Science of Bible translation and Translation studies


Science of Bible translation and Translation studies

werner [at]


Abstract 1

Introduction. 1

Translation and Translating. 2

Bible translation. 3

Church and Mother Tongue. 3

Ethics. 4

Bible translation—Introspection and Extrospection. 4

Ecclesiastical codex—internal and external functions. 5

Models and Principles of Communication and Translation. 6

History and the incarnational Translation Principle. 7

Training of Bible translators—Triggering Theories. 8

Translation Quality Assessment 8

The Mandate for Bible translation as a Science. 8




The relationship of translation studies and the Science of Bible translation are close. Translation practice reaches back far in human history. However, as academic disciplines both are relatively recent. The mutual influence is essential and both trigger new models and add knowledge and experience to each other. Whereas Bible translation belongs to the applied disciplines in translations studies, translation studies are a sub discipline to theology, intercultural theology and missiology. The historic development and mutual interaction are in focus.



The subject of Bible translation is part of applied Translation studies. The science of Bible translation covers the entire process of translating the Bible, that is, (1) the communicational procedure during the translating, (2) the product itself (e.g., the KJV, GNB, NLT), and (3) the function of the translation (e.g., theory, model). I follow hereby the tripartition of communication systems by Holmes (1972; see also Toury 1995, 9–14). This newly establishing and promising science addresses interdisciplinarity, political influences, new translation versus revision, first or missiological Bible translations, and other similar issues.

The science of translation as a branch in general sciences asks the question, whether a discipline today called the “science of translation” should be considered as having been established as an independent field, or is it still “on its way?” The science of translation as part of applied linguistics is located in pragmatics, following Katharina Reiss and Hans Vermeer (1991, 1). Werner Koller (1978) informs us that because of its location in pragmatics, the focus of translation scientists broke down from the level of communication, in general, to all processes involved in “translating” and “translation” (cit. Holmes 1988, 70; Mojola and Wendland 2003, 10–11). Translation was divided by Holmes into the branches of (first) descriptive and (second) applied studies. The first was concerned with concrete translational phenomena, and the second related to translator training, translation criticism, and translation aids. Theo Hermans (1991), Stefano Arduini (2011), and Gideon Toury (1995) all emphasize that it is within descriptive studies that a general philosophy of translation and partial theories on specific issues are taking place.


Translation and Translating

The terms “translation” or “translating” today engender multiple explanations of what translation means concerning other related disciplines. “Translation forms an intuitive and cognitive process, transporting and producing genre and texts cross-culturally, thereby remaining mainly intentionally political” (Werner 2011, 69). “Texts” are hereby understood in a wide sense, including speeches, oral traditions, and written discourse including both narrative and poetry. Translation was and is a necessary tool for trade, business, and political colonization.

Translation studies, including Bible translation, complies with the position of the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, in his well-known book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn argues that normal science is built on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Scientific axioms, such as verifiability, repeatability, universality, and quantification, qualify a discipline to be scientific. The emphasis for both lies with the term “intuitive.” Previously, translation was regarded as an art. Today, translators appreciate that it is recognized as an academic discipline. In the same way, Bible translation complies with the science of translation to become a discipline on its own.

One finds three attitudes toward the subject of translation: (1) Some translation theorists refuse to declare translation to be science because of its intuitive approach. The denial of any successful translation activity (Steiner 1990, 77–78) as well as the argument that communication is always and everywhere happening, as expressed in Paul Watzlawick’s axiom, “One cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick et al. 1993, 53), bring confusion to the whole discussion (Baker 2001, 277–80). (2) Most scholars assume that translation is possible, although its complexity and interdisciplinary nature make it awkward to localize or define (e.g., Nord 2003, 4). (3) Culture-oriented approaches declare that translation is what a culture makes out of it (Katan 1999, 3–7). However, coming from relevance theory Gutt is skeptical of cultural approaches of being too biased (2000, 5).

The German translation scholar, Wolfram Wilss (1982; 1984), and others declare a science of translation to be fragmentary. This is due to the absence of metalanguage, which would be necessary to explain the function of language in translation objectively. Nevertheless, even without the tool of metalanguage, history reveals that it is possible to consider recent academic translating and translation activities, consolidated under the expression “Translation Studies,” as a science, more precisely, as the science of translation.


Bible translation

The idea of a science of Bible translation was first introduced by Eugene A. Nida in his ground-breaking work Toward a Science of Translating with special Reference to Principles and Procedures involved in Bible Translating (1964). Nida’s enormous efforts on the topic of Bible translation (more than 400 articles and books) are highly respected, though sometimes critically viewed (e.g., Gentzler 2001, 57, 59; Nichols 1996). In spite of Nida’s efforts, the science of Bible translation has not yet been fully appreciated as an emerging branch of academic work in theological and missiological teaching and practice (Werner 2011). A few missiologists are exceptions as they investigate the topic a lot (Walls 1990; 2005; Sanneh 1992).

However, the influence of Bible translation as a science becomes apparent in the recognition of the continuous “Century of Bible translation”, as the current epoch in missiology has been called by Harry Orlinsky and Robert Bratcher (1991). The academic significance of Bible translation is realized in works like The Cambridge History of the Bible (1989), A History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution by Orlinsky and Bratcher (1991), and A History of Bible Translation edited by Philip Noss (2011, 1–25).

The science of Bible translation represents a unique interdisciplinary approach, integrating a variety of disciplines that contribute to the translation process, including theology, missiology, linguistics, anthropology, social sciences, and psychology, as well as cognitive and communication sciences. This demonstrates the multifaceted scope of research involved, and the scientific capability of this discipline as an interface among a number of disciplines.

The Hebrew Bible demonstrates the significance of translation in the political sphere, for instance, in the account of Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt seeking food during a time of famine (Gen 42:23), and in the record of King Hezekiah being threatened by the Sennacherib, the emperor of Assyria (2 Kgs 18:26–28). In Ezra 4:7, the translation of a letter into Aramaic became necessary as the King of Persia used that language to communicate with the inhabitants of Judea. The power of translation can also be seen when Daniel interpreted the mysterious writing on the wall for the Babylonian king Belshazzar, a feat that raised him up to the third position of the kingdom (Dan 5:25–28).

Following the Classical Era and the early Church Fathers (e.g., Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great) who took an interest in translation, it was not until the Renaissance that translation theory rose to cultural and ecclesiastical prominence in the West. Leonardo Bruni was a 14–15-c. Italian humanist translator through whom the theoretical discussion about truthfulness to the original and formal equivalence emerged (Robinson 2002, 57–59). In the 17 c., Dryden presented his revitalization of the ancient tripartite division of translation as word-for-word, sense-for-sense, and “free” translation.


Church and Mother Tongue

“The Church” is here understood as the global and local representation of the invisible and uncountable body of believers performing the kingdom of God in its human format (Mark 4, 26-32 Parable of the Growing Seed). Bible translation effectively contributes to the dynamic growth and development of the global Church, that is, the body of Christ, through first Bible translations for non-literate or non-Christian cultures as well as through revisions and audience-specific new translations for cultures with existing mother-tongue Bible translations. The orientation of Bible translation toward mother-tongue and homogenous ethnic units, which are closely interrelated, contextualizes the Bible in an increasing number of cultures and cultural units, resulting in an ongoing proliferation of Bible translations. Focus on microcultures and smaller linguistic units has provoked argument about threatening the Church’s unity because of its lack of a unique liturgical text. The Vulgate for the Roman Catholic Church and the KJV for English-speaking Protestants are examples of this thread of unity. As a result of this tendency, debates frequently arise regarding the “right,” “authorized,” or “inspired” Bible translation as shown by Orlinsky and Bratcher (1991; see also Glassman 1965).

The linguistic adoption of the biblical text for microcultures and the mother-tongue approach have proven to be essential for the enculturation of the biblical message in first and new Bible translations as well as in revisions. The replacement of the principle of accommodation in the Jesuits’ missionary development practices during the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 16–17 c. by the methods of contextualization that took hold during the modern development movement of the 19 c. (Latourette 1937, xv) is an example of the move toward contextualization. This move demonstrates the risk of colonialism or misuse of power as a political factor in Bible translation. Forms of enculturation that are not directly derived from the indigenous people group cause colonialism. This can be expected with regard to political, ideological, and sociological issues such as minority, racial, and gender discrimination. The modern Church needs to argue against such tendencies and partner closely and fully with the ethnic groups that it is seeking to serve through translation.



The translator and the client, affecting the original and translated text as well as the hearer or reader, exercise power in translation. Therefore, the translator’s status as a professional practitioner calls for ethics and clearly defined process-outlines. Both are central in functional approaches, as expressed in the so-called “Hieronymic Oath” (Chesterman 2001). Steiner (1990) also requires high ethics of cross-cultural communication, as the translator mediates between his/her and the target texts’ culture and language. The translator serves like a “cultural mediator,” sitting on the fence of cultures, here understood as dynamic social units that are involved in the translation process (cf. Ronald Taft 1981; David Katan 1999). General ethical prerequisites concerning the science of translation are found in fidelity, adaptiveness, and intelligibility. International general and specific standards about ethics in translation are not only expressed by linguistic and translation associations, but also by Lawrence Venuti (1998a) and Denis McQuail (2007, 174, 180–81, 185–86, 192), and by the claim of the “loyalty” principle between the original text and the translation as well as the parties involved (Nord 2004).


Bible translation—Introspection and Extrospection

The science of Bible translation may be considered through both introspection and extrospection. The former refers to evidence from Bible translation itself, while the latter refers to translation evidence provided by science in general, demonstrating its academic importance. We must keep in mind that the Bible as assumed by believers is a divine revelation. This implies both a theocentric approach for the Hebrew Bible and a Christ-centric approach for the New Testament as well as an anthropocentric approach, thereby going beyond the scientific scope of Translation studies. Whereas the theocentric and Christ-centric tend towards the theological and missiological, hence, internal evidence as in biblical studies, the anthropocentric points to external evidence, which is the approach of human understanding of divine communication that is concerned with Bible translation from the outside.

Internal scientific evidence in Bible translation. Internal evidence is that evidence given by the Bible itself as an ancient masterpiece of literary genres, including prose, poetry, and narration, among others, and representing as a translation a genre in itself because of its uniqueness as a literary work (e.g. the translational tradition around the King James Version). The Bible itself asserts the need for its translation on the basis of (1) the theological principles of internal Bible translation activities; (2) the requirement of inspiration; and (3) the continuous line of the history of salvation as a global (religious) message to humanity.

First, the Bible contains rich evidence about translation activities (e.g., Gen 42:23; 2 Kgs 18:26–28; Ezek 4:7, 18; Dan 5:6–7). Second, the Bible asserts its inspiration (Job 32:8; Eccl 4:12; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21) and authorization by a divine author (Isa 55:11; Jer 1:12; John 5:24; Rev 3:8; 22:18–20). Third, the Bible contains a unique religious history of salvation (Ger. Heilsgeschichte), representing the communicative act of covenant theology linking God and humankind (e.g., Noah in Gen 9:9–17, Abraham in Gen 15:18, David in 2 Sam 7, and the Church in Gal 3:15–29). This is expressed in the concept of the kingdom of God or covenant theology, which motivates the translation task (e.g., the Jewish Diaspora as motivation for the LXX translation). Such theological understandings led subsequent generations of Bible readers to translate the Hebrew Bible together with the New Testament. One early example of this move was the Bible translated into Latin by Jerome, which contained both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Lack of the original manuscripts prevents us from acquiring straightforward insight into the original divine language or communication principles employed by God with the Hebrew Bible patriarchs and prophets, or that Jesus used with his apostles. The Hebrew Bible used Hebrew and, in part, Aramaic (2 Kgs 18:26; Isa 36:11; Jer 10:11; Dan 2:4–7, 28; Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26), while the New Testament was recorded in koine Greek.

The languages of daily life were used to write down divine revelations given directly by speech to people (“I am your God,” Exod 3:6; Ezek 34:31), in visions (Ezek 8:5), and in dreams (Gen 40:16). Divine revelation was also given indirectly, for example, through prophets (“the Lord said to me,” Jer 11:6; Heb 1:1–2), through Scripture (Exod 32:16), or by messengers (Gen 16:9), apostles (1 Pet 1:1), or ordinary human beings (John 4:39).


Ecclesiastical codex—internal and external functions

The Bible fulfills both internal and external functions for the Church. Internally, the whole Bible, including the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, represents canonical law for the Church. The ethical and structural codex of the Church, as the representation of the kingdom of God, is implied therein, requiring interpretation by the readers (e.g., Confessions of Faith; dogmatics). The Church can be seen as constituting the living outcome of the physically transferred, thus translated, divine word represented by the Bible. Externally, it legitimizes authority granted to the Church by the oral and written traditions about the Messiah. Such are foretold in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Jer 53) whose words and deeds Christians understand to be summarized in the New Testament. Social, political, and other outward activities of the global and local Church or disciples are warranted by this “constitutional” document.

Humankind, the Church would assert, is responsible to act within the framework provided by the Bible. It is interpreted by the Holy Spirit who guards the processes that lead to internal strengthening of the Church, for example, by granting growth and vitality, and by providing protection from outside influences such as heresy and radicalism. Even though Bible translators do their best in translation, they—if they are Christians—and the Church (that is, the readers), must trust the efficacy of the Holy Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit will preserve the translated Scripture as codex and canon in relation to its divine intention and original meaning, even if a Bible translation falls outside of denominational thinking, such as the anti-Judaist approach of Marcion of Sinope (85–160 ce). Within this context, the science of Bible translation is asked to take active responsibility for transferring the life and deeds of its divine object from one cultural linguistic background to another, without losing implicit or spiritual information (see Matt 28:18–20, Luke 10:3, and John 20:21).

Outer scientific evidence of Bible translation as science. The Bible belongs to a category of texts that first came from oral traditions and were later transcribed in written documents. Bible translation is restricted to human language due to the lack of a metalanguage. Such would be necessary for an objective reflection of human communication (Wierzbicka 1996, 6). Since such a linguistic tool is outside human capacity, the biblical text, its context, and its implications are to be as objectively as possible passed on from language to language. Metaphysical and divine information is transferred in human languages. This contrasts with the Islamic concept called “Inlibration” (“being in a book”) wherein the divine word was directly revealed in Arabic in a written and manifested form from above. This does not allow for translation.


Models and Principles of Communication and Translation

Bible translation makes use of or can be credited with emerging models of communication and translation used by Bible translators. One approach, in this context, is the literal model, which is found as far back as the beginning of translation. Defended by Charles Turner (2001), this model is represented by the very formal literal rendering of the Darby Bible (1997). However, this method’s lack of semantic synonymy and rejection of any concordant way of proceeding led to the development of the dynamic equivalent approach. Introduced by Eugene Nida (TASOT 1964), it was extensively expanded to Bible translation with Charles Taber (TAPOT 1969), and was further developed into functional equivalence with Jan de Waard (FOLTA 1986). The Good News Bible (GNB) was edited in light of this new model (1976). The scope of equivalence within the science of Bible translation was extended and publicized by SIL translators, John Beekman and John Callow (1974) and Mildred Larson (1984).

Since the 1970s, the shortcomings of “equivalence” have been criticized, given that it can never truly be reached in translation and cannot be measured in a convincing way (e.g. Gentzler 2001, 57, 59; Pym 2010a, 38, 42; for Bible translation in general Nichols 1996). This led to the skopos approach and derivative functional models carried out by German scholars Katharina Reiss and Hans Vermeer (1991) and Christiane Nord (2003; 2005). Nord, a linguist translator, together with theologian Klaus Berger, translated the New Testament into German (Berg and Nord 1999), using her functional approach. This model has also become popular in South Africa where it has been used to translate the Scriptures into Afrikaans (van der Merwe 2003).

The propensity of translation models toward linguistics, and the rediscovery of a well- reflected Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in translation theory (originally 1948), gave rise to cultural models (Katan 1999). Here, the respect of the intercultural and cross-cultural approaches of Bible translation came into focus as demonstrated by Robert Bascom (2003) and Nida’s earlier three-culture pattern (1990). Other concepts relating to the work of Viggo Søgaard (1993) and Denis McQuail (2007) are found in mass communication models, as well as in relevance theory (RT). Ernst-August Gutt (2000) introduced the latter, representing a cognitive framework for Bible translation based on the insights of Dan Sperber and Deirde Wilson (1995), for translation.

A recent trend in Bible translation points to the adaptation of mixed translation models. These are based on different theories, adjusting them in theoretical reference frames and singling out basic constituents, as shown by Paul Newmark (1988), W. K. Winckler and Christo van der Merwe (1993), Timothy Wilt (2003), and Ernst Wendland (2006; 2008). The training of Bible translators as multicultural and intuitive interpreters, cultural mediators, and as exegetes requires flexible application of these models of translation and communication in Bible translation projects. The translator’s ethical responsibility is with respect to not only the divine text and the divine source behind the text, but also to the profession of translation, the Church and sponsoring (Christian) translation organizations, as well as the audience of readers and their mother-tongue culture.


History and the incarnational Translation Principle

Bible translation, as we know it, started around 250 bce with the translation of the Jewish Scriptures (Hebrew Bible) into Greek, resulting in a text known as the Septuagint. This text served both those Jews whose primary language was Greek and the ethnically diverse early Christian church (see Acts 2:7–11 for evidence of this diversity). Not long after Jesus’s crucifixion, it became important to the Christian community to translate and make a record of the oral traditions circulating about the ministry, life, and teachings of Jesus. To the present day the theological centrality of the Incarnation to the New Testament writings for Christians comprise an incarnational translation principle and become a standard theological understanding. For instance the Word becoming flesh (John 1:1–5, 15–16); the Messiah leaving his place of divine privilege in order to give life (“condescension,” John 6:33–35); and Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis, Phil 2:7). These writings were being recorded and shared by the church at this time. In consequence Bible translation developed and encouraged active methods for the global spread of Christian divine communication and thus accrued an immense field of translational experience (see e.g. Walls 2006; Werner 2011, 281-94). This spread has served to substantiate the production of First- and New Bible translations for non-Christians, non-literates, the handicapped, and other special audiences, together with revisions of old versions for contemporary audiences (e.g., KJV > NKJV; ASV > RSV > NRSV).

The history of Bible translation also reveals that before the foundation of textual criticism, the Roman Catholic Church established an authorized liturgical text named the Vulgate (“vernacular”). It was a most influential Bible translation over more than a thousand years. The need for establishing a base Bible text (Ger. Grundtext) led to the development of the UBS Greek New Testament (most recently 5th rev. ed.; Nestle-Aland 28th ed. 2012) and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (4th ed.). These critical texts are an important part of the beginning of the modern era of Bible translation. Through the establishment of these texts, the static liturgical versions have become secondary for translation because current biblical studies reference GNT and BHS, and the still in-process Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ). The incarnational translation principle implemented by the early Church opens the way both to contextualized and communicative Bible translations as well as to literal rendering, but always focusing on the actually spoken idiom of people groups or microcultures.


Training of Bible translators—Triggering Theories

The training of translators at universities, private organizations, and in other training opportunities serves both as testing ground for theories and models and breeding ground for new concepts. Most training in the field of Bible translation is still based on the dynamic/functional equivalence approach. This approach proves universally applicable. Often it is not even recognized as serving an epistemological background as shown by Yri (2003, 188–203), Pym (2007, 195–215), and Werner (2011, 198–204). Functional models still lack recognition in global translators’ training. Functional approaches are obviously more prominent in European, mainly German, training facilities at university level (e.g., University of Magdeburg), with some influence in East and South African centers. Training on translation principles in relevance theory is still in its beginning stages, and although training courses by SIL International are increasing (H. Hill 2008; H. Hill et al. 2011), the continued influence of RT in the science of translation is not yet assured.


Translation Quality Assessment

Since its emergence, scholars of “the science of translation” have been discussing the improvement or quality of their product. In literature, this led to the expression “quality assessment” of translation. As Baker (2001, 277–80) has suggested, the discussion about quality concerns the process, the product, and the function of translation as a science. The question arises because of translation’s intuitive and artistic bias; thus, as a counterbalance it asks for objective scientific methods to increase quality. Nida was concerned about it in Bible translation (1964, 3–5), and Steiner in general (2004) announced its need on linguistic-philosophical grounds. Katharina Reiss (1971) and Juliane House (1977) in their groundbreaking works laid the theoretical foundation of quality assessment, and Peter Newmark (1988) propagated its need. As observed by Nord, only in functional approaches was a complete recursive back-coupling model delivered (Nord 2003, 37–39). The assessment of translation quality becomes part of the process of translating. It can be included from outside the translation team by back translations discussed with consultants, or from inside the translation team by recursive procedures in which the team moves back and restarts the translation process at specific points after reflecting on the problems of the translation. Either way, the results are incorporated in a subsequent translation attempt. Donald Kiraly (2000) developed the social constructivist approach to increase translators’ ability and knowledge by going through team-based discussions for every step of the translation.

Despite its claim to include any reflection during the quality assessment in subsequent translation (e.g., House 1977, 7, 23, 246), translation quality assessment is criticized for its inadequacy in regard to the translators’ complex but uncontrollable cognitive efforts, as Koller has pointed out (1978, 90, 92, 105–106) and as Venuti reminds us (2008, 4, 50, 125).


The Mandate for Bible translation as a Science

The internal and external evidence given by the tripartite split of Bible translation as a product, a process, and a scientific function, together with the incarnational translation principle and its interdisciplinary approach establishes the science of Bible translation as an epistemological and intuitive discipline. The hermeneutical epistemological spiral introduced by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1984–88) and the German scholar Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989), used in theology as well as in other sciences, serves Bible translation to describe communication processes in a translation project. Starting with a variety of possible translation methods, the relationship between the project manager as a client vis-à-vis the Bible translator(s), and the original audience vis-à-vis the target group, that is, the reader or hearer, leads to reciprocal influence based on linguistic, cultural, and sociological factors. Hence, ownership of a Bible translation as a product moves from the initiator to the target group, e.g., crowd-sourced internet translation projects such as the German Volxbibel (initiated around 2000 by Martin Dreyer).

As the science of Bible translation has evolved, it has refined its epistemological foundation and clarified its historical basis. It has also initiated the role and training of the Bible translator and a clearer position about its placement in pragmatics. This science likewise has recognized the function of the Bible as sacred literature, and the need for close interdisciplinary cooperation with translation studies and other supporting disciplines. Such basics support its bearing fruit for the Church globally by relating to the sending act of Jesus (Matt 28:18–20), as well as its progressive continuance within science.

            Summarizing these arguments, there is strong evidence regarding a mandate for Bible translation for the Church. The worldwide Church accelerates—intentionally or unintentionally—the emerging science of Bible translation by providing a central gateway for divine communication with humanity, and by offering an interface between cultures.


Additional reading: Shaw and van Engen 2003; Smalley 1991; Werner 2014