Bible translation: a revolving door of need and revisions

By November 29, 2018

International (MNN) – Ever wonder why there are so many English translations of the Bible when some people still do not have a drop of God’s Word in their language? Well, the answer to that is complex. Biblica’s Hans Combrink explains how language is constantly changing and morphing over generations. For this reason, most translations need revisions every 20-30 years.

Translation With Morphing Languages

“Language is essentially dynamic because it is determined by a number of speakers. Sometimes…millions of speakers who speak a language and while we have bodies that govern or regulate the use of language, ultimately the use of language is determined by people speaking that language. So, language changes over time,” Combrink says.

“We all recognize that today’s younger generations speak language that we didn’t speak growing up. They have different idioms, different phrases that they use, different conventions of language that they use. You can well imagine that a language like English has changed quite a bit since the days of the King James translation more than 400 years ago”

(Photo courtesy of Biblica)

Translation is essentially communicating from one medium to another. It only works well when a message can be understood and is accurate in the new medium; or in this case, a different language.

“That includes language, but it also includes culture and worldview and all of that. So, we have to ensure that the communication of God’s Word in that context remains relevant,” Combrink says.

This is why translation revisions need to happen every few decades. Combrink says because of how long Bible translation takes and how quickly revisions are necessary, once a translation is published, it is not long before it is time to start on the revisions. A good revision process can take an entire decade.

Combrink says “in some sense Bible translation never stops”. Part of the translation process also includes feedback from readers like preachers, theological instructors, and individuals who use the translation for evangelism or ministry in a variety of socio-economical areas. This feedback provides valuable input that can be used in future translation revisions.

God’s Word Unchanging, Inerrant

However, ever-changing language combined with God’s unchanging Word and the rather frequent need for translation revisions prompts a tension. Combrink reminds us that there is no original copy of the Bible. Rather, the Bible is a unit of 66 books written at various times across the centuries. There was a formation process to God’s Word. But, despite the flaws of humans, God’s hand has always been in the process.

“God’s work went through a process of formation of more than a thousand years where people faithfully heard God’s Word. They heard God speak. They saw God act and they wrote that down. After a period of oral transmission of God’s Word…we had people being led by the Holy Spirit faithfully authoring God’s work and that became transmitted over centuries,” Combrink explains.

What we do have are authentic manuscripts and copies of original documents. Combrink says we can say with certainty that these manuscripts corroborate their message and text.

God’s Word Inscribed

We do have to recognize that there are some variations because humans were involved in the process of copying and translating scrolls and fragments over the centuries. Some of these humans made errors, but we have people who are specialists in the fields of textual criticism who painstakingly pours over all these manuscripts and fragments and put together source texts for the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. Those are the manuscripts that we use when we translate the Bible. Those are our source texts,” Combrink says.

As Christians we believe that those source texts embody the Word of God. They are the Word inscribed. They are the Word made scripture, just as Jesus was the logos, the Word of God who became flesh. He became ‘sarx’ as the Greek says in the prologue to John’s Gospel.

In the same way that Jesus is the Word of God, the eternal Word of God became flesh, became human, and lived here on earth, so God’s Word also was written down. God chose to use fragile humanity both through the incarnation of Jesus as the son of God who became man, but also through His Word that was written down by humans who could make errors and who made scribal omissions or additions, and yet through all of that God had his hand on that process. We have the privilege of having received, throughout the years and the ages, God’s Word in a wonderfully authentic way.”

Tension Between Language and God’s Word


(Photo courtesy of Biblica)

It is important to understand the relationship between God’s Word and our own changing language so we can accurately translate and understand the Bible. For example, words previously used in the Bible, such as “ass,” “gay,” “thong,” or even “ankle chains” (ornaments of the legs) have very different meanings today than when they were chosen to be used in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. An example of this can be found in the King James Version of James 2:2, Judges 16:7, and Isaiah 3:20.

These examples continue to show how dynamic language is and the need to revise translations over time to communicate the correct and accurate Word of God. It also reflects how although God’s Word is inerrant, personal interpretation is reliant on the quality and accuracy of a translation.

Biblica’s Translation Work

Biblica works in Bible Translation with the top 100 languages of the world. This means the organization works with languages which have 7 million or more speakers. These are also called the strategic language groups because working in these languages can potentially impact up to 80 percent of the world’s translations. That is around 5.5-6 billion people. To put that in perspective, there are almost 7 thousand languages in the world, some which only have 30,000; 50,000; or even just 100,000 speakers.

“Biblica cannot do all of the work. Our place in the translation community is to focus on the top hundred strategic languages of the world and do those well, so that they could be used as models or reference translations by others working to serve the minority languages community of this world with an adequate and meaningful translation of God’s Word. So, that all people eventually may hear the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a language that serves them well. A language that speaks to their heart so that people and their communities may be transformed for the glory of God,” Combrink says.

Pray for Biblica’s work in Bible translation. Ask God to protect and guide translators and that His Word would be communicated accurately and effectively. Pray for the necessary resources to continue Bible translation both for Biblica and the minority language translators.

Learn more about Biblica’s work in Bible translation here!

Click here to financially support Biblica’s work!


Header photo courtesy of Olga Caprotti.

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