Religious Studies Paper on Translation of Sacred Texts

Translation of Sacred Texts


Translation of any text to another language has many implications and impacts on the consumers as well as the meanings of the texts. In retrospect, language translation has proven useful in the spread of ideas across generations and ethnic groupings. From religious to scientific texts, findings and information, discoveries have been made and resources management more effectively due to information availability. In particular, scientists, just like everybody else, have benefited through the translation of both scientific and religious texts immensely. For instance, insights into the natural occurrence of phenomena have been obtained through translated religious texts. Astronomers, geologists as well as a variety of other specialists have also benefited in one way or another through the translation of the Quran. Accurate reflections of the occurrences in the natural environment are available in translations of the Quran and other religious materials hence their importance in science. Translation of the Bible is described not as a translation of the message in it but as the message itself in that through such language changes, the history of man is revealed to him from creation to the time of Jesus Christ (Arthur, 2017). This implies that translation does more than getting to the hearts of the people through the message, and actually gets God, as the message to humans.

Religious Text Translations: Background

The Bible was originally written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew while the new was in Greek and Aramaic. The Quran on the other hand was initially in Arabic. Both of these texts, as well as several other religious texts were read by those who understood the language and only interpreted by them. As such, believers of each of these religious groups depended on their fellow believers to interpret the words for them. The need for translation came at different times in history. For the Bible, the need for translation first came in the 2nd to 4th centuries due to the spread of the faith into the Roman empires where Latin was the ethnic language (King, 2017). The need to understand the readings became an overbearing thought and Latin was considered the language of the faith for a long time afterwards until the faith spread further and more people who could not understand the Latin language needed to read the Bible (King, 2017). For the Quran, the first need for translation came in the 7th century as the Islamic religion spread into the Persian Gulf. Later on, it was translated into many different languages.

Challenges in Translating the Religious Texts

In spite of the efforts made to translate religious texts into different languages for ease of understanding, there are various challenges that are common in the process. The most pronounced challenge is in the loss of the intended meaning in some of the original scripts. Islamic theology for instance, is pessimistic on the translation of the Quran due to this potential for loss of meaning. The Arabic language like many Semitic languages is characterized by words which may have varying meanings unlike Latin, English or French languages which are considered universal. As such, having accurate translations can be challenging (Agliz, 2016). A similar challenge is faced in the translation of the Bible. Additionally, most of these religious texts are revered and considered miraculous and inimitable. As such, changing the intended meanings from the original texts can be taken to be sacrilegious.

Some of the verses in religious texts are also difficult to understand even in the original text languages. This implies that as much as the translations may be aimed at making it easier to understand, this may not be achievable if the first translators fail to get the meanings accurately. There is also an element of human judgment that comes into consideration when talking about translations of religious texts. In both Quranic and hadith translations, the original meanings could be specific to the historical events surrounding the life of Prophet Muhammad (Agliz, 2016). This makes it all the more difficult for the translations to be effective or accurate. The Bible on the other hand, was written under inspiration by many different people. This means that the intended meanings could have varied widely depending on individual and societal circumstances. Since it was also written over a prolonged duration, translations could also leave out certain scriptural writings.

Features of Religious Text Translations

The role of the translator in religious texts is to bring the mind of the reader as close as possible to the intended meanings of the initial readings. One of the features of religious text translations therefore is the concept of equivalence. This implies that the produced translation should have the exact meaning as the original text. In most cases Latin and European translators faced challenges in achieving this equivalence due to absence of words with similar meanings to some of the words in the original Arabic and Greek texts. There are many types of equivalence that a translator could look at in the translation activity. The most important ones however include functional, dynamic, ideational and formal equivalence (Agliz, 2016). While striving towards this, the translators ought to understand the importance of language and its role in the communication of religious messages. To accomplish this, translations of religious texts would achieve other characteristics in terms of the outcomes.

Acceptability and adequacy are some of the characteristics of translated religious texts. According to Agliz (2016), translators may not always accomplish exact equivalence due to the challenges in the language as has been explained previously. However, they need to produce translations that are both acceptable to the target audience and adequate for giving the basic message of the original text. Acceptability in this regard is not merely about the reception of the end product, but has to be in consideration of the linguistic patterns and structures that would suit the audience within the context of the original text’s historic background. The translators should be aware of the cultural and other factors that would determine the acceptability of a   given set of language rules in application (Agliz, 2016). They ought to understand the language rules that are applicable in a variety of cultures and subcultures in order to ensure there is a certain level of acceptability.

While attaining equivalence is a challenge to any religious text translators, they have to work hard at transferring simple grammatical units from one language to another, to be able to make significant impacts on the readers. Arabic words such as Takalid (Agliz, 2016), can be difficult to translate into the requisite English or Latin language and may result in the loss of some meanings even when translated by a renowned linguist. The objective in such a circumstance would be to have a reflection of the intended meaning as much as possible. A common outcome due to translation challenges is the loss of some parts of the texts during the change from one language to another. For instance, the Bible is believed to have consisted of more than the current 66 books it comprises of. Some of the additional books are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church and include Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and others. The question that remains is whether to accept the perceived lost books as part of the Bible or not. There are two probabilities. The first is that they had actually been written prior to the first translations and the scrolls lost. The second presumption would be that they were neither inspired by God nor accepted as part of the first version of the Bible. The Quran and Hadith on the other hand, have remained largely the same in application due to the retention of Quranic Arabic language in citations of the Quran.

Bible Translations

Between the second and fourth centuries, the first prospects of Bible translation were experienced. The most notable among these were the efforts of Saint Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin in the fourth century. The objective of Jerome then, was to ensure that Christians, who had spread through the Roman Empire, could access the Bible and read it to understand in their own language (King, 2017). This however was short lived as by the 6th century, Christians had spread into German, French and English speaking countries. In spite of the efforts made by Saint Jerome, the Bible produced then was restricted in its use within the church until such a time when the use of Latin as the language of the church became common as more people could understand in. In the 16th Century, other people recognized the need for Christians to have the bible, read it and interpret it in their own ways from their own languages. Between 1516 and 1536, Erasmus, Tyndale and Luther expressed the desire to translate the Bible into different languages. Erasmus intended to translate the New Testament, which had not been translated yet, into Latin. Luther on the other hand intended to translate the Bible into German and other languages as he recognized the importance of all believers having the Bible in their own languages. The first translations of the scripture into English were done by John Wycliffe Oxford. He was a professor, scholar, and theologian (King, 2017). Due to the restrictions on the church at the time, the Pope was so infuriated by translation of the Bible and his teachings, that he ordered John’s bones to be dug up, crushed and scattered in a river 44 years after John.

Jewish Text Translation

The basic Jewish text for religion is the Torah. Other texts include the Bible and the oral law. The torah also forms the basis of the Bible’s Old Testament (State of Israel, 2013). The texts and oral law form the main teaching aspects of the traditional Judaist religion.

Buddhist Text Translations

The Buddhist religion uses the Pali canon as the main religious text of choice. Most of the earlier teachings of the Buddhist religion were oral, taught by the Buddha himself over 45 years. According to the Buddhist Society (2018), the Pali Canon was recited, evaluated and even agreed upon by the religious council. Translation into Japanese, Chinese and Korean texts was done in the first century while the English and other translations were done much later. The objective of the translations was to enable the disciples of the Buddha to teach in multiple languages as he had advised. The Mongolian and Tibetan Canons were developed in 1410 C.E (The Buddhist Society, 2018). Currently, the writings of Theravada Buddhism exist in three editions namely Vinanya Pitaka; Abhidhamma Pitaka and Sutta Pitaka, corresponding to different aspects of Buddhist teachings (The Buddhist Society, 2018). The challenges of translation were related to lexical problems whereby some words had no direct counterparts among languages.

Quranic and Hadith Translations

The first Quranic translations were carried out in the 7th Century when Salman Al Farsi translated the first verse into Persian. In the 10th and 12th centuries, Persian Islamic Scholars translated the entire Quran into Persian from Arabic (Fatani, 2006). By 2010, the translations had been done in more than 112 languages. While not all the translations are credited since some were done by non- Muslims and non- native speakers of Arabic, there have been efforts by distinguished Muslim organizations across the world to ensure successful translation, revision and editing by selected Muslim scholars. Besides the challenges associated with translating all religious texts, the Quranic translation has an additional challenge in that citations have to be done in Arabic hence each translation has to be accompanied by a transliteration (Fatani, 2006). At the same time, the Quran was written in classical Arabic, which is significantly different from the standard Arabic of the contemporary times. This means there have to be challenges in translation, some of which cannot be addressed by having a single native Arabic speaker of the contemporary times. This therefore explains the need for committees to work on the translations. Translators also have to be aware of the hadith and the Sirah, which are related to the Quran (Fatani, 2006). Some of the verse of the Quran can be understood completely with reference to the Hadith.

 Impacts of Religious Text Translations

The translation of religious texts into different languages contributed positively to mission. For instance, through the translation of the Bible, a central demand for the Bible as weapon of ministry resulted in the Protestant reformation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The translation of the Quran has similarly increased the likelihood of understanding the text by the faithful of the Islamic religions. Among the scientists for example, translation of the Quran into traditional languages resulted in the realization of some aspects of the origin of man. Through recognition of the role of religion in the life of human kind, and explaining things that are without scientific explanation, the Quran made it possible for scientists to convert to the Islamic religion (Fatani, 2006). In this way, the Quran helped in the recognition of God as the supreme power above all.  The translation of Buddhist texts have also contributed to the spread of Buddhism across the world. As more people recognize the principles of peace in Buddhism, they turn towards adopting practices such as meditation, which increase inner peace and well being.


Language translation is not a recent occurrence. It has been shaping society for hundreds of years. Since the day spoken language was invented, man has been finding ways to communicate with others. The translation of languages has been shaping society in many ways, as ideas that were first available to only a limited segment of people, became available to almost everybody.




Agliz, R. (2016). Translation of religious texts: difficulties and challenges. Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Special Issue on Translation No.4, 182- 193. Retrieved from

Fatani, A. (2006). Translation and the Qur’an. In Leaman, Oliver. The Qur’an: an encyclopaedia. Great Britain: Routledge. Print.

King, D. (2017). The textual history of the New Testament and the Bible translator. The Bible Translator, 68(1), 20- 37. Retrieved from

The Buddhist Society (2018). Scriptures & texts. The Buddhist History Society. Retrieved from

The State of Israel (2013). Jewish sacred texts. Retrieved from