|For it is so written in|
This page discusses the problems and art associated with translating the Bible. For a discussion of the various Translations that exist today, see Bible translations
Many, if not most, Christians believe that they have a mostly accurate version of the Bible as it was "written," that fairly accurately represents "God's Word" (either literal truth or written through man), and that there is in fact some such thing that "is" the single bible which all Christians share. Unfortunately, none of these are true. What you have when you read the King James Bible has little or nothing to do with what a Russian reads, when reading his bible, or a Chinese Christian has in her bible.
There are a number of problems with creating an accurate translation:
- The source material
- Compilations of source material
- Language interactions
- Cultural context limitations
- Your local politics
 The sources
Many people are under the vague impression that "the original Greek/Hebrew" is some sort of monolithic document, possibly even sitting in some vault somewhere to be consulted when you want to start a new translation work. This isn't the case at all.
 The Torah and Jewish Scriptures
The story told round synagogues about the Torah is that it is an exact copy of the Torah written by Moses some 3200 years ago - painstakingly copied so there are no errors at all. Unfortunately, this urban legend was proven untrue when the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered. Not only have minor errors been introduced since the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, major differences exist between the books of the two eras. Further, the care taken to copy Torah scrolls was not equally applied to the other Jewish writings. Copies of those can look as different as the "rumor" from the "source" in any media event.
The first "Bible Translation" is the third century BCE Septuagint; a translation of the Old Testament into the colloquial Koine Greek spoken in Palestine following the Greek invasions by Alexander the Great. The translation was given its name (meaning "The Seventy") much later (around Josephus' time; 50 CE ish) based on the popular legend that it was produced by Seventy Jewish scholars. It is often abbreviated into Latin numerals as such (LXX). In terms the history of religion, the Septuagint is quite unprecedented, being a translation of Holy Writ into a "vulgar tongue" with approval by the clerisy reaching high popularity long before most other religions allowed their texts to be translated in the first place. The creation of the Septuagint was also the unintentional site of the first Biblical Canon, the full contents Hebrew Bible not having been entirely decided upon at the time. It does include the Apocrypha though its inclusion was controversial. The Septuagint today is mostly of interest to Christians, as it is the version commonly quoted by the Gospel Writers, the apostle Paul and in theory, Jesus himself.
However, modern Jewish translators often look to it for help deciding how the subtleties of the original Hebrew were understood historically. It is probably the chief source of the later Vulgate, though Jerome claimed to be translating from the Hebrew.
 The Textus and Vulgates
Most modern translations are based on texts such as the Textus Receptus (an edition of the Greek New Testament based on Byzantine manuscripts and published by Desiderius Erasmus in 1516) or the Westcott-Hort text of 1881. The "original" manuscripts that these texts are based on break down into several "text-types" based on various lines of transmission of the original material. Similar situations exist on the Hebrew side; while most modern translations (at least for Western churches) come from the Jewish Masoretic texts, other textual traditions existed in the Hellenic world (the Septuagint), the Samaritan world, and even in east Africa — the sole existing attestation of the Book of Jubilees is in Ge'ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
As a result, one of the key differences between translations is choice of original source; as a general rule, Orthodox churches tend to favor the Septuagint for the Old Testament, the Roman Catholic Church preferred the Vulgate until recently, while conservative Protestant denominations prefer Byzantine manuscripts (especially the Textus Receptus) for the New Testament and Biblical literary researchers tend to go with the oldest verifiable manuscripts (favoring Alexandrian-type manuscripts for the NT and working from a mixture of Masoretic, Qumran, and Septuagint sources for the OT).
An important distinction made in the context of academic scholarship, is between the ancient versions and mediæval-modern translations. Ancient translations of the Bible from the original languages — the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Vetus Latina, the Vulgate, etc. — potentially represent manuscript traditions no longer available to us, and give us useful information on how the text was understood in times nearer to the time of its original authorship. By contrast, later translations, such as the KJV, tell us little about the original text, but their study can yield much useful information on how the text was understood in later periods, and on the evolution of those languages the Bible has been translated into.
The Septuagint, because of its claimed translation by 70 scholars, is commonly known as the LXX. The Septuagint was the earliest, but not the only, ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The Septuagint was in some places a less than literal translation of the Hebrew — in particular, passages were about God were often translated to make the language less anthropomorphic than the original, since Greek thought of that period had a particular distaste for anthropomorphism — and furthermore, it was made from a Hebrew text which was different in places from that later adopted by the Jews as the official Hebrew text. As a result, the need was soon felt for a more accurate translation from the Hebrew, and thus it had a number of successors — which were either revisions of the LXX to make it agree more with the Hebrew, or fresh translations — these successive Greek translations include that of Lucian, that of Theodotion, that of Aquila, and that of Symmachus.
There is evidence for the existence of a number of distinct but related Hebrew textual traditions. The main Hebrew text which survives is the Masoretic text. However, there is also surviving in Hebrew portions of the Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is also the Hebrew of the Samaritan Pentateuch (and Hexateuch, since the Samaritans also accept Joshua). The Samaritan text varies in a number of places from the Masorectic Text — in some of those places, it seems clear that it has been altered for sectarian reasons, to suit the beliefs of the Samaritans; but in other cases, it may represent an alternative Hebrew textual tradition which may have been accepted by some Jews also. The Greek of the Septuagint shows evidence in parts of having been translated from a somewhat different Hebrew text than the Masoretic Text. Of particular interest to scholars is those places where the Septuagint seems to agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Samaritan Pentateuch against the Masoretic Text.
Opinions differ as to which textual tradition is to be preferred. Orthodox Jewish and conservative Protestant scholarship prefers the Masoretic Text, tending to see it as more accurate than the other Hebrew textual traditions. Liberal scholarship, and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars, are more ready to accept the idea that in some passages the Septuagint, the Samaritan texts, or the Dead Sea Scrolls may more accurately reflect the original than the Masoretic Text does.
By the time of Jesus, Hebrew had ceased to be the everyday language of Jews in Palestine — it had been replaced by Aramaic. Use of Hebrew was largely limited to scripture and religious ceremonies. As a result, Jews felt the need for a translation from the Hebrew into Aramaic. The result was the Targums, of which there are several versions. These were often more in the manner of paraphrases than literal translations; they did not hesitate to add to the text additional details drawn from Jewish traditions, legends or folklore. Many Christians also spoke Aramaic; they soon developed their own distinct dialect of Aramaic, which is known as Syriac. Their translation of the Bible into Syriac is known as the Peshitta — it has some degree of commonality with the Targums, but on the whole tends to be much more literal — and of course, it also includes the New Testament.
The language of the NT is Greek, and more specifically Koine Greek, which was the common language which developed in the Eastern Roman Empire (and previous to that, the Empire of Alexander the Great and its Hellenistic successor states.)
There are a number of different manuscript traditions of the Greek New Testament which scholars have identified. The three main groupings are the Western, the Alexandrian and the Byzantine. The earliest translations of the NT into English were based on the Textus Receptus, which on the whole represents the Byzantine tradition. However, the oldest manuscripts we have of the NT (see below) tend to represent the Alexandrian text type instead, and this forms the basis of many newer translations. Many conservative scholars prefer the Byzantine text type, believing it to be the best preserved; other conservative scholars, and most liberal scholars, believe in using a combination of all three traditions, but tend on the whole to prefer the Alexandrian. The Western text type has the least defenders, having in some parts (especially Acts) significant divergence from the Alexandrian or the Byzantine. The Western version of Acts adds a significant quantity of text to what is present in the Alexandrian or Byzantine versions — although, what it adds is of little significance, being just expansions upon what is already present. As a result, most scholars believe the Western version is later, containing expansions by later scribes for added clarity; although a minority of scholars believe the Western version of Acts was the original, and the Alexandrian and Byzantine versions represent condensations.
It is important to note that, despite the many variants between different manuscripts of the NT, very few of them are of any import — mostly they are differences in spelling, or the addition or deletion or substitution of a single word. These differences very rarely make any difference to doctrine or morals. There are a few well-known passages, which could possibly be of doctrinal import — such as the Johannine Comma — although many claim the same doctrines are taught even without these additions.
 What's in a word
Translation, be it between ancient languages or from those languages into modern languages, is always first and foremost an art of "what is the closest thing I can say." You will never be able to say the exact same thing in two languages.
 "Murder" or "Kill"
The second book of the Torah (Exodus 20:12 in the Bible) reads: לֹא תִרְצָח "Lo tirtsach". The traditional translation for this sentence is "Thou shall not kill". Besides the fact that the informal, singular 2nd person pronoun is not used in English any more, the real problem is the word "ratsach". The word is used throughout Hebrew scripture and secular writing for actions that take a life. But clearly, you can kill your dinner, and God himself orders you to kill people who have transgressed against Him, though "stoned" or "take their life" are generally the term used.
So, is the answer to retain the word "kill", or to use the word "murder"? And does it matter?
If someone is writing a fiction book, it probably is fairly irrelevant whether the writer says "Tom pulled out a gun and killed John" or "Tom pulled out a gun and murdered John". But when someone is trying to establish a set of laws, a code for behavior, especially with some divine being looking over your shoulder, it makes a huge difference. If one is not to "kill", shouldn't we all be vegetarians; If one is not to kill, then the death penalty (including everything outlined in Leviticus) should not be enforceable; if one is not to kill, we should never go to war, religious or not. Clearly, none of those are understood as prohibited by the authors of the Torah. [see also: http://www.truthortradition.com/modules.php?file=article&name=News&sid=225]
 Gender in a genderless world
Grammatical gender is an interesting issue for translators for two reasons: 1) In a language without gender, there are weighted impressions of human/not-human, male and not male of "he," "she," and "it" that are not reflected in the same pronouns from gendered languages, and 2) it has been effectively argued by linguists that people "see" male and female "things" differently, based only on the grammatical gender.
Hebrew nouns have grammatical gender, male and female. Each thing, from a tree to a burning bush, is a "he" or a "she" and not an "it." This applies equally to "god." YHWH is a male gendered word. And "he" is the appropriate way to refer to it. Elohim, on the other hand, is a female noun, and is in fact referred to as "she." Yet it refers to the same entity. So when translating, what is the best process? Decide "god" must be a male and use male pronouns for that god, give into the shifting nature of the language and make your god he and she, depending on the title for the God that is used? Or call god an "it," and deny that god its human nature (assuming it has a human nature)?