How Translation Principles Affect Biblical Text: An Example

A short quote from Matthew's gospel provides an opportunity to illustrate many of the major issues that translators handle in different ways. This quote is not the only place in the Bible where such differences occur, nor is it necessarily a place where the differences are theologically significant, but it provides a handy example by which a brief explanation may be offered.

The following text is taken from the King James Version (KJV), which was originally published in the early seventeenth century (1611):

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Matthew 18:15–17; KJV)

KJV is based on Textus Receptus, the version of the New Testament used to produce translations into several European languages during the time of the Reformation. In the late nineteenth century, another translation of this source text was made by Robert Young. Young sought to restore a more literal reading, especially of verb tenses. He also adjusted some of the vocabulary. The following text is taken from Young's Literal Translation (YLT), which was originally published in the late nineteenth century.

And if thy brother may sin against thee, go and show him his fault between thee and him alone, if he may hear thee, thou didst gain thy brother; and if he may not hear, take with thee yet one or two, that by the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may stand. And if he may not hear them, say [it] to the assembly, and if also the assembly he may not hear, let him be to thee as the heathen man and the tax-gatherer. (Matthew 18:15–17; YLT)

After the time of the Reformation, documents containing copies of the New Testament in Greek that predated Textus Receptus were discovered. Their words differed in some places. In the text quoted here, for example, the opening sentence says, "... if thy brother may sin against thee." These newly uncovered, but more ancient source manuscripts, lack the words against thee. The passage begins "And if thy brother may sin, go and show him his fault..."

Many contemporary scholars conclude that the phrase against thee was added to the original text by scribes or copyists, either intentionally or inadvertently. Others, however, believe that the older, but more recently discovered, manuscripts were not copied as often because they were flawed.

The Initial Question this guide asks you to consider involves making a decision about which original text you prefer. Although your answer to this question will affect the words that appear in the main body of text, most modern translations provide marginal notes that point out where the source texts differ. Some also provide commentary regarding various viewpoints held by scholars of diverse opinions. Additionally, translators who primarily follow one particular source may deviate from it when they believe that tradition or other evidence suggests that a more eclectic path is appropriate.

Another translation issue relates to the use of special Biblical language that has its roots in Elizabethan English. In the passage quoted above, you'll see words and verb forms that are no longer a part of the everyday language used by English speakers (thy, thee, and didst). Most currently available translations update these words with their contemporary counterparts (your, you, did), but some do not.

The New American Standard Bible is often considered one of the most literal of the modern translations. While it uses contemporary words and verb forms, it seeks to maintain a correspondence with the original text:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17; NASB)

The six footnotes that accompany these verses explain noteworthy variations among the source documents and provide the literal meanings of words that were translated less literally to aid comprehension.

Another concern for translators relates to how closely a translation mimics the way language was used in the original texts. The YLT passage quoted contains just two long sentences (both starting with and). The NASB version consists of three sentences. In both cases, some phrases may seem awkward to contemporary speakers of English because the patterns of current English and literary preferences of modern readers differ from those elements in the source documents. As a result, translators often make compromises between how clear the translation is to modern English readers and how literal it is (that is, how precisely it matches the words and word order of the original).

Here's the passage in the NET Bible (New English Translation), which was published in 2005:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17; NET)

This translation conveys the information with five sentences that are crafted for the modern ear. The NET Bible also features numerous explanatory notes. Among the ten notes that accompany this passage is one explaining that some Greek manuscripts include against you in the first phrase.

The passage quoted also highlights another concern. It speaks of a brother. In the original Greek, the word used could refer to anyone within the family of God (as well as to a biological sibling). Some translators believe that using the word brother in a modern context excludes the possibility that the offender could have been female. To address this concern, they have adopted a policy of using gender-neutral language.

For example, God's Word (GW) replaces the word brother with a gender-neutral term (believer), but it retains the pronouns him and he. Although these may feel exclusively masculine to some modern readers, historically in English, he could have been used to refer to a person of unknown gender as well as to a male.

If a believer does something wrong, go, confront him when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have won back that believer. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation may be verified by two or three witnesses. If he ignores these witnesses, tell it to the community of believers. If he also ignores the community, deal with him as you would a heathen or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17; GW)

Again, a footnote explains that sometimes against you is included at the end of the first phrase.

The New Living Translation (NLT) also addresses the potential gender confusion in this passage by avoiding the word brother, but it takes another step and eliminates the reliance on masculine pronouns as well:

If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won't accept the church's decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17; NLT)

Footnotes to the text explain that the original Greek says "If your brother..." instead of "If another believer..." and also that some manuscripts do not include the phrase against you.

In a paraphrase, a storyteller reinterprets the original writer's thoughts and expresses the sentiments in a modern style. This is how The Message presents the passage:

If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love. (Matthew 18:15–17; Message)

If you arrived at this section from an earlier link, you may want to return to The Initial Question or to the discussion of Bibles Based on the Critical Text.