One of the first things I try to do in the course is sell the students on why they should learn the original languages of the Bible. I usually mention that, although we have some excellent English translations, readers are only getting about 80% of what the text says and means. I then spend the beginning of most classes in the term reading from the Greek New Testament with them and showing them what they can learn by knowing Greek.

What I hadn't realized, however, is that not only are readers of English not grasping everything the text has to say, they are also getting a lot more words in the process. Anyone who has done translation work knows that it is not like solving a mystery or connecting the dots. One word in Greek doesn't necessarily equal one word in English. It can sometimes require as many as seven words in English to be translated clearly. This means that our English Bibles are thicker than those in the original languages.

While I have known this for some time, it was not fully conscious of the extent to which it happens until Patrick Schriener brought it to my attention in a blog post titled The Verbosity of English Translations. In the post Patrick is discussing a 2007 article in JETS by Karen Jobes. In the article she demonstrates the degree to which English translations are verbose in comparison to the original Hebrew and Greek. She offers the following chart.

Of course, this can happen in almost any translation project  whether it be into English, French, or the Bargam tribal language in Papua New Guinea. Translation is rarely easy and often messy. But the chart helps to demonstrate that our Bibles are considerably thicker when translated into English. This means that, while we are only getting about 80% of the meaning of the text, it is taking us anywhere from 33% to 65% more to get to that 80%. Of course I am not suggesting that we should eliminate English translations. But I do think this is another example of why knowing Hebrew and Greek is important for those who are in leadership positions in the church.


  1. Interesting reflections. Interesting, too, to see the word count given for the Hebrew Bible in Jobes's article (p. 796, or 24/25 of PDF). Counting the "words" of the HB is notoriously difficult, of course, but I wonder if the lower number of 305,441 is more appropriate -- that would affect the rest of the numbers, of course, to the increased verbosity of translations!

    Too bad that wasn't "problematized" in Jobes's discussion. For very brief presentation of statistics and issues, see conveniently the Statistical Appendix to the Jenni & Westermann Theological Lexicon of the OT, vol. 3, pp. 1444-5.

  2. I must add that Hebrew prefixes the definite article ( the word "the" ) and prefixes many prepositions... I wonder how they counted these Hebrew compound words... Greek also has no indefinite article (the word "a") ... So these two facts alone could account for a good portion of the word inflation...

  3. Great Post!I appreciate your efforts. This blog is ever amazing. Thanks!

    English to Greek translation

  4. Really interesting and useful article, its will help to learn English to Greek translation.