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How to Translate Meaning (Monday with Mounce 153)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceMy dad is working on a new translation of the gospel of Mark for the Discipleship: Foundation Track on I thought you might enjoy looking in on the types of conversations we often have.

Ah, the joys of being in the same field as your father!

Dad writes: “I have been thinking over this matter of translation. Everything that is written is written within a specific culture. That means things that are understood can be left out without damaging the communication.

If I told Teri [my sister] that I would meet her at the ferry she would understand that I meant the Balboa ferry. If I were to translate this into another language and another timeframe I would need to “add” something that would indicate which ferry I meant. However it would not be in addition because in the original culture it would be assumed. Good translation of an ancient document demands that we “add” whatever was assumed (but not stated) in the original. Otherwise we are guilty of mis-translation.”

Mark 1:32 says, “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.” (NIV). Dad responds to a comment in France’s commentary on Mark 1:32. “I ‘add’ ‘and the Sabbath was over’ because there is no need for Mark to add ‘after sunset,’ so there must be a reason.

The point is that now that the Sabbath had ended, the people were free to carry the sick to Jesus and Jesus would be free to perform healings. I want the reader to understand the story in its fuller dimension. By adding the phrase ‘and the Sabbath was over,’ the preacher might be encouraged to say something about the Sabbath and its restrictions as well as to explain why the people waited until evening.”

I always enjoy dad’s emails when he is translating. He is constantly ruminating on the fact that we translate meaning, not words. As I often say, language is the stringing of one ambiguity after another. It is not the words themselves but the meaning expressed by words in context that need to be translated.

Hence, all translations are interpretive. Translators are traitors.

MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at

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