How accurate are the sacred texts?

How accurate are the sacred texts?

Religions from all over the world are based on translated texts. What are the implications of this?

Which do you think are the most translated texts of all time? Scripts that are present in almost every country in the world. Inspired by stories that have traveled the world and are known, at least by name, by an astounding amount of people. 

Take a pause to guess….

It shouldn’t strike you as surprising that religious and sacred texts make their way to the top ten. They are the source of religions all over the world. The guidelines and rules are all there. This is why at one point, translating them was not even allowed: aside from tradition, keeping mass, for example, in Latin kept it universal and avoided doctrinal misunderstandings. 

Still, this didn’t stick. People, as literacy evolved and the world population grew and religion started to be taught in schools, needed these texts in their language. 

According to Wycliffe Bible Translators—a mission agency focused on training local people to translate the Bible into the language that speaks to them best—there are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world. Wycliffe says the entire Bible has been translated only into 704 languages, and the New Testament into an additional 1,551 languages. And portions of the Bible or individual stories into 1,160 other languages. That’s a total of 3,415.

So, how accurate are the sacred texts? Was anything lost in the way?

Some views and perspectives on translation

Robert Alter, a biblical scholar, wrote a book on this topic and has a few opinions on the matter. He evaluates five criteria to deem a translation proper: 

  1. syntax
  2. word-choice
  3. sound and wordplay
  4. rhythm
  5. The language of dialogue

For example, in the category “word choice”, he judges choices such as contemplating the Hebrew word ‘Nefesh’ as equivalent to the word “soul”. For Alter, there is no biblical notion of the soul.

So sometimes Hebrew is freely interpreted. In others, the dialogues are too conversational and lose accuracy. His is a harsh point of view though, for this professor at the University of California at Berkeley, there is not one biblical translation that he liked or could recommend to his comparative literature students. Not only because of inaccuracies, like the ones he finds in the popular 1611 King James Version of the Torah. But because the sacred texts are books like any other and have poetry to them. To him, the Torah’s majesty is built upon its repetitions. So he decided to translate it himself to get back every single “and” those other translators left out.

Mehawesh & Sadeq state that religious language contains deep meaning. Therefore, religious expressions are difficult to translate. So to them, Islamic expressions (and we can extend this to other expressions in different beliefs) hold a close-knit tie to culture. Arabic culture in this case. And it is the translator’s job to reveal the subtleties between both the source language and the target language.

Other thinkers such as Al Zubi believe that the translation of biblical expressions, such as those in the holy Quran, inevitably makes them weaker. Maybe even violating the original meaning. Psychological, spiritual, mental, and ethical senses must be contemplated.

Out of a list of selected expressions provided for students in translation at Al-Yarmouk University in Jordan, this problem arose about the voids in cultures and differences between both language styles and the lack of equivalences in the English language. 

The findings suggested that taking into account all student translations of these expressions less than 30% were adequate. While 24.5% were semi-adequate translations and the rest were directly inadequate.

It’s because of this that at one point, the catholic church didn’t want its text in another language. Because interpreting them in a mass, and explaining is one thing. But putting official words into God’s mouth is another. 

Photo by Noah Holm on Unsplash

Classic Mistakes

The original texts of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were written in Hebrew, Greek, and occasionally Aramaic. The King James Bible, written in 1611, was based on a Latin bible, which was, in turn, a translation of a Greek translation (Septuagint) of the “original” Hebrew, translated by Greek-speaking Jews (living in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE). As you can imagine, mistakes are possible.

This long and winding road explains ambiguities such as those in Genesis. There, the word “Adam” could either mean “mankind” or “man”. So in one translation, it could mean man (Adam) was created before women. But in the others, it could mean it was a more simultaneous affair.

Or like those in Exodus 21 where Moses led his people across the sea to escape Egypt. But was it across the “Red Sea” (Yam Suph) or the “Sea of Reeds” (Yam Suphim)? Plus, the verb “soph” means “to destroy”, suggesting this sea was named after and for the Israelites destruction of the pharaoh’s forces. The “Sea Where Moses Destroyed”.

Also, some passages lead to wider translation gaps than others. Such as those referring to ‘Witchcraft’. This word has many associations to it. So much it may distort the original meaning and for many, it should not have been used by Bible translators. For those against it, the English phrase “black magic” or “evil sorcery” would have been a much better fit.

Types of translation

All this being said, you can imagine there is not only one way of translating. And each type of translation has its advocates and critics. For example, one criticism is that English translations explain too much. The more interpretive the language, the more distant it is from its Hebrew original.

Here are a few types of bible translation, from most “loyal” to most informal or interpretative:


This method prioritizes similarity and fidelity. It mimics the forms of the original Hebrew and Greek as much as it can, searching for its “formal equivalence”. This is where the name of the typology comes from. 

The B-side to this is that language changes and mutates. Shakespeare wrote in a way that if we were to encounter him today, understanding each other would be difficult. So staying loyal to the source also means a more “wooden” translation. Very unnatural to our modern-day culture. 


Moderate translations try to find the perfect balance between staying loyal to the original manuscripts, but keeping them functional: the end goal is to be understood. So if some words go too far into the past, they can make exceptions. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is an example of this.

3. Functional translations

This method is also referred to as “meaning-for-meaning translations”. Here we get one step closer to functionality and little by little formality loses importance. Translators who follow this path prioritize readability and focus on finding an equivalent meaning to what is being said. This way modern readers (or hearers) will experience the same impact ancient texts probably had on their people.  

4. Paraphrases

Finally, the furthest of them all, paraphrasing. This category is very interpretative. The objective is to make the scripts understandable for anyone. These versions even include “transculturations”, where ancient metaphors and concepts are replaced with similar concepts used today. 

This is risky, for it will most likely depend on who’s reading it. There’s no way to keep it impartial. But for teaching little children, for those who are only getting familiarized with manuscripts, it’s very effective. 

What is your stand? How would you translate the ancient scripts?

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