Bible: the book lost in translation, and how to get it back

June 19, 2016

Most mainstream Bible translations use a weird mixture of literal translation, free translation and anglicizations of transliterations. They use literal translation where they shouldn't, free translation where they shouldn't, transliteration where they shouldn't and anglicization where they shouldn't. This post is an attempt to set proper standards for future Bible translations.

My background: I worked as a translator

I would have majored in English from the University of Pecs, Hungary if Yahuah had no other plans for me. Thankfully, he did and I dropped out of Uni. I abhorred the hypocritical school system that glorified lexical knowledge, disdained practical skills, looked down at common sense and joked at thinking outside the box. My love for English would have most likely deteriorated if I stayed at Uni, anyway. Nevertheless, I continued perfecting my English on my own terms.

After leaving, I worked as a translator for a Christian ministry that needed translations of its German booklets to English. I dived into the project using my common sense as a "method" and my love for the Lord as my "engine". My translation was cross checked with a professional translator and I was told that they were surprised how good my work was. I must say I loved translating.

Ahh, I forgot to mention that at the Uni I had a translation gig. A meeting was held about the issues of a local minority group and there was an American guy visiting. I translated to English what was discussed in Hungarian at the meeting. What I learned through this exercise is that it really didn't matter what was said, what mattered was what the American guy understood. At many occasions, I translated word by word what they were talking about and it made no sense to the American guy.

Which leads us to literal translation and the inherent problems with it.

The problem with literal translation

Literal translation, direct translation, or word-for-word translation is the rendering of text from one language to another one word at a time (Latin: "verbum pro verbo") with or without conveying the sense of the original whole.
In translation studies, "literal translation" denotes technical translation of scientific, technical, technological or legal texts.


When we translate from language A to language B we need to use the words, expressions, pictures of language B. Otherwise the readers of language B won't understand the translation as they can only think within the context (words, expressions, pictures) of language B.

Here is a simple example. In English, the expression "not my cup of tea" means that one doesn't like something or not particularly good at something.

something one likes or excels in <I see already that storytelling isn't my cup of tea — John Barth>also :  a person suited to one's taste

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

If I was to translate this idiom to Hungarian using literal translation I would end up with the following translation:

Hungarian: Látom már hogy a történetmondás nem az én teám.
Literal meaning: I see already that storytelling isn't my cup of tea.

A Hungarian speaking person would be confused to read this. It makes no sense in Hungarian. The person would look with eyes wide open wondering how can storytelling be like a cup of tea. "Not my cup of tea" in Hungarian does not mean "It's not for me". "Not my cup of tea" in Hungarian only means literally "a cup of tea that is not mine".

Now let's look at what's free translation and how I would translate the above sentence.

An adaptation, also known as a free translation, is a procedure whereby the translator replaces a term with cultural connotations, where those connotations are restricted to readers of the original language text, with a term with corresponding cultural connotations that would be familiar to readers of the translated text.


The Hungarian language expresses "something one likes or excels in" with the word picture literally translated to English "not my table". English uses the image of a cup and Hungarian uses the image of a table.

This is how I would translate this to Hungarian using free translation:

Hungarian: Látom már hogy a történetmondás nem az én asztalom.
Literal meaning: I see already that storytelling isn't my table.

Now this Hungarian translation means that the one is not excelling in storytelling. There's no confusion, the meaning is carried through in the translation. But if I was to translate back this to English using literal translation it would make no sense. An English speaker would look at me with eyes wide open wondering what storytelling has to do with tables.

Here's another example.

"It's Greek to me" is an idiom in English and it means it's not understandable.

That's Greek to me or It's (all) Greek to me is an idiom in English, expressing that something is not understandable.
The idiom is typically used with respect to the foreign nature, complexity or imprecision of verbal or written expression or diagram, often containing excessive use of jargon,dialectmathematicssciencesymbols, or diagrams.

- Wikipedia

This is how I would translate this to Hungarian using literal translation:

Hungarian: Ez Görög nekem.
Literal meaning: It's Greek to me

A Hungarian speaking person would be confused to read this. It makes no sense in Hungarian. The person would look with eyes wide open wondering what Greek may be referring to. "It's Greek to me" in Hungarian does not mean "It's not understandable for me". "It's Greek to me" in Hungarian only means literally "It's Greek to me".

The Hungarian language expresses "it's not understandable" with the word picture literally translated to English "it's Chinese to me". English uses the image of the Greek and Hungarian uses the image of the Chinese language.

This is how I would translate this to Hungarian using free translation:

Hungarian: Ez nekem Kínai.
Literal meaning: It's Chinese for me.

Now this Hungarian translation means that something is not understandable. There's no confusion, the meaning is carried through in the translation. But if I was to translate back this to English using literal translation it would make no sense. An English speaker would look at me with eyes wide open wondering why I am talking about the Chinese language.

You see, literal translations are confusing and obscure at best.

The concept of literal translation may be viewed as an oxymoron (contradiction in terms), given that literal denotes something existing without interpretation, whereas a translation, by its very nature, is an interpretation (an interpretation of the meaning of words from one language into another).


I think there's a place for literal translations and that is to research and to prepare for free translations. When we translate the Scriptures we should use common sense free translation to keep the meaning of the original language. Otherwise, what's the sense of translation if the meaning is not carried through?

Literal translations used where free translation would be appropriate

The young lady was very beautiful to look at, a virgin. No man had known her. She went down to the spring, filled her pitcher, and came up.

- Genesis 24:16

For an English speaker, the above sentence simply means that there was no man who was acquainted with her or no man had an understanding of her. It basically makes no sense.

a (1) :  to perceive directly :  have direct cognition of (2) :  to have understanding of<importance of knowing oneself> (3) :  to recognize the nature of :  discern
b (1) :  to recognize as being the same as something previously known (2) :  to be acquainted or familiar with (3) :  to have experience of

- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

It takes some experience in reading the Bible in context and some imagination to assume that this is a Hebrew idiom literally meaning no man had sex with her.

Now the question is this: shall we translate idioms literally and let the reader figure out what these idioms mean or shall we translate their meaning?

Now, when it comes to conveying the sense of the text, it is really important to translate the content from the reader’s point of view. Until and unless the reader understands what is being actually tried to convey. When the reader does not understand what the writer has actually written, all effort to get the things done perfectly become useless.
More than just translation, it is more important to convey the sense of the text and it should always be kept in mind that the actual meaning of the original text should never be played with. And even if it is done, the meaning and the flow of the sentences should be framed in such a way that the flow of the sentence should always be maintained and that too in an artistic way.

One Hour Translation

What's the sense of translating anything if our readers don't understand it? The literal translation of idioms makes no sense. Now, taking into account that the Scriptures are full of poetic Hebraisms I think it's best to use an alternative for "having sex". There are much nicer ways to express this, for instance, "sleep with" or "being intimate with" is more poetic. According to what we learned, this is how the verse should be translated:

The young lady was very beautiful to look at, a virgin. No man have been intimate with her. She went down to the spring, filled her pitcher, and came up.

Genesis 24:16

As we established this, the English idiom "been intimate with" could replace all instance of "know her", in verses such as:

The man knew Eve his wife. She conceived, and gave birth to Cain, and said, “I have gotten a man with Yahuah’s help.”

- Genesis 4:1

The man has been intimate with Eve his wife. She conceived, and gave birth to Cain, and said, “I have gotten a man with Yahuah’s help.”

Genesis 4:1

When I told my wife that "knew her" meant "had sex with her" she was shocked. She told me, that for years she was wondering if they actually were intimate or not. She also thought that the Bible perhaps didn't want to talk about sex because sex was dirty. - You see how wrong translations can influence how we think about God and the Scriptures? My wife is not alone in thinking sex was a taboo for God. I thought that, too, when I was a child. And I know that other people had the same impression. Bad translations result in bad understanding.

Another Hebrew idiom that creates confusion is "Within your gates":

but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahuah your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates;

- Exodus 20:10

Is it within the gates of my house, within the gates of my garden, within the gates of my city or something else? The Hebrew word translated as "within your gates" is "שַׁעַר" transliterated to English as "shaar".

שַׁעַר shaʻar, shah'-ar; from H8176 in its original sense; an opening, i.e. door or gate:—city, door, gate, port (× -er).

- Strong's

Interestingly, "shaar" means "gate" but not "within your gate". "Within your gates" is possibly a rendering to make sense of the word "gate" in this context. Knowing the commandment to keep the Sabbath day set apart it is my understanding that Yahuah tells us to refrain from work. But we should not make those in our household (son, daughter), all those serving our household (male servant, female servant) and all those residing on entering our property (livestock, stranger) work either. No one who is within our gates shall work.

We could render the verse more understandable by translating it in this way:

but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahuah your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within the gates to any of your properties;

Exodus 20:10

The Complete Jewish Bible is suggesting a similar translation, too.

but the seventh day is a Shabbat for Adonai your God. On it, you are not to do any kind of work — not you, your son or your daughter, not your male or female slave, not your livestock, and not the foreigner staying with you inside the gates to your property.

- Exodus 20:10

Free translations without common sense may lead us astray

The Hebrew word "Tzitzit" is generally translated as "Tassels" or "Fringes" depending on the Bible version you read. Neither "Tassels" nor "Fringes" really carries through the original meaning of the word "tzitzit" if you look at the item in question. Here's a "tzitzit" worn by the Karaite Jews (Faithful to Scripture Jews):

Credits: Karaite Corner

Doesn't look like a fringe or tassel, does it? These English words are the result of free translation without using common sense and proper research. When I attempted to translate the word "tzitzit" I've done lots of research on the actual physical item, how it looks like by those who wear it, how it's used by different groups of people, cross-checked bible verses, looked at background information and came up with the translation "braided chains". Read the post where I go into details about how I translated the word "tzitzit" to English as "braided chains".

Free translations done without common sense lead to incorrect applications of our faith. Look at this guy who took the word "fringes" literally without making his own research.


Anglicizing where transliterating would be appropriate

We should translate everything using common sense free translation except proper nouns. Here is the definition of proper nouns:

a name used for an individual person, place, or organization, spelled with initial capital letters, e.g., LarryMexico, and Boston Red Sox.


Proper nouns are not to be translated. It's common sense.

When you watch a Hungarian news channel they'll mention "George Bush" as "George Bush". His name is not translated to "Bokor György" even though "György" is the correct translation of "George" and "Bush" means "Bokor" in Hungarian.

The problem comes when the original language has a different alphabet from the language we're translating to. Such as in the case of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). In these instances, we are to use transliteration.

Transliteration is:

to write words or letters in the characters of another alphabet

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Here's an example:

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

- Isaiah 1:1

The word translated as "Isaiah" is the Hebrew word


Hebrew has a different character set from English. An English speaking person can't deal with these characters. Therefore, if we want to know what's written in Hebrew we need to transliterate it: match the pronunciation of the Hebrew word with corresponding letters of the English alphabet. The above Hebrew word is transliterated to English as


Transliteration is keeping the word of the original language where only the corresponding characters are changed to the alphabet of the language we're translating to.

Yeshayah is a proper noun, the name of a prophet. Proper nouns should not be translated but transliterated. The English translators first transliterated the Hebrew word יְשַׁעְיָה to Yeshayah and then Anglicized it to Isaiah. That is to say, they made it more convenient for English speakers.

to make (something or someone) English or more English

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Why is this a bad practice in this example? Because the name YeshaYAH includes the short version of the name of the Almighty, YAHuah. So when someone says Yeshayah, he is also proclaiming the name of the Almighty, Yahuah.

The same is true for

Jeremiah - should be transliterated as YirmiYAHu

Joshua - should be transliterated as YAHusha

Nehemiah - should be transliterated as NechemiYAH

For convenience sake, the translators of most Bible versions ripped us off from the knowledge of the name of our Creator.

Transliterating and anglicizing where translating would be appropriate

The Greek translators felt that the Hebrew "Torah" meaning "Instruction" does not fit into their worldview. Greece was governed by Greek law. So they tried to fit Yahuah's instructions into their system of understanding - using free translation incorrectly. The Law was a concept that the Greek translators were more familiar with than the Instructions of Yahuah. The point is, the translation "law" is based on the wrong Greek translation "nomos". Here's a great PDF document about this subject matter titled The Torah is not the Law.

You see, how a wrong translation can lead to another wrong translation? Also, I must note that we should not translate freely where cultural connotations override Scriptural truths. In these instances we may use literal translation instead of free translation even though our readers may be unfamiliar with the words.

"LORD" is another example where traditions of men were set above common sense translation principles.

This is the history of the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that LORD God made the earth and the heavens.

Notice the LORD substitute in emphasis.

In Hebrew this word is


Which is transliterated to English as Yahuah.

Most translations have a footnote or a note in the preface that goes something like:

"Whenever the words LORD and GOD appear in large and small capital letters, the original Hebrew reads YHWH"

- New King James Version

The Masoretic scribes added vowel points to יהוה in order to prompt the reader to replace the sacred name of the Most High Yahuah with Adonai resulting in יְהוָה so that the reader would not utter "His name in vain".

Whenever the text reads "YHWH" the Pharisees read "Adonai", that is translated "LORD". This tradition of the Pharisees was implemented in most translations, thus translating YHWH as LORD. Since YHWH is a proper noun, a name, therefore it should not be translated but transliterated as discussed earlier.

You can read more about this wrong translation based on tradition of men in my article titled: LORD means Yahuah in the Bible

Transliteration is not translation

The Messianic and Hebrew roots movement started to make their own translations with the goal to bring back the Hebraic origins of the faith. Some translations are really good but some are really bad. Just because one speaks Hebrew does not mean they can translate as well. Transliteration is not translation. Just because you show me transliterations of Hebrew words I won't understand the Scriptures better. In fact, I can't even understand what I'm reading:

And will make an offering by eish unto Hashem, an olah or a zevach in performing a neder, or in a nedvah or in your mo’adim, to make a re’ach nichoach unto Hashem, of the herd or of the flock;

- Numbers 15:3

You have to learn Hebrew to understand the verse but then why translate? Then we all could just learn Hebrew.

The bold printed above are all transliterations. The usual argument for using transliterations instead of translations goes along the lines of: Hebrew is a sacred language and there is no good translation for these words, plus we have to get back to our Hebrew roots.


I agree with the sacred part and that we need to get back to our Hebrew roots... but how do I get back to my Hebrew roots when I do not understand what I'm reading? How is it that there's no good translation for these words? Is it perhaps that the translators simply don't put in the required legwork to research and find a good equivalent word or idiom? Is it perhaps that they sound more spiritual by using Hebrew words? Is it perhaps just plain arrogance when they say they can't translate it?

While I think that this and similar transliteration-based translation attempts have good intentions, but the way they're carried out is subpar, to say the least. I have difficulty to even call these translations. Translation is when you interpret the meaning of a text from the original language to another. Using transliterations for words other than proper nouns has no place in translations. A "translation" that uses transliterations where translations are due is simply not a translation.

Let's translate the Scriptures properly

I have enough of using translations of the Set Apart Scriptures translated by scholars and churchmen who have no clue or want to lead us astray. I have enough of reading LORD instead of the Almighty's real name, Yahuah. I have enough of reading church to indoctrinate me with the idea that my faith is just another religion practiced in a building. I have enough!

What we need is people with translation skills, talents for language, having common sense, being without agendas. And we need to assemble these people in a group and make a new translation that is faithful to the original. And this to replicate for other languages as well. I can't do it alone and I'm not even going to attempt to do it alone. If you have this in your heart and have what it takes, let's talk. We must do something about this to end the deception!

I’m Barnabas, a servant of Yahuah, who loves writing songs and speaking about the truth. Together with my lovely wife I run a small homestead where we raise free range organic chicken, ducks and turkey. We also have a garden where we grow seasonal vegetable. Read more