Translation That Communicates (Why Meaning Matters)

Posted on: 
November 11, 2022

Translators navigate a constant tension between form and meaning. English Bibles, for example, may keep the word order of the original writing in one passage (maintaining more of the form), but in other passages change words around so it is easier to understand (clarifying the meaning). Is there a right way to make decisions about form versus meaning in every situation?

Unfortunately, translation is not that simple, and it seldom works to pick one method and apply it across the board. But reminding ourselves of the purpose of translation does give some guidance.

Translation is intended to communicate. Why do we translate? Isn’t it to communicate a message to an audience that speaks another language? God’s message is intended for everyone, so our burden is to communicate His message in a way that is clearly understood. For this to happen. . .

Translation must convey the meaning. If the correct meaning does not come through, have we really communicated? On the other hand, if the goal is only to get the idea across, can translators say it however sounds best to them with no regard to the original wording? Bible translators seek to be faithful to the original form, while carefully acknowledging that in order to convey the meaning. . .

Translation involves interpretation. How would a translator render “Elucidate signification” in another language? He would have to interpret the statement first! In fact, as we read the Bible—or even this article—we are interpreting. We want to know what the author meant.

For translators, this means working to understand what a term or passage is saying before trying to express it in another language. Those reading the translation will view it, at least to some extent, through the eyes of the translation team. For this reason, translating the Bible is a serious task for which we seek the help of God’s Spirit.

Meaning matters.
"Dost thou then know what thou dost read?"

English translator Robert Young believed a translation should include a word for every word in the original, usually in the same order. How well does his translation communicate?
And the Spirit said to Philip, `Go near, and be joined to this chariot;' and Philip having run near, heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, `Dost thou then know what thou dost read?' and he said, `Why, how am I able, if some one may not guide me?' he called Philip also, having come up, to sit with him. And the contents of the Writing that he was reading was this: `As a sheep unto slaughter he was led, and as a lamb before his shearer dumb, so he doth not open his mouth; in his humiliation his judgment was taken away, and his generation -- who shall declare? because taken from the earth is his life.'
—Acts 8:29-33, Young’s Literal Translation

Translation means changing the form. If we haven’t changed some aspects of form, we haven’t translated. The most obvious form that must change is the language in which it is written. Are there principles that help us honor the form as we translate the message of God’s Word? Watch for a winter blog post addressing that question.

  • “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
  • “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things.” Luke 24:47, 48
  • “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19
  • “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
  • “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6
  • “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21
  • “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Mark 11:17
  • “Ask of me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” Psalm 2:8
  • “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Revelation 7:9
  • “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1
  • “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
  • “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
  • “As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.” Proverbs 25:25
  • “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10
  • “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.” Psalm 22:27
  • “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Numbers 14:21
  • “Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” Psalm 96:3, 4
  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
  • “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” 1 Kings 8:60
  • “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11
  • “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Psalm 86:9
  • “For as the earth brings forth its bud, as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:11
  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" Psalm 46:10
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3, 4
  • "You are worthy. . .; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God." Revelation 5:9, 10