Theology of Translation

Matjaž Črnivec

An Introductory Inquiry

“Theology is translation.” This is a quote of Richard Gehman by Philip Noss in the special issue of The Bible Translator (BT) devoted to translation and theology (BT 53, 3 [2003]: 333). The papers therein present an important starting point in acknowledging a positive relationship between the two, but at the same time show that the real discussion of the subject has, in fact, only started. And, given the goal of BT, they focus mainly on specific issues and concrete details, without trying to provide a bigger picture, a theological framework for the discussion of this broad topic. With my contribution, I want to initiate an examination of the relationship between the theology and translation in three areas or stages of interaction. They can be provisionally defined as follows: I. Theological presuppositions of translation; II. Translation process as theological act; III. Theological effects of translation.

Some introductory notes are in order. My main theological point of reference will be the theology of Karl Barth. Others have already noted the importance of Barth’s theology of language for the postmodern philosophical thought and parallels were drawn between Barth’s notion of God as “Wholly Other” and Derrida’s concept of “différance” (cf. Ward, 1995). Although Barth has not (to my knowledge) written anything explicitly about translation, his dogmatics provides a useful model in which discussion about this subject can take place. According to Barth, dogmatic theology is critical reflection on the proclamation of the Church (which is the Church’s primary task). Since Bible translation, as it will be argued, can be understood in connection with the Church proclamation, it is only appropriate that it should come into the focus of theological observation. But one may also reverse the relationship. Since, as it will be argued as well, translation is a theological event, one could argue that many aspects of translation theory could be employed for theological discourse and possibly even constitute a special area within the field of theology.

Thus, I will focus on the translation of the Bible as a particular instance in the more general field of translation. It will be shown (at least as a possibility) that this particular area, observed from theological perspective, can be regarded as a prototype or archetype of all other translation as well, both religious and secular.


It has been observed with some frequency that Bible translation is based in the theological doctrine of Incarnation.[1] However, this is usually remarked up cursorily, without elaboration, possibly with the assumption that the connection is self-evident. From the viewpoint of a systematic theology, the link can actually be demonstrated, but before that, we should examine the more primary and fundamental stages of God’s revelation.

According to Barth’s analysis, the revelation occurs as an act of God’s self-disclosure through His Word. This Word of God can be construed in three levels or forms. Initially, on the first level or as the first “form,” it is understood as pure revelation, as a direct, personal act of speech or command of God, which both creates the universe and mankind and also conveys to humans a personal knowledge and encounter with the Creator. It culminates and has its most potent manifestation in the Incarnation of Christ. On the second level, this becomes the written word of God, the Scriptures, which can be also described as a divinely ordained and unique witness to the living Word of God (as understood on the first level). There is also a third level: the proclamation of the Church. Here the written word, with a view and experience that God’s direct encounter did occur by it, is proclaimed ever anew to the world in its contemporary culture, language and other contingencies, with the promise that God’s direct self-disclosure will occur in it again. It is important to note that God is personally active in all the three stages; God is the originator, the medium and the message, the subject, the predicate and the object, thus Barth can say: “God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself.” (CD I.1: 296)[2]

The concrete content of this revelation is the person of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, his death on the cross, his resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. This Story is rooted in God’s self-election (stage one), it is the focus of the Scriptures (stage two) and the message of Church proclamation (stage three). The Incarnation is therefore placed within the broader context of the theology of God’s self-disclosure through the Word as its focus and its historical peak, which at the same time transcends and defines human history. It can be said that God has promised that His revelation will occur when this Story is proclaimed.

Now we can more closely define the role of dogmatic theology, according to Barth: it is to observe this proclamation, done by the Church, in the light of the earlier two “forms,” in order to assess its adequacy and to point to possible areas of departure from the divine economy of revelation.

a. Divine Revelation as the Word of God

This model, which in many ways represents not just Barth’s own viewpoint but rather a specific synthesis of patristic, scholastic and reformed reflections on the subject, is highly relevant for theological consideration of the phenomenon of translation. First, we should note that God’s revelation (in all three forms) is construed as word or speech. It is a discourse. This marks it as something eminently personal and relational. According to Barth’s theology of creation, both God’s nature, which is a perichoresis of Three Persons, and human nature, which is created as a duality of male and female facing each other, are essentially defined as this relationality, as “being in encounter.” Here we are faced with the primordial and archetypal paradox of union in difference. Speech is then the primary means of constituting, enacting and enabling this encounter – “within” the Godhead, between human beings and between God and man.

This “discoursiveness” of God’s revelation[3] is something unique. God’s self-communication and with it His self-giving occurs through this medium. It is not communicated in an impersonal way, where God’s nature would emanate and would somehow be appropriated directly and abstractly, from nature to nature. Or, to be more precise, this is the fully direct communion with God, because such is His nature and because He is the medium and the effect as well.

The presented theological paradigm portrays the revelation as a whole as mediation. This mediation occurs as the Word (Logos), the Scripture and the proclamation (kerygma). As it represents the relation and communication between God and man, we can talk about a mediation between two essentially different natures or modes of being: timeless and temporal, ahistorical and historical, uncreated and created, limitless and limited, perfect and sinful. It is precisely at the point of collision, intersection or interaction between these radically different or even opposing spheres that revelation occurs. Revelation means crossing a barrier far more difficult than the differences of cultures, languages or media. In fact, every occurrence of the Word of God has conceptually an incarnational nature, since as soon as it is expressed in speech and discourse, it comes clothed in the contingent realities of human language and culture. And these contingencies coexist in dire tension with the wholly-otherness of God; the latter is not diminished by them but rather reinforced or radically reintroduced, since it is obvious that God becomes revealed in what He is not. To quote Dionysius the Areopagite: “He is hidden, even after the manifestation, or to speak more divinely, even in the manifestation” (Letter III). And Karl Barth, in a rare and remarkable agreement with Dionysius, affirms this is his chapter on “The Speech of God as the Mystery of God” (CD I.1,162ff.): “The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God supremely in its secularity. … This means, however, that we have it in a form which as such is not the Word of God” (165). The revelation is “an act of God in the reality which contradicts God, which conceals Him, and in which His revelation is not just His act but His miraculous act, the tearing of an untearably thick veil, i.e., His mystery” (168).

This mediation, this manifestation of the Word of God in something which It is not, which originates in the free and gracious act of God, can be seen as the ground and an archetype of any mediation that occurs within the human sphere, since the human sphere was created in the same inherently relational form, characterized and constituted by discoursive communication and reciprocal identification – and this includes all kinds of translation as well. But, more importantly, it also has an immediate reenactment and expression in the act of the translation of the written word of God.

Bible translation can be conceived as a link or a typical element in a series of acts that constitute the divine revelation and which all take a form of a discoursive mediation: from the groundlessness of the Wholly Other, to revelation, to Scripture and on to proclamation. According to Barth’s model, we could assign the Bible translation (as text) a place exactly between the second and the third form of the Word of God: being both one and the other and a link between the two. It belongs to the form of the written word of God, since it draws from its originals and since its product itself can be considered a written word of God in a given language. However, it belongs to the form of the word of God as a Church proclamation as well, since in its process it is influenced by the past proclamation, but, even more crucially, it defines its basic parameters, modes of discourse and patterns of expression in the future of that language. Every Bible translation is an act of (re)constitution of the fundamental paradigmatic space, or, to use the words of Stefano Arduini[4] about the relationship of a translation to its source, “rebuilding of the conceptual world” in which all subsequent proclamation, or even assessment of proclamation, can take place. It should be noted that especially in cases of the translation of the whole Bible, this constitution or rebuilding can have an almost absolute force, since it encodes a totality of cultural and linguistic situations. If theology is concerned with the correctness and adequacy of the Church proclamation, its highest interest should lay precisely in the translation of the written word of God.

On the same ground, the possibility and even the inevitable necessity of Bible translation can also be established. In the perspective of Barth’s theology of God’s self-election as this God in Jesus Christ,[5] God’s revelation becomes a loving summoning of the whole of mankind in Christ, which is realized as a discourse about the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth. In light of the mentioned perspective, this discourse must necessarily be intended for all the people groups, nations and languages, since Christ is a type and representative of them all. The availability of this discourse to everyone is grounded in the nature of God Himself, as He is revealed in Christ. Scripturally, this can take the form either of the promise of blessing to all the nations (cf. Genesis 12:3) or of the command to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations (cf. Matthew 28:19). This promise and this command both show that translation is not only possible, but necessary. If we agree that the written Scripture is an essential stage of God’s self-disclosure (and of course, this could be perceived as a particularly Protestant stress), then Bible translation, in its essence, becomes an indispensable step of this divine action. Ultimately, it could be argued, Bible translation is grounded in the very nature of God Himself, as He is revealed in the Christ-event and communicated in the Scriptures.

It should be noted that this belief, this emphatic confirmation of the possibility of translation, is a particularly Christian standpoint. Other religions, like Judaism and Islam, are much more reserved in this respect. Translations of sacred texts occur in other religions, but they are never understood as an authoritative communication of the original.[6] The same is true in secular circles: the question of the meaning and translatability of a text “is an intriguing one. Where is the meaning of the text located? Can it be located?” (Noss 2002: 336) Derrida’s concept of différance is sometimes invoked to express the paradoxical nature of this problem, this game of concealment in disclosure and vice versa. The theological observation of the paradox of revelation, which is occurrence or representation of something in something other, which it is not, can be seen in parallel with this. But in some writings Derrida himself seems to go beyond the typical postmodern resignation on the subject. The fact that a translation does occur is for Derrida, ultimately, an occasion for wonder – perhaps a very distant and vague trace of something “beyond,” but a trace nevertheless. In the final analysis, any translation – especially when it is not merely authoritatively declared, but freely and independently experienced as such – is a mystery, miracle and magic. It cannot be explained by purely logical arguments. And Christian theology can concur: it is a trace of God’s image in the human nature and possibly an actual bestowment of His grace.

b. The Incarnation

As we have noted above, the peak of God’s revelation is the event of the Incarnation of the Word of God; this is affirmed by almost all major Christian theological syntheses. There the drastic paradox of mediation between two radically different or even opposing spheres or natures reaches its dramatic climax, which challenges human notions and capabilities. But precisely this is an archetype of translation. The personality of this communication is now at the forefront, the wholly divine Word is now expressed through sarx, through the human being of an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. As an expansion of this, the Word becomes the Story about this person, which of course includes His proclamation. Thus it is a Good News both from Him and about Him. This Gospel is now “the power of God” Himself (Romans 1:16).

The fact of Incarnation has two important consequences. First, we can take it is as another, even stronger affirmation of the “translation principle”: mediating a divine message is supremely an act of God Himself, so translation (especially of Scripture) can be seen as partaking or participation in the same reality. As incarnate Christ has two natures, so does the translation of the Bible: it is both an act of God and of man, (potentially) fully divine and (necessarily) fully human. The least that can be said at this point is this: Bible translation may and should be more that just a human act and a product of accurate linguistics, hermeneutics, cultural studies and other purely human endeavors.

The second consequence of the Incarnation takes us a step further, and allows us to observe the manner in which this primordial mediation occurred. In a way, with due respect, we could talk about “Christ’s incarnate culture.” First, we can immediately ascertain, that he fully took part of the contemporary Jewish culture: he spoke the language, observed the rites and customs, and expressly affirmed many of its values. Jesus was fully Jewish; it is hard to overestimate this basic fact. Graham Ogden observes: “Incarnation cannot mean anything less than a full immersion into a particular culture” (2002: 312). But secondly, we can also notice that Jesus did challenge some of the national and cultural assumptions of his milieu. Actually, these were some of its core values: the relation to God, the temple, the purity laws, the use of violence etc. This conflict, as we know, was not superficial, but lethal. We can understand this attack on the foundations of the society and its authority structures as an act necessary for the constitution of a radically different “culture” of the Kingdom of God. This new reality does not differ from the old in terms of its constituting elements (like language) but in terms of its inner relationships. We are presented here with another significant paradox: Jesus is fully part of the culture and at the same time he presents a total, radical challenge to its core tenets, with a view to a possibility of establishing something essentially different. Transferred to the area of Bible translation, we could apply this as a fundamental creative tension, which should rule and fuel the process; this will be explored in greater depth later.

Besides this, we can also observe Jesus’ way of speaking from the viewpoint of understandability. Again, we can quickly affirm that his speech was deeply grounded in the language of his people. If Jesus wanted to convey his message in a more elevated, “sacred” language, he could have used the Hebrew, but he didn’t. Being fully part of his culture, he also used the common rhetorical devices and metaphorical expressions; it seems he even knew and used some prevalent (early rabbinic) modes of argument. Most of his discourse must have been generally understandable, otherwise it is difficult to imagine how it could evoke such an enthusiastic following and cause such stark opposition. But at the same time we must admit that some sayings are enigmatic, cryptic and very difficult to interpret. I do not think it is possible to always boldly assume with Nida and Taber that “the writers of the Biblical books expected to be understood” (1969: 7). Different synoptic writers may occasionally provide some explanation to some of these darker sayings, but at least in some cases neither attempts to do so, and some of their explanations seem to go in opposite directions, which proves that the message was already obscure at a very early stage. This is even more obvious from cases where incomprehensibility is intended (cf. Mark 4:12 and parallels) or where the need to correct a blunt misunderstanding on the side of hearers is clearly ignored by Jesus (frequently in John’s Gospel). This tension between general understandability and occasional intended obscurity (or at least complete openness to various, even contradictory meanings) has further poignant implications for the translation process, to which we can now turn.


The Type of Translation

The theological framework presented above can be used as a metaphor or a prism through which we can observe the translation processes. In a similar way that Theo Hermans has employed several theological concepts of the sacrament of the Eucharist as conceptual tools that might help us to understand what happens in translation,[7] so the theological paradigm discussed here can be evoked for a similar purpose.

The initial step of any translation process is the choice of the translation type or method – according to its concrete purpose, a decision is made at the beginning and then checked and continually referred to during the process. According to Christiane Nord’s typology,[8] the most basic choice is between a documentary and an instrumental translation, with several sub-types of each. If the Bible translation is profoundly linked with the key theological tenets of the revelation of God, these may have some influence on the choice.

From the centrality of the incarnational principle in the whole act of divine revelation – both as the Word of God in general and in the concrete event of the Incarnation of Christ – we should, by analogy, give preference to an approach to translation that is fully “at home” in the culture of the target language. This might be exemplified in Nord’s type of equifunctional translation. We might also try to employ the older concept of “equivalence,” provided that we concur that it can only really occur as a synergy between the revelatory action of God and participatory action of man. The analogy could be stated as follows: as the revelation in general and Incarnation in particular show the pattern in which the Word of God occurs and is manifested in a wholly other and even contradictory medium, so in translation the preference should be made for approaches that strive for a similar equifunctionality of fully other means of expression; these other means should be “natural” or “typical” for the target language, culture or specific audience.

This seems quite obvious in itself, but we should add some qualifications. From observation of “Christ’s incarnate culture” we have affirmed the strong inculturational dimension of the event. However, importantly, this was offset with an opposite movement: severe cultural criticism, which actually serves as a part of genesis of a radically different “culture” of the Kingdom of God. This paradox must be taken seriously in Bible translation. We could describe it as a creative tension between finding clear and natural ways of expressing the message and making sure that its sharpness and radical critique is not blurred. Obviously the inculturation must not go too far – it is limited by the drastic otherness and newness of the message, which is usually expressed with normal cultural and linguistic means, but sometimes transcends them, too. The radical newness of the Kingdom of God should be carefully expressed as such and not “functionally” amended with less extreme or less scandalous modes of expression. (Of course, this may be achieved very dynamically, provided that the impetus of the original is preserved.)

The same could be argued regarding the more concrete question of understandability. In general, strategies that achieve maximum understandability should be employed, because this seems to be “the way of Christ” and the ruling principle of the communication recorded in Scripture. But at the same time, there should be sensitivity and appreciation of elements and situations that do not fit this general paradigm. Here, with discretion, even a more literal or formally correspondent rendering might be in order. Or, language that is used to express mystery in a given culture might be functionally applied – it could be a symbolism, poetry, or some other ecstatic speech. Simon Crisp describes such translation as an “icon of the ineffable” (2002: 73). Here too we are faced with a creative tension which presses and stimulates the translator from two opposite sides: from the need to be understandable and from the need to keep a sense of mystery and awe before realities that transcend speech.

If, therefore, on theological grounds a substantially equifunctional approach should be argued for, it should have an important modification: such a functional equivalence that is aware of occasions where exactly nonequivalence is at the forefront is desired. Moreover, a general understandability is of the text is sought, which is capable of making understandable that some details of the text are precisely not intended to be such.

Special Dynamics of Bible Translation

We have seen that Bible translation is a theological act par exellence. As a (re)enactment of God’s self-revelation and in synergy with it, it can and should be thus ventured in faith, obedience and hope of God’s promise that He wills to continually reveal Himself to all the nations. Thus a translator acts in hope: in hope that is not seeing – there is no automatic guarantee that he or she will be successful and that God’s self-disclosure will necessarily occur through his or her text. It is an Abrahamic kind of hope – based on a faithful promise, but acted out without knowledge of how things will end up (cf. Hebrews 11:8).

We have mentioned that, in an analogy to the Incarnation of Christ, Bible translation too is a reality with two natures, divine and human. The human dimension confirms that the process should make full use of all the scientific and scholarly expertise available. All the areas traditionally or recently associated with translation are indispensable: linguistics, exegesis, historical and cultural studies, anthropology, semiotics, psychology, philosophy etc. All these can be only affirmed here. But the existence of the divine dimension means that Bible translation is also a spiritual discipline. If we agree that there can be something iconic in it, maybe we should allow – or even desire – something similar that is requested from “writers” of icons: an especially dedicated time of prayer and spiritual focus.

Translation itself can be viewed as a special kind of prayer, since it should spring up from a prayerful, meditative dwelling upon the original text, fully informed by the preparative inquisition into the results of the “human” sciences, but now turning in faith to God who is behind the original text and who is already and always active in His self-disclosure in new languages, cultures and situations. We are therefore dealing with a theandric event, which echoes the Incarnation.

Another way to observe the Bible translation as an act of God would be to observe it in an analogy to some of the specific activities of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament. Chapters 12 and 14 of Paul’s First Letter to Corinthians mention “translation” (hermeneía) as one of the charismata. In the context, this refers to charismatic “interpretation of tongues.” Early reformers used these passages and the manifestation of glossolalia itself to support their conviction that Scriptures (and the whole liturgy) must be translated into the vernacular.[9] At first glance, such interpretation today seems naïve and ideologically motivated. But a closer examination of the Pauline text does reveal some important issues: that intelligibility is preferred and should be a norm in the Church, and that Holy Spirit is actively involved in bringing about this understandability. It is important to note that this gift (together with “prophecy”) is now used to build up the Church as the body of Christ and the temple of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:5). This might be a New Covenant equivalent of the “spirit of wisdom” of Exodus 28:3, which was needed to build the holy tabernacle. That such gifts are crucial for the Church is obvious from its nature as a logical entity (in the original sense of logikos), or, according to Martin Luther, as a creature of the Word of God. Thus, by way of an exegetical reflection, we can recognize in the Scriptures above an important analogy for understanding the role of translation in the divine economy in the New Covenant. In a broader sense, the “gift/charisma of translation” may be understood to be applicable also to Bible translation, as it both provides the basis for and represents the primary form of the Church proclamation.

If we accept that Incarnation is the foundation of “translation principle in the Christian history” (Walls, 1996: 26ff), we should also affirm that Pentecost is its outward manifestation, whereby it is made explicit that the Christian message should be – with the authority and help of the Holy Spirit – communicated in different languages of the world, with the implicit affirmation of different cultures that are obviously capable of receiving the Gospel in their own linguistic (and possibly other sociological) terms. The Christian message is not tied to a certain language or cultural expression.

Theological Filtering or Enhancement?

Several authors have confirmed that there is no theologically or ideologically neutral translation, but that effort should be made to reflect these presuppositions consciously and to relate them “to the understanding (and where applicable the translation) of a text” (Ellingworth 1982: 318).

Here the question of theology becomes very concrete. We are dealing with detailed translational decisions about how to express words or sentences, how to locate the stress of the original text, or what expression, with which implications and allusions in the target language, to use. No one can deny that the translator’s theological understanding plays an important role in this. It will guide his or her understanding of the original (especially where several interpretative options exist) and it will influence his or her sensitivities to the more subtle nuances and shades of meaning both in the source and the target text. Theological presuppositions act as a limit to the possible range of meanings of a text and can also have a role of enhancing or laying particular stresses on the totality of the message. Typical examples of the former are reported by Daniel Arichea (1982: 309) and others, whereas a classic case of the latter is Martin Luther’s addition of “alleine durch den Glauben” in his translation of Romans 3:28.

Instead of considering any theological input as necessarily biased and therefore undesirable, we should rather affirm its indispensability in the process and seek to help the translator to adequately grasp the proper notions and develop them in a direction that corresponds with import of the source text.

Perhaps a different model of understanding the role of theology in the translation process could be suggested. Usually it is assumed that a translator has a fixed set of theological presuppositions with which he or she comes to the text and which cause lesser or greater distortions to the product. I would call this a static model. The opposite would be a dynamic model, where a translator comes to the text with an attentive and sober openness to the text itself, allowing the text to inform and influence and shape his or her theology, both as far as a particular biblical book is concerned and in general. In the ultimate analysis we could say this is a matter of loyalty to God who is, in Christian perspective, the primal commissioner of the enterprise of Bible translation.[10] This does not mean one should approach the original as a tabula rasa, but it does suggest that a translator should be a person who is sincerely willing and open to gain new insights from the text itself and therefore construe and shape his or her theology (at least as far a particular biblical text is concerned) along the way.


We have argued that no translation occurs in theological vacuum. The logical consequence of this is also that its effects cannot be theologically neutral. I would actually take a step further and maintain that every Bible translation has a theological purpose or even an agenda. This might seem exaggerated, but let us inquire how and why a Bible translation happens. Two basic answers are possible and we should consider each of them separately.

a. The First Translation in a Given Language

The first and the strongest reason for a Bible translation is making its message available for the first time in a given language. From the Christian standpoint, the need for such translations is obvious. They are necessary in order to fulfill Christ’s commission to the Church to spread the gospel to all nations.[11]

Every new translation is a specific fulfillment of God’s eternal plan of salvation, bringing God’s revelation to a new culture, engaging its values, insights and ideas. It is a local incarnation of its message, a re-enactment of that primal theological event. Andrew Walls shows that this process is bidirectional: the Scriptures influence, challenge, shape and direct a culture in a way similar to a Christian conversion of an individual. It does not create something entirely new, but takes what is there and reshapes, refocuses or redirects it. But when the message is translated into a new language, it starts to use terms and phrases that are always preloaded with specific cultural concepts. Thus when it becomes incarnate in a new culture, the Gospel message itself acquires new meanings and dimensions. A typical example of this is how the term Logos in John’s Gospel acquired a new theological tenor when transplanted into the soil of Hellenistic culture and philosophy (cf. Walls 1996: 26–36). The idea of the Gospel somehow growing as it is translated anew is certainly to be taken with caution; it should not be understood in such a way that it would diminish the radical challenge inherent in the Gospel. But it is a fact that it is not completely foreign to the Scripture itself. According to some New Testament passages, the wholeness of the Christian message will only be reached as it finds its full expression in all the different languages and cultures of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:10; 2:21; 3:6; 4:13ff; Revelation 7:9).

More concretely, the first translation in a language means the establishment of a particular theological paradigmatic space, which is constitutive and strongly influential for all the subsequent theology in that language. “The translator’s role is fundamental in the shaping of the future theology of the local Christian church. That role needs to be documented and the translator must be prepared for that very long-term task” (Noss 2002: 341). We can only repeat the observation made earlier: theology should be highly interested in the translation of the Scripture, since this is its primal form in a new language.

b. Subsequent Translations in a Given Language

When we are dealing with a subsequent translation or a revision of translations already existing in a language, theological effects are subtler, but at the same time they may be more consciously defined and pursued.

A simple fact is that every subsequent translation has its raison d’être in improving something that was there before. In theory, the reasons for this could be purely linguistic – an update might be necessary because the language has become obsolete, or because of new orthographic, grammatical and other rules. But in practice, these are very rarely the only reasons for a new translation; they might be presented as such, because they can be easily validated, but almost every new effort carries with it at least some desire to express things better, more accurately or adequately.

My hypothesis is that every new translation in a given language always has a reformative effect on theology: it calls for a reform in theology and possibly also for a reform of the local church. Even in the rare cases where the work of revisers is only limited to linguistic matters, the new text will necessarily carry with it at least some new shades of meaning and will thus become a rebuilding of the theological paradigmatic space that we have mentioned above. But more often there is also a desire to make the text more accurate and/or more understandable than the previous one. The translator is often consciously or unconsciously dialoguing with his or her predecessors. The alterations will be influenced by the theological persuasions or biases, and this will in turn effect the dissemination of these into the broader public and into theological debate and argument. Because of their important place in the authoritative text of Scriptures, these innovations are usually accepted into the standard theological language.

The first and perhaps greatest example of this hypothesis is found in the Reformation era itself. The Reformation championed new Bible translations because it was seen as the best way to spread the new ideas. Luther’s highly influential translation was not the first German translation of the Bible, but it was his strongest weapon in defending and spreading his teaching. Similarly, when translations were prepared for Slovenians, Croats and other Southern Slavic nations in the 16th century, Primož Trubar and his colleagues did not choose to revise or localize the existing Church Slavonic translation, which was still vaguely understandable at that time, but produced completely new translations into different languages to clearly communicate the Reformation ideas.

Another equally far-reaching example is the one observed by Stefano Arduini:[12] Jerome’s choice of verbum instead of (until then traditional) sermo as a translation for the logos at the beginning of John’s Gospel. The choice quite probably reflects a conscious inclination towards a more static model of theology and its effect has definitely proven to be such in the subsequent centuries in the Christian West.

Let me add two further examples from contemporary Slovenian translation practice. The Slovenian Standard Version of 1996 chose to change the traditional rendering of the word hades from “hell” to “underworld.” The translation team arrived at this decision after a debate whether “hell” is a biblical concept or not. At the end, the understanding prevailed that “hell” (at least in the Slovenian language) carries with it too many connotations of later (especially medieval) developments to accurately convey the meaning of the original term, so a more generic term was chosen. This means that there is no longer any “hell” in the standard Slovenian Bible,[13] which carries the “Imprimatur” of the majority Catholic Church. This is in itself is a strong theological statement, and something that can have profound theological implications and may call for a “reform” or reexamination of certain Christian concepts and persuasions.

The other example is from the new dynamic translation of the Gospel of Luke in which I have been involved. Because of the target audience (youth and unchurched people) and because of translation principles themselves, we have chosen to replace the traditional terms like “grace” and “mercy,” which are not used in contemporary (secular) Slovenian, with terms like “favor,” “goodness” and even “friendship.” We have consciously chosen these more relational terms that represent some of the core values of the target audience, as an attempt to communicate the Gospel with a means relevant to the modern culture. Similarly, when dealing with terms for “salvation” and “redemption,” we have sometimes opted for solutions that included concepts of “liberation” and “freedom,” since we perceive these as highly important values of the target culture, which are obviously affirmed in the Christian message, but at the same time also qualified in ways that both correct and transcend the contemporary understandings. Viewed from a distance, both of these tendencies could be taken to imply a shift to a more personalistic theology, which is not strongly present in the Slovenian thought-world.

Many other examples could be added from these and other translations. Their overall effect, especially when we are dealing with a translation of the whole Bible, is nothing less than a reformation: a reshaping, a redefinition of theological reasoning and discourse. This change of the church’s self-understanding can in turn cause changes in the liturgy, the activities or even in the structures of the local church. This reformative potential of every new Bible translation should be recognized from the beginning of the process and possibly planned and determined together with our “clients,” the local church communities, to achieve the desired effects. Churches, which are often suspicious to suggestions of change or even reform, could be encouraged to see this as an opportunity to become more relevant in the culture they are called to serve and also to more fully use the potential of the “deposit of faith” which they treasure.


This short overview has shown that the relationship between theology and translation could be investigated more thoroughly and systematically in all the three aspects of their interaction. Other classical formulations of the theology of the Word of God could be consulted and applied. The tension or the paradox between communication of meaning and mediation of a transcendent mystery could be explored further both from the viewpoint of the apophatic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite and Barth’s treatment of the “speech of God as the mystery of God” (CD I.1: 162ff). Different concepts of theology (systematic versus narrative) might be analyzed and evaluated regarding their usefulness for a “theology of translation.” The issue of the inculturation of the Scripture message could be researched further, with a special view to the distinctly Christian approach to the non-violent spreading of the faith, which necessarily involves cultural dialog, and within it, translation. Some attention could be also paid to the fact that the New Testament itself, as part of Christian Scripture, is a translation of discourses and stories that originally occurred in Aramaic, and also, that it contains a large amount of translated material of the Old Testament. All these instances could be analyzed with a view to their role in the Christian mission and with a view to the question of translation principles, and thus a specific “New Testament theology of translation” could be formulated. Similar research of the Septuagint itself, and its use in the New Testament, would also be important.

However, even from this necessarily superficial treatment, it seems to be obvious that serious theological questions should not be avoided in Bible translation, but rather addressed as consciously as possible, engaged with comprehensively, and used responsibly and creatively in this primal theological effort.


Arichea Jr., Daniel C. “Taking Theology Seriously in the Translation Task” in BT 33, 3 (1982): 309–316.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Volume I: The Doctrine of the Word of God (CD I), Part 1 (2nd ed.) & Part 2. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 22004. Authorized translation, originally published in 1936 (Pt. 1, 1st ed.) and 1956 (Pt. 2).

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Volume II: The Doctrine of God, Part 2 (CD II.2). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 22004. Authorized translation, originally published in 1957.

Crisp, Simon. “Icon of the Ineffable? An Orthodox View of Language and its Implications for Bible Translation” in Current Trends in Scripture Translation, United Bible Societies Bulletin 194/195 (2002): 73–80.

Ellingworth, Paul. “Theology and Translation” in BT 53, 3 (2002): 302–307.

_______. “Exegetical Presuppositions in Translation” in BT 33, 3 (1982): 317–323.

Mitchell, William. “Liturgiam Authenticam: … Towards a True Liturgy?” in BT 53, 3 (2002): 343–352.

Nida, Eugene and Charles R. Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Brill, 1969.

Noss, Philip A. “Translators’ Words and Theological Readings” in BT 53, 3 (2002): 331–343.

Ogden, Graham S. “Translation as a Theologizing Task” in BT 53, 3 (2002): 308–316.

Sanneh, Lamin. Translating the Message. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 22009.

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996.

Ward, Graham. Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wendland, Ernst R. “ ‘Theologizing’ in Bible Translation” in BT 53, 3 (2002): 316–330.

[1] See BT 53, 3 (2002): 304, 312–313, 333, 352, Walls 1996: 26–30. Walls’ treatment goes somewhat further than others, but still lacks proper theological argumentation; its theology is vague and imprecise and does not pay attention to the complexities and paradoxes of the doctrine of Incarnation.

[2] For Barth, this also corresponds with the three persons of the Trinity.

[3] “Church proclamation is talk, speech. So is Holy Scripture. So is even revelation in itself and as such.” (Barth, CD I.1, 132)

[4] Quoted from his presentation Concepts, Cognitive Linguistics and Translation in the Nida School, Misano, Italy, September 2009.

[5] In the discussion of doctrine of election, Barth starts another series of movements that originate in the Wholly Other and progress towards man. The doctrine of election, which can have a dimension of exclusivity in the traditional Reformed theology, receives a completely new treatment, since it concerns in the first place God Himself. It is understood as a free choice that God makes about Himself, or more precisely, about his nature (thus God’s freedom even transcends His nature). This choice is then mediated through Christ to all humankind. Barth summarizes this as follows: “… God … in Himself, in the primal and basic decision in which He wills to be and actually is God, in the mystery of what takes place from and to all eternity within Himself, within His triune being, God is none other than the One who in His Son or Word elects Himself, and in and with Himself elects His people” (CD II.2, 76). “… in Jesus Christ God has from all eternity loved and summoned mankind” (CD II.2, 347).

[6] See Paul Ellingworth’s discussion of this in BT 53, 3 (2002): 305.

[7] In his presentation Translation and Real Presence, Nida School, Misano, Italy, September 2009.

[8] As explained in her presentation Functionalist Approaches to Translation Applied, Nida School, Misano, Italy, September 2009. According to the skopos theory, we might argue that in the most general sense, the commissioner of the Bible translation (but not necessarily the original author) is God Himself, and its purpose is the revelation of God, whereas the question of target audience is somewhat more open, since we may not only envisage whole languages, but also distinctive cultural groups within a language as legitimate intended receivers of a particular Bible translation.

[9] One can find this in texts of Slovenian reformers and Bible translators Primož Trubar (aka. Primus Truber) and Štefan Küzmič (aka. Stevan Küzmics). See: Primož Trubar. Svetiga Pavla dva listy. Tübingen, 1561: 48. Zbrana dela II. Ljubljana: Rokus, 2003: 169, 325. Zbrana dela III. Ljubljana: Rokus, 2005: 24, 484. Štefan Küzmič. Nouvi zákon. Halle, 1771: Foreword §10. It is interesting that St. Cyril and Methodius, who first translated some portions of the Bible into the Slavonic language in 9th century, appealed to the same texts (Sanneh, 2009: 85).

[10] We also do not need to comment on which of these models better fits the essential Christian virtues of humility, obedience, faith and “trembling at the word of God” (Isaiah 66:2). If we believe that the Holy Scripture plays a key role in God’s revelation to us, then we should let it fulfill it.

[11] It is not incidental that Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19, which we have mentioned earlier, is quoted in the Identity and Ethos document of United Bible Societies as the foundation of their mission.

[12] In his presentation Concepts, Cognitive Linguistics and Translation in the Nida School, Misano, Italy, September 2009.

[13] Gehenna is translated with the metaphor “hellish valley”; so there is still a trace of “hell”, but only metaphorical.