The Motive for Translation
The translation of the Bible is one of the greatest endeavors that Christians can set themselves to do, not only into those languages that lack a proper translation of the Scriptures, but even into those languages that already possess a number of good translations. Such an endeavor, far from evidencing a desire simply “to be different” or indicating disdain for what others have previously done, manifests a seriousness in Bible study and a love for God’s Word that befits all believers. As disciples of the Lord, we should diligently study the Bible to the greatest degree possible, depending on what gifts God has graciously given us.
If we are able to, we should even go so far as to translate the Scriptures on our own to better understand the text and to better apprehend the light in God’s Word. If God has enabled us to delve into His Word this deeply, we do well to labor on His Word to this extent, for in translating from the original languages of the Bible, we so immerse ourselves in the text that we can only better perceive what the Spirit of God is saying to us in His Word.
While some may ask us why we have translated the Bible when it has been done so many times and so ably by others, we should instead ask them why they have not. The Bible is the only book that deserves to be translated again and again, and each new translation affords the believers better access to the truth in His Word. In properly translating the Bible, we do not diminish its word or impact; rather, we glorify the Word of God and thus its Supreme Author.
The Need for Translation
The impetus for translating the Bible is almost as old as the Bible itself. In even as early a time as that of Nehemiah, translation of the Scriptures became necessary for the people of God, and the Bible itself records that Ezra the scribe, with many assistants, “read in the book, in the law of God, interpreting and given the sense, so that [the people] understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). We know that part of this “interpreting and giving the sense” was rendering the words of Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic, the language of the returned exiles; hence, the Bible itself validates its need for translation. Later, after the Old Testament canon had been written and the Jews had dispersed throughout the Mediterranean lands, the first complete translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was executed by Jewish scholars in Greek between the mid-third and late second century BC. For the most part, Old Testament quotations contained in the New Testament are drawn from this translation, called the Septuagint, and by this again the Bible validates the need for its own translation.
The History of Translation
Even though the early church, existing in a predominately Greek-speaking world, did not generally require translation of the Greek New Testament, translation into a number of the other languages of the Roman Empire began early and was widespread. Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Armenian translations of the Scriptures were produced for the needs of the spreading church. And for the growing church in the West, a number of Latin translations, of varying quality, appeared. By the end of the fourth century, the need for a single, common translation into Latin motivated Jerome to bring forth his spectacular Vulgate, the translation of the Scriptures that sustained the church in the West for over a thousand years, well beyond the time of the Reformation. Even though we normally think of the Reformation as a period of blossoming for Bible translations, Jerome’s Vulgate actually served as the Scriptural platform for the Lord’s move at the time, since much of the polemical writing of this era is in Latin and depends on Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible.
Further, many early translations of the Scriptures into English were made, not from Greek or Hebrew as might be expected, but from Jerome’s monumental and classic work into Latin. For example, Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in the early 14th century, the first in Europe in nearly a thousand years, was based upon Jerome’s Vulgate. But it is indeed the case that the Protestant Reformers, armed with a particular recovery of light and truth in the Scriptures, picked up the task of translating the Bible into the languages of the Europeans with full vigor. Luther, easily the most dominant figure of the Reformation, is also easily the most influential Bible translator of all time. His approach to other translations of the Bible into German, completed in 1534, influenced a number of translators in other languages, including William Tyndale, who, around the same time, was the first to translate the Bible into English entirely from its original languages.
As the recovery of truth progressed across the centuries, serious students of the Bible each in turn took up the task of translating the Scriptures, either as personal exercises or as fully executed versions (e.g., J.N. Darby, Conybeare and Howson, Henry Alford, Kenneth Wuest). Their devotion to and love for the Bible made possible a broad range of good translations which have rendered immense help to those equally serious students who have not been able to translate the Scriptures on their own.