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Linguistic and Cultural Influences on Interpretation in Translations of the Bible

Abstract and Keywords

We all view the Bible through the prism of our own geographical, ecological, historical, educational, linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and may fail to realize that members of every other language group do the same. As western readers, even as scholarly readers, we may be unaware of the extent to which our background influences our interpretation, and therefore fail to appreciate the influence that their background has on translators working in other languages. This article illustrates the typical problems encountered in Bible translation projects in various receptor languages. Examples will be drawn primarily from two very different countries, in which the author has extensive personal experience, namely Thailand and Russia.

Keywords: Bible translations, language, Thailand, Russia, receptor languages


1The earliest probable reference to the translation of scripture is in Nehemiah 8:8. There the book of the law was read ‘with interpretation’ by a group of Levites, with the comment ‘they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading’ (NRSV: all Bible quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise stated; abbreviations of Bible versions are listed at the end of the chapter). ‘Interpretation’ here may mean ‘translation’ from Hebrew to Aramaic (cf. GNT, NJB, NJPS), or perhaps something more like exposition (cf. NIV, REB). At any rate the aim of the exercise (p. 201) was explicitly that the people should understand the scripture, because understanding was a prerequisite for obedience.

The motive that the text should be understandable to the reader or hearer has been an essential element in most subsequent Bible translation work, both Jewish and Christian. The need to give meaning priority over form, understood intuitively by competent Bible translators for many centuries, received a comprehensive theoretical underpinning only in the 1960s (Nida 1964, Nida and Taber 1969, updated in de Waard and Nida 1986). A more recent evaluation of this theory in a wider context appeared in Wilt (ed.) 2002. The need for intelligibility is the foundation for recognizing that the intended audience must have some influence on the form of the translation. This chapter will survey some of the ways in which the needs of the receptors have influenced some modern Bible translations. ‘Interpretation’ is not something that affects only theology. It is in fact much more pervasive, and affects many very mundane matters that translators have to handle. These are what will be in focus in this chapter.

We all view the Bible through the prism of our own geographical, ecological, historical, educational, linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and may fail to realize that members of every other language group do the same. As western readers, even as scholarly readers, we may be unaware of the extent to which our background influences our interpretation, and therefore fail to appreciate the influence that their background has on translators working in other languages. My approach will be to illustrate the typical problems encountered in Bible translation projects in various receptor languages. Examples will be drawn primarily (though not exclusively) from two very different countries in which I have extensive personal experience, namely Thailand and Russia. Thailand and Russia are alike in that there is one undisputed primary ‘official’ language in each country, namely Standard Thai, and Russian. There are other languages that are prominent in a given area (secondary languages), and yet others spoken by smaller and sometimes scattered groups often in remote areas (tertiary languages). The relative status of the receptor language may influence the attitude of its speakers towards written material in their own language, but such considerations fall outside the scope of this chapter.

This study will deal with translations into minority languages in both countries, and is based on my own field notes in working with each of the languages mentioned. For reasons of space, only the briefest linguistic and traditional religious background information can be provided. In Thailand the languages and religions are Akha (north Thailand and Burma: animism), Mien (north Thailand and Laos: animism and Taoism), Pwo Karen (north‐west Thailand and Burma: animism and Theravada Buddhism), Kuy (north‐east Thailand: Theravada Buddhism with animist substratum), Urak Lawoi (west coast of south Thailand: animism), and Pattani Malay (east coast of south Thailand: folk Islam). Pattani Malay is a secondary language spoken by around a million people, and the other languages are all tertiary languages with much smaller numbers of speakers.

(p. 202) In Russia the languages and religions are Yakut (eastern Siberia: Orthodoxy with shamanistic substratum), Khakas (southern Siberia: Orthodoxy with shamanistic substratum), Tuvan (southern Siberia: Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism), and Kalmyk (southern Russia, west of the Caspian Sea: Tibetan Buddhism). These are all secondary languages. Occasionally examples will be drawn from other areas within my experience, and problems will also be illustrated from English versions.

Geographical and Ecological Influences

Almost all the events recorded in the Bible took place in the eastern Mediterranean, with its specific geology, land forms, climate, and ecosystems. Inhabitants of the temperate zone in northern Europe are close enough to this setting that it is not unimaginable for them, even though it may be unfamiliar. But both tropical Thailand and most of continental Russia are much further removed from the Mediterranean, and for minority language groups with little or no background knowledge of that area, some of the basic features of Mediterranean life may seem very strange. For instance, in terms of geography, how will the term ‘desert’ be understood? In several of the tertiary languages of the hill peoples in north Thailand, terrain is generally divided into two categories, the cultivated and the uncultivated, and their lexical resources usually offer no other simple choice. Biblical deserts were certainly not cultivated, but neither were they uncultivated in the north Thailand sense, for there uncultivated land normally consists of mountainous jungles. Thus, for readers with such a background it may often be necessary to give an expanded description of a biblical desert in a footnote or glossary entry. In any specific context it may be essential to mention whatever feature of the desert is in focus there, such as the lack of water, the lack of vegetation, the absence of people, or whatever it may be.

A very different problem faces the Yakut people, who live in a vast area that is largely permafrost and in which only a few root vegetables can be grown. But despite the infertility of the land, for them in a sense nothing is desert, because they have lived off it for centuries. Again translators may have to resort to footnotes or glossary entries to give an adequate explanation.

At the other end of the scale are the Berber languages of North Africa, where the people are familiar with the Sahara and have well‐developed vocabularies for different types of desert. So they constantly demand to know what kind of desert is in view in any particular context: flat or hilly, stony or sandy, with or without scrub vegetation, and so on. Probably most English readers think of a desert (p. 203) primarily in terms of sand. It may come as a surprise to realize that the Bible nowhere mentions sand in connection with a desert. Sand normally refers to the sand of the seashore and is mentioned almost always metaphorically. So from a biblical perspective our English perception may not be as accurate as we imagine.

In terms of directions, the normal order in English is ‘north, south, east, west’, but this is by no means universal. In Akha south has to come before north (Ps. 89:12), and in Mien the expected order is east, south, west, north. To depart from the normal order would make the translation sound as unnatural as saying ‘butter and bread’ in English.

In the sphere of climate, a simple example must suffice. The biblical lands normally experience a year with four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Temperate Europe is much the same. However, most of Thailand experiences only three seasons, the wet season (roughly June to October), the dry season (November to February), and the hot season (March to May). This is obviously not commensurate with such phenomena as summer and winter (Gen. 8:22), or ‘the early rain’ and ‘the later rain’ (Joel 2:23), and inevitably creates problems of interpretation for translators. In Siberia the seasons are dominated by winter, which in Yakutia may last for seven months, with temperatures in some areas at −40 degrees C for weeks on end. Summer is short and can be very hot, and spring and autumn are brief. Translators again have a hard job interpreting biblical seasons and weather patterns in terms that are understandable to their readers.

In such very different environments, the flora and fauna are of course very different from those in the Bible, and this creates both superficial problems and deeper ones. The basic crops of the Holy Land are wheat, barley, olives, and grapes. Of these none is indigenous to Thailand, though vines have been introduced in the twentieth century and there is now a fledgling wine industry. The staple food is rice, in the plains paddy rice and in the hills dry rice. In some biblical contexts where ‘wheat’ or ‘bread’ stands for food in general (as in the Lord's Prayer), it may be possible to substitute ‘rice’ in a translation, but this is not appropriate everywhere, for instance in the accounts of specific events such as the Last Supper. Again, tropical fruits are different from those of the Mediterranean. Thailand has a wide variety of delicious fruit, but mangos and rambutans are not the same as figs and pomegranates (Deut. 8:8). In some places a generic term for ‘fruit’ can be used, but not everywhere. Therefore translators may have to choose between making a less than fully satisfactory substitution of a local item for a biblical one, and rendering a biblical fruit by a foreign word that may not be understood. The degree of familiarity with the outside world varies from one minority language to another, so there can be no one‐size‐fits‐all solution.

In Siberia this problem is even more acute. In large areas there is no fruit except wild berries, so the whole notion of fruit cultivation is very alien. In the Bible the generic term ‘fruit’ is often used in a figurative sense (e.g. Prov. 1:31; 8:19; Matt. 7:20; Gal. 5:22), but this is very unnatural in Siberian languages like Khakas. So all such (p. 204) metaphors are necessarily lost in translation, and have to be replaced by a more prosaic term such as ‘result’.

As for examples of fauna, vultures are not found in the Kalmyk, Tuvan, or Yakut areas of Russia, so they become ‘kites’ in Kalmyk and ‘scavengers’ in Yakut and Tuvan. Scorpions do not exist in Yakutia, so in Luke 11:12 in Yakut they become ‘poisonous spiders’.

A further influence in this general area is the existence of folk taxonomies which are not in line with modern scientific classification. The lion is not found in Thailand, though people are often familiar with the name of the animal through traditional stories, in much the same way as English children may ‘know’ about unicorns through stories. In Kuy the lion was ‘known’ as a name but was classified not as a kind of tiger (which an English reader might have expected) but as a kind of bear. This is hardly a translational disaster, but it does illustrate how inescapable elements of the receptor context impose an indigenous flavour on the translated text.

Historical and Educational Influences

Some parts of the Old Testament presuppose a familiarity with the history narrated in the earlier books, but such familiarity cannot be taken for granted among most modern western readers, let alone among first‐ or second‐generation Christians in distant minority groups. To give a single example, Micah 6:5 calls on people to remember ‘what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal’. The story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22–4 may be moderately familiar to the average churchgoer in the West, but how many would have any idea that ‘what happened from Shittim to Gilgal’ was the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua 3–4? Should translators leave the text sounding entirely mysterious, or include some clue to the event referred to? If the latter, should the clue be incorporated into the text (cf. REB, ‘the crossing from Shittim to Gilgal’), or into a footnote (cf. GNSB, NJB)?

On a wider scale, the New Testament takes for granted a familiarity with both the history and the cultic practices of the Old Testament, but such familiarity is completely absent in many cultures. Various parts of the New Testament text will be particularly baffling for readers whose languages do not yet have a translation of the Old Testament. The genealogy in Matthew 1:1–17, coming as it does right at the beginning of the New Testament, can be very intimidating. Stephen's speech in Acts 7, or the references to Old Testament ritual in Hebrews, can also leave first time readers floundering. In the vast majority of cases they have no access to commentaries and other aids to understanding.

(p. 205) The amount of information that can be included to help them will vary according to many factors. How much more of the Bible is likely to be translated into this language? Will the readers ever get the Old Testament? Is the Bible available in some national language or trade language that at least church leaders have access to? How much are people likely to be willing to pay for a New Testament? The more information included in a New Testament by way of notes, glossaries, maps, historical charts, and so on, the higher the unit cost and therefore the smaller the potential market. What about standards of literacy? The ability to read a relatively straightforward narrative text is no guarantee that the reader will be able to follow the complexities of the Epistles, much less handle footnotes, or understand maps and charts. In this respect, the literacy skills among minority language groups in Russia are in general likely to be higher than among minority language groups in Thailand, though literacy in a national language does not transfer automatically into literacy in a vernacular, especially if the vernacular has a more complex orthography. Thus the influences on interpretation in the widest sense include matters of education and economics which are generally beyond the control of any translation team.

Linguistic Influences

Differences between languages may affect linguistic structure in any of its elements, such as phonology, vocabulary, morphology, syntax, or discourse structure. Differences in phonology are especially noticeable in the transliteration of personal and place names. The absence of any equivalent in roman script to the Hebrew letter ayin leads to such odd‐looking names in English Bibles as Canaan, Baal, and Naaman, though long familiarity has desensitized most readers to the fact that spellings with –aa‐ are not normal in English. The problem is vastly compounded in a language like Akha which does not tolerate any syllable‐final consonants and does not differentiate l and r. The contrasts between Balaam, Baal, Balak, and Barak have to be carried instead by arbitrary tonal distinctions.

A different problem arises in Russia in areas where there is a long Orthodox tradition. Many biblical names have become familiar in a Russianized form, and even if this does not fit the phonological patterns of, say, Yakut or Khakas, people want to keep the familiar form to avoid confusion. The result is a different kind of anomaly, with Hebrew and Greek names passing through the filter of Russian orthographic tradition before reaching the minority language. To some extent we find a similar feature in English, where some Hebrew names in the New Testament have passed through a Greek filter before coming into English. This has given rise, (p. 206) especially in older English versions, to confusing variations in the form of the same name, such as Hannah/Anna, Zechariah/Zacharias, Judah/Judas/Jude, and of course Joshua/Jesus.

Vocabulary differences are to be encountered in any translation process, and it is widely recognized that they lead to problems. In English, for instance, no one root can produce forms that cover the wide area of meaning of the Greek root dikaio‐, so English has to use the two roots ‘righteous’ and ‘justify’. The cohesive links in the Greek in a passage like Romans 3:21–6 are thus lost in most English versions. The problem is perhaps most acute with plays on words. Two examples found in many languages, including English, are that there is no single term meaning both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ and no single term meaning both ‘again’ and ‘from above’, so that in John 3:5–8 the recursive links in the Greek account of the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus are far from clear. This can be resolved by means of footnotes, but a greater problem arises where the lexical structure of a receptor language has obligatory categories that are absent from Hebrew and Greek. This difference can force translators to make exegetical decisions for which the source text does not supply adequate information. One such case that occurs widely is an obligatory distinction between older and younger siblings. Thus every time the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ occur, the translator has to decide which brother or sister is older. The situation is especially complicated in the case of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Their relative ages were of no interest to the Gospel writers, but if they have to be stated, translators must make more or less arbitrary decisions, and must remember that it is more important to be consistent than to be right. In the case of the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus in Mark 3:32, the translator's decision carries theological freight, especially in situations where Orthodox or Catholic communities exist.

The problem of obligatory categories extends to morphology as well. For instance if a language makes an obligatory distinction between inclusive and exclusive first‐person plurals, then the translator cannot avoid deciding whether or not the addressee is included every time a first‐person plural occurs, whether as a verb, a pronoun, or a possessive. In Galatians 5:5, for instance, when Paul says ‘we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness’, was he including his readers or not? In the light of the rebuke in the previous verse, the translators in Urak Lawoi decided he was probably not, so used an exclusive form. In many Malayo‐Polynesian languages there is no passive voice, and this means that every passive verb has to be restructured somehow. A verb like ‘be baptized’ may be expressed as ‘receive baptism’, but very often a subject has to be stated, and this entails more exegetical decisions, for instance in Matthew 7:1, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’. Many English versions retain the ambiguous passive, though GNT bites the bullet and says clearly ‘Do not judge others so that God will not judge you’ (cf. CEV). Many other languages, such as Urak Lawoi, have followed this example.

In terms of syntax, almost every other language finds the long Greek sentences in the Epistles indigestible. A literal translation will inevitably sound highly (p. 207) unnatural, as the KJV demonstrates frequently in English. To give a brief example, in Kalmyk the head word in a phrase or clause has to come last, with subordinate material preceding it. Thus, in the Kalmyk rendering of 2 Timothy 2:8 (‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David…’) the verb ‘remember’ has to come last, and ‘raised from the dead’ must precede ‘Jesus Christ’ or else it will be taken to apply to David. The end result is: ‘David‐from descended the‐dead‐from risen Jesus Christ remember.’

In the Turkic and Altaic languages that spread across Central Asia and Siberia the default pattern is for subordinate clauses to precede the main clause in a sentence, whereas in Greek they normally follow it. This difference is in itself sufficient to change the flow of information through a paragraph, and requires that translators take great care to maintain cohesion and coherence in a paragraph according to the natural patterns of the receptor language. The ramifications of this are many. Even in relatively simple narrative, keeping clear track of the participants may require significant adjustments in choosing whether to use nouns or pronouns or neither.

The decision where to start a new paragraph is by no means as straightforward as might be imagined. In the New Testament, even the fourth edition of the UBS Greek Text and the twenty‐seventh edition of Nestlé‐Aland, which claim to offer the same text, differ frequently in their punctuation and paragraph‐breaks, and it is clear that neither is based on a serious discourse analysis of the Greek. But even if translators had access to an agreed set of linguistically well‐founded paragraph‐breaks in the Greek text, they would still have to make adjustments to fit the paragraph structure of the receptor language.

A further area where there is significant mismatch between languages is figures of speech. What is perfectly natural in one language may sound absurd or even offensive in another. In Greek the word for intestines is used as a metonymy for sympathy, but not in English. Thus the KJV rendering in Philippians 2:1, ‘bowels and mercies’, sounds ridiculous in modern English, so even a translation like ESV that claims to be ‘essentially literal’ drops the metonymy here and translates as ‘compassion and sympathy’. Similarly in other languages, some figures of speech are unavoidably lost in the translation process. Figures based on universal human experiences generally cross language barriers more readily than those which are culture‐specific. Thus, a metaphor like ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29) can often be translated literally without distortion of meaning.

In many cases the receptor language uses a different figure to convey the same meaning, so the proportion of figurative language in a given book is not always reduced. An example in English is the use in the REB of the phrase ‘wipe out’ in Zephaniah 1:3, where the Hebrew has literally ‘cut off’. ‘Wipe out’ is so natural in English that most readers would not notice that it is figurative. Similarly in the Hebrew of Genesis 4:5 Cain's face ‘fell’, but in Kuy it was ‘sour’ and in Mien, where couplets are common, it was ‘blind and dark’. In other situations the receptor language may offer a natural figure of speech where the Hebrew or Greek uses plain (p. 208) language, and provided that the figure does not introduce anything that would be historically or culturally anomalous, it may be suitable. An example in English would be to say in Mark 7.6, ‘Isaiah hit the nail on the head when he said…’, though no version I am aware of does this. However, in Pattani Malay the rebuke given by Wisdom in Proverbs 1:25 becomes ‘my advice you would not wear’, and in Proverbs 17:23 the wicked ‘eat a bribe’. In Yakut in Romans 1:18, ‘suppress the truth’ is expressed as ‘stifle the truth’, and in 2 Timothy 3:3 ‘inhuman’ is rendered by a climate‐related figure as ‘icy‐hearted’. In Matthew 13:15, quoting Isaiah 6:10, Jesus says, ‘this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes’. In Tuvan this is expressed very vividly and idiomatically as ‘their hearts are like stone, their ears are full of sand, and their eyes are curtained’.

It is an inherent feature of language that it carries not just information but also implications. The same piece of information, however, may carry different implications in different languages. In Acts 21:9 the statement is made about Philip the evangelist that ‘he had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy’. In English, as in Greek, this is a simple statement of fact, but in Iai, a language of the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea, the statement that the daughters were unmarried carried unwanted implications. In a society in which everybody marries, the fact that these women were not married raised in the minds of readers a question that was not intended by the original writer: what was wrong with them? Were they too young to marry? Were they too lazy, so that nobody wanted to marry them? But if either of these possibilities were true, would God have given them the gift of prophecy? Or were they so ugly that nobody found them attractive? Such speculations were a distraction to the readers' understanding. The implication that there was something wrong with Philip's daughters had to be excluded without distorting the text, and in this case there was an easy solution. The translation was adjusted to say that they were ‘not yet married’. This conveys the basic fact, but leaves open the possibility that at some later stage these women conformed to the expectations of the receptor culture. The readers were no longer distracted by an irrelevance.

In Galatians 5:17 Paul writes that the Spirit and the flesh ‘are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want’. The Pwo Karen translators asked whether this implied that the Spirit prevented you from doing the bad things you wanted to do, or the flesh prevented you from doing the good things you wanted to do. Both interpretations are, after all, true to Christian experience. In favour of the first possibility is that it matches up well with the previous verse, ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. In favour of the second possibility is that the closest parallel statement in Romans 7:15–19 focuses on failing to do good things. It seems unlikely that Paul intended to be ambiguous, so it is better that translators should indicate their preference than that they should pass on the problem to their unsuspecting readers, as NRSV has. An alternative rendering can be supplied in a footnote.

Apart from logical implications, individual words or phrases may carry connotations that are not present in the Greek or Hebrew. On rare occasions unwanted (p. 209) connotations can even affect textual decisions. In Matthew 15:39 the oldest manuscripts have a place name Magadan, and this is the form given in NRSV and most modern versions in English. In Yakut the problem is that there is a modern town with this name on the Pacific coast of Russia, on the Sea of Okhotsk, not so far from Yakutia. It had a bad reputation as a prison city in Soviet times, and the appearance of this name in a Bible translation would bring unfortunate connotations to the minds of the readers. Since the name occurs only once in the New Testament and is not crucial to the story, in this case the translators chose to follow the alternative reading Magdala. This is also the reading in the Russian Synodal version, widely used by both Orthodox and Protestants, so it has the added virtue of familiarity.

Cultural and Religious Influences

Culture is notoriously difficult to define (van der Jagt 2002: 2–4). Here the word is used in a very general sense to include both the material aspects of life in society and the value systems and attitudes of societies, including the way people interact and the linguistic markers that show their relationships. If missionary translators who are not native speakers of the receptor language are involved in a project as translators, it is likely that at some point their third culture and its baggage will come between the source language and culture and the receptor language and culture, and make the situation even more complex. However, this section will assume the increasingly common situation in which the translators are native speakers, with no more than exegetical help from foreign colleagues.

On the material level, the nautical vocabulary in Acts 27 may present many problems to people who live far from the sea, for whom ships may be remote from daily experience and appropriate vocabulary non‐existent. So suitable adaptations may be required: for instance, the prow of the ship in Khakas is expressed as ‘the nose’. By contrast, the Urak Lawoi people, who depend on the sea for their entire livelihood, have a rich nautical vocabulary, and in the storm narratives in the Gospels they needed to decide whether the boat was heading into the wind, running before it, or tacking, because different words would be used of the action of the water in each case.

An area where all translators face difficult decisions is that of weights and measures. If the original terms are retained, especially in the Old Testament, there will be a significant number of unknown terms. Yet if modern (nowadays usually metric) terms are substituted, there is an unavoidable element of anachronism. But in many modern situations where receptors are unfamiliar with any other terms, they are unlikely to notice the anachronism, so in the overriding interest of intelligibility translators generally choose modern terms over unknown (p. 210) ones. This solution has its difficulties in contexts where the actual numbers of the ancient units carried some symbolic significance which is lost when the metric measures are worked out (cf. Rev. 14:20; 21:16–17). However, such situations are not too common, and footnotes can help to restore these losses. GNT has a footnote at Revelation 21:17, but not at 14:20.

Moving on to sociological and sociolinguistic matters, all societies are structured in some way (as monarchies, republics, tribes, clans, age‐sets, and so on), and have vocabulary appropriate to their own social units. The Bible nowhere gives a detailed description of the social structures of the people‐groups it mentions, though a good deal of information is implicit in different places, for instance about Persian court practices in Esther, or about Roman citizenship in Acts. Nowhere is a hierarchy of social units plainer than in Joshua 7:14–18, where tribe, clan, and family are identified as units of descending size. There is nothing really parallel to this in modern western societies, where there is no automatic membership of any intermediate unit between the family and the nation, so that terms like ‘tribe’ and ‘clan’ carry overtones of the exotic, and lack the emotive impact of ‘family’. In some language groups the social structure is much closer to that of ancient Israel, and the parallel terms carry a higher emotive impact than they do to English readers.

In many societies age carries prestige and requires deference, and this is often shown by the terms used, either pronouns or descriptive terms, usually kin terms. For instance, the boy Samuel has to address Eli as ‘uncle’ in 1 Samuel 3:5 in Kuy, and in Pattani Malay in Genesis 47.8 even Pharaoh has to question the aged Jacob respectfully in the third person with the kin term ‘grandfather’. Politeness is often conveyed by the presence or absence of vocatives in a way that is different from the usage in Hebrew or Greek. This means that a translation may need to include a vocative in direct speech where the source text does not have one, because the absence of a vocative would convey the false impression that rudeness is intended. Of course, the vocative chosen has to fit unobtrusively with the social expectations of the receptor culture. This is an area of translation where it is all too easy to be unthinkingly literal without taking sufficient account of the sociolinguistic implications of a literal rendering.

At the other end of the scale, there are different ways of showing scorn, contempt, or just plain rudeness. In the Old Testament the most frequent way is to address or refer to someone not by his personal name, but as ‘son of x’, as for instance in 1 Samuel 20:27, 30, 31; 22:7, 8, 9, 12, 13. To retain this form literally in an English translation, as many versions do, sounds rather odd but fails to convey the interpersonal overtones of the Hebrew. Among English versions the derogatory nuance is captured most effectively by CEV with the expressions ‘that son of Jesse’ (1 Sam. 20:27, 30, 31; 22:7, 8, 9, 13) and ‘you son of Ahitub’ (22:12).

Sometimes the value system of the receptor culture can legitimately influence exegetical decisions where the evidence is otherwise evenly balanced, and one such place is Galatians 5:12, where the meaning of the Greek verb apokopsontai may be (p. 211) either ‘cut themselves off’ in the sense of ‘separate themselves’, or else ‘castrate themselves’. The latter meaning presents no problems in areas such as North Africa or Kalmykia where there is a folk memory of harems under the charge of eunuchs, but in areas where castration has never been practised to mention it could involve either a lengthy periphrasis that may not be understood, or a more vulgar expression that would render the passage unreadable in public worship. In Thailand the culture of the Pwo Karen is outwardly somewhat prudish, and for this reason the meaning ‘separate themselves’ had to be chosen.

The religious background of the receptors may influence their response to the biblical text in diverse ways. The religious background of the receptors is often not homogeneous anyway: popular Buddhism or Islam may be mingled with animism, or popular Orthodoxy with shamanism. For people with a Theravada Buddhist background, in which there is no creator, the opening chapters of Genesis represent a major divergence from their own traditions. Stories in the Gospels involving spirit possession evoke very different responses from readers with animistic or shamanistic cultures and from those with materialist, urban, industrial backgrounds in western Europe. In groups influenced by Chinese culture (as some in north Thailand have been) the dragon in Revelation 12 will probably be seen as a positive rather than a negative symbol.

The translation is sometimes influenced by the religious context of the readers. Differences between the religious presuppositions of the source text and those of the receptors came to the surface frequently in the Pattani Malay translation, no doubt because the background there is Islamic and has its own well‐defined theology. One of the common problems was that no anthropomorphisms were acceptable in connection with God, so that in all such places the meaning behind the figure had to be expressed, for instance ‘the power of God’ for ‘the finger of God’ in Exodus 8:19. Because God can have no equal, it was not possible for the Lord to say to Moses in Exodus 7:1, ‘I have made you like God to Pharaoh’. This was rendered as ‘I will cause you to be my voice to Pharaoh’, a voice being considered sufficiently incorporeal to be attributed to God. In Kalmyk, with its Tibetan Buddhist worldview, New Testament references to ‘new life’ had to be framed very carefully to avoid any implication of reincarnation.


The original message of the Bible was conveyed in and through the social and linguistic phenomena of specific ancient cultures. It was therefore inevitably clothed in the ‘garments’ of those cultures, many of which appear exotic and (p. 212) even shocking in modern settings, not only non‐western but also western. A certain measure of what some translation theorists call domestication is therefore essential if the message is to remain intelligible, and to bring to its modern readers or hearers a challenge that is at all comparable with the challenge that the original text brought to its readers or hearers. This chapter has attempted to demonstrate some of the ways, often unexpected, in which the culturally conditioned understanding of the modern reader has to be taken into account in formulating a translation adequate to fulfil this purpose.

English Bible Versions

English Bible Versions

  1. CEV: Contemporary English Version.

  2. ESV: English Standard Version.

  3. GNSB: Good News Study Bible

  4. GNT: Good News Translation

  5. KJV: King James Version

  6. NIV: New International Version

  7. NJB: New Jerusalem Bible

  8. NJPS: New Jewish Publication Society Translation

  9. NRSV: New Revised Standard Version

  10. REB: Revised English Bible

Works Cited

van der Jagt, Krijn (2002), Anthropological Approaches to the Interpretation of the Bible. UBS Monograph Series, no. 8. New York: United Bible Societies.Find this resource:

    Nida, Eugene A. (1964), Towards a Science of Translating. Leiden: E. J. Brill.Find this resource:

      —— and Charles R. Taber (1969), The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E. J. Brill.Find this resource:

        de Waard, Jan and Eugene A. Nida (1986), From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson.Find this resource:

          Wilt, Timothy (ed.) (2002), Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. Manchester, UK and Northampton, Mass.: St Jerome Publishing.Find this resource:

            Further Reading

            Clark, David J. (2004), Anthropology and the ‘End User’: The Influence of Receptor Cultures on the Translation of the Bible, in Louise J. Lawrence and Mario I. Aguilar (p. 213) (eds.), Anthropology and Biblical Studies: Avenues of Approach, 62–76. Leiden: Deo Publishing.Find this resource:

              —— (2004), Minority Language Biblical Translation Work in Russia: Then and Now, in Stephen Batalden, Kathleen Cann, and John Dean (eds.), Sowing the Word: The Cultural Impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society 1804–2004 (Bible in the Modern World, 3), 217–33. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.Find this resource:


                (1) I am grateful for the help of my friends and colleagues Dr Stephen Pattemore and Mr Vitaly Voinov in checking the accuracy of various statements in this chapter.