Theological Mistakes #6: “Transliteration”

Many of the things I would classify as “theological mistakes” have to do with translation and interpretation of the Scriptures. As my mentor, D.A. Carson, has written, “translation is treason.” By this he means that translation always involves interpretation, and it is very difficult to bring all the meaning of the original text into the translated text without some interpretation. I do believe, however, that we have some very fine English translations available, so I don’t worry about this too much (probably not as much as I should). It is completely unrealistic to expect that the Bible readers in our churches will learn Greek and Hebrew so they can read the Scriptures in the original language. This places an enormous responsibility on those who translate and those who interpret using these original texts, though.

To me, one of the great dangers of translation is only to transliterate a word. Transliteration is done when a word is simply respelled using the alphabet of another language. So if we take the Greek word λόγος and convert it to the English alphabet, it become logos. But when we do this, we have not really translated anything. In fact, we have created a new word in English. The meaning of this word may become unhitched from its Greek original, because word meanings change over time in any language.

The classic example of this is the Greek word βαπτίζω, which is transliterated into virtually all English translations as baptize. If one looks up “baptize” in an English dictionary, one will find a meaning something like this: A Christian ritual involving water. And this is correct. That is what the English word “baptize” means. But it is not what the Greek word βαπτίζω means. It means “to immerse,” and was not a particularly religious word at the time of the New Testament writers. In this case the act of transliteration obscures the meaning rather than conveys it. While we might quibble about the seriousness of this case, the fact remains that our translators have failed us here by allowing church politics and theology to settle for something other than a clear translation. Translation can be treason and lead to theological mistakes.

There are many examples of this transliteration fallacy in our English translations, some more serious than others. I will be sharing more in upcoming posts.

Mark Krause

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