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Religious Texts can Lose Something With Translation

When we read religious texts today, most of them have been translated into modern languages, so that we can understand them more easily. Most ancient religious texts were written in languages that are considered to be 'dead' today.

For example, the Bible was predominately written in Aramaic, which today is only spoken in small communities in the Middle East. Similarly, Sanskrit, the language of the Buddha, as well as most Hindu texts, is considered a 'dead' language today.

This means, for most people to be able to understand these ancient texts at all, they have to be translated into modern languages. However, this becomes problematic because of the nuances of the original language that become lost with the various translations over time.

Translating the Bible

Over the two centuries since the death of Christ, the Bible has been translated many times into the version that we read in Christianity today. Even among different church denominations, there are various translations that people are reading today.

According to Bible Study Tools, there are 9 main translations of the Bible that are being used most commonly in English today:

Holman Christian Standard Bible CSBThe HCS is a highly readable, accurate translation written in modern English. It is published by Holman Bible Publishers, the oldest Bible publisher in America.

English Standard Version ESVThe ESV Bible is a relatively new Bible translation that combines word-for-word precision and accuracy with literary excellence, beauty, and readability.

King James Version KJVThe KJV is the first version of Scripture authorized by the Protestant church and commissioned by England's King James I.

The Message Bible MSGThe Message is a paraphrase from the original languages written by Eugene, H. Peterson. The Message provides a fresh and unique Bible-reading experience.

New American Standard Bible NASThe NAS is written in a formal style, but is more readable than the King James Version. It is highly respected as the most literal English translation of the Bible.

New International Version NIVThe NIV offers a balance between a word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation and is considered by many as a highly accurate and smooth-reading version of the Bible in modern English.

New King James Version NKJVThe NKJ is a modern language update of the original King James Version. It retains much of the traditional interpretation and sentence structure of the KJV.

New Living Translation NLTUsing modern English, the translators of the NLT focused on producing clarity in the meaning of the text rather than creating a literal, word-for-word equivalence. Their goal was to create a clear, readable translation while remaining faithful to original texts.

New Revised Standard NRSThe New Revised Standard is a popular translation that follows in the traditions of the King James and Revised Standard Versions. It was written with the goal of preserving the best of the older versions while incorporating modern English.

Since there are so many different translations of the Bible available for modern day use, you may ask yourself, which translation of the Bible is the most accurate? And, how do I know that the translation of the Bible I am using is helping me to understand the most truly?

There appears to be scholarly dispute about which version of the Bible is the most accurate version to be reading. However, the most commonly read versions of the Bible are the New King James Version and the New American Standard Version.

However, when I was studying religion in college, I noticed that the Jewish Study Bible and the Christian versions of the Old Testament differed as well. Some words are translated differently from one version to the next, which can appear to give a different meaning to the text entirely.

Bible translation has been going on since 170 AD, with the Bible first being translated into Greek, then Latin, then English. Today, the Bible has been translated into 700 different languages worldwide.

As an example of how some of the editions differ, here is the text of 1 John 1:1 from several different translations (click for more):

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—

He who was from the beginning, whom we have heard, whom we have seen with our eyes, upon whom we have gazed, and whom our hands have certainly touched: He is the Word of Life.

As you can see, the translations differ a bit on how they define the word of god. In some instances it appears to be a literal spoken word, in others, it talks about Christ as the word made flesh. This could be a very important distinction for different points of faith based in whole or in part on this text.

There are many other examples as well of how the bible is translated differently across time, as the translators had different goals and ideas when they were translating. In some cases, things were also mistranslated, and arguably purposely so.

A case where you frequently see this is with references to the popular Canaanite goddess, Asherah. In ancient Israel, she was often worshiped as a consort or wife of Yhwh, however much of this has been 'erased' in modern translations of the Bible.

For example (more translations):

American Standard Version for Deuteronomy 7:5 5 But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.

The Bible in Basic English for Deuteronomy 7:5 5 But this is what you are to do to them: their altars are to be pulled down and their pillars broken, and their holy trees cut down and their images burned with fire.

Common English Bible for Deuteronomy 7:5 5 Instead, this is what you must do with these nations: rip down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their sacred poles, and burn their idols

If you note in the second two texts, it has completely erased the name of Asherah altogether, and translated as sacred poles or sacred trees. This may have happened for various reasons in the process of translation, however, one common aim may have been to erase the history of the Goddess within Christianity and Judaism.

Originally, Judaism was what is called a Henotheistic religion. This means, the ancient Jews believed in the existence of multiple gods. However, they believed that their god was the best and most important god.

By the time Christianity came onto the scene, Judaism had become a Monotheistic religion; believing in the existence of only one god.

Although this may not seem like an important distinction for believers today, it was important at the time the Bible was written, and by erasing mentions of the goddess Asherah, it limits the cultural context in which the Bible came into being.

Today, we think of the mythology of Christianity as an ages-long struggle between good and evil, personified as God and the Devil. However, this mythology didn't come into practice until the Middle Ages.

According to National Geographic,

The oldest representation of the Christian idea of the devil may be this mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. The sixth-century mosaic shows Jesus Christ, dressed in royal purple, seated at the Last Judgment.

The mythology of the Devil developed in Christianity to explain the existence of evil in the world, which had previously been attributed to other warring gods back in the times when the Hebrews still believed in a Henotheistic religion. By changing the way that the words for the old gods were translated, Christians had to create a whole new mythology to fill the gaps left behind.

If you think about it closely, the way religious texts are translated and retranslated over the years within both Christianity and Judaism over time - and the differences between the two - can illustrate how different points of faith were important to the different translators.

Modern beliefs are formed based on an incomplete picture when books are translated in the modern day and lose their historical and cultural context. This is something to consider and study closely when reading any religious text.

Translations in Buddhism

As with Christian religious texts, Buddhist religious texts can be translated in different ways when brought into the English language today. This can be evidenced by looking at many lectures of the Buddha himself, with the Four Noble Truths (the foundations of Buddhism) being a case in point.

You can see this evidently with common translations of the Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering. A common translation of this text, according to Buddho is:

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”

When you read this passage in many passages, it simply says that, "suffering is caused by craving" which leaves quite a bit up to interpretation. To understand this passage in more detail, you have to look more closely at the way the text is being translated from the original Sanskrit.

According to London Buddhist Vihara, the 4 noble truths would be stated as:

1. The truth of the existence of dukkha

2. The truth of the cause of dukkha

3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha

4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

In many common English translations of this text, the word dukka is translated as 'suffering.' However, London Buddhist Vihara continues:

There is no one English word which fully conveys the true meaning of dukkha. Dukkha has been often translated into English as "suffering", but it means more than this. The literal meaning of the word is DU (difficult) and KHA (endure), i.e. that which is difficult to endure. The English words which come close to the meaning are: suffering, imperfection, impermanence, insubstantiality, unsatisfactoriness, inadequacy, uncontrollability, incompleteness, separation, the desire to become something other than what one is.

See how important it is for just one word to be translated correctly, when it is foundational to an entire belief system? If we don't understand the word Dukkha correctly, then our whole foundation for understanding the Buddha's teachings is going to be misunderstood.

Additionally, in the common translation, the word 'craving' may be a mistranslation as well, which leads to further complication in understanding the text.

According to A Blue Chasm,

In this post I turn to the Pāli word taṇhā, which is usually translated as ‘craving’. The second noble truth taught by the Buddha is that dukkha or unsatisfactoriness has an origin (samudaya), and that its origin or causal basis is taṇhā. The second noble truth is thus sometimes rendered, ‘the cause of suffering is craving’. This might be even more misleading than the translation of the first noble truth as ‘life is suffering’. The problem with the English word ‘craving’ is that it invariably suggests a strong desire for things like sex or chocolate or alcohol, as if psychological states such as strong desires for sensual pleasures were the root of all our problems. By contrast, taṇhā in fact means ‘thirst’, and thirst is fundamentally a metaphor for a general existential condition of humanity, which is an unsatisfied longing.[1] So the second noble truth ought to be translated, ‘this is the origin of unsatisfactoriness – thirst’.

Understanding the text with a correct translation of the 2nd noble truth alone can help you to understand the fundamental challenge that is to be overcome by the eightfold path in Buddhism. Once we understand the essence of Buddhism itself by understanding the 4 noble truths, only then can our practice take us where we are truly aiming to go.

Language Matters

As you can see from the above examples, language matters. Context and nuance matter. The way that we understand our experience is framed by the words that we use to describe what is happening in everyday life. Having a true understanding is even more important when it comes to our religious and spiritual beliefs.

By realizing that some things may not be translated 'correctly' from their original versions, we stop accepting these texts as law, or as the absolute basis for our faith. We open up our minds to reading and studying different interpretations of the text, so that we can achieve a deeper understanding.

We can read essays about the way that certain words are being used within the text to come to understand the deep nuance that is present within the teachings of Christ, the Buddha, Lao Tsu, and many others.

Additionally, we can read books that are written by modern day spiritual teachers in our own language. Some popular authors today can include Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Louise Hay, and many others. When we read books from these modern day teachers, we can more easily understand what they are saying in plain language.

We can arrive at a spiritual understanding of the way the universe works through many different courses of study. What you decide to believe in your own life can be influenced by the different texts that you read, so it is important that you are always studying the texts carefully, and with a critical eye.

Let me know in the comments if this examination was helpful, and if there are any questions you would like me to answer in a future article!

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