How do translators know what punctuation to use when translating the Bible?
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. The original Hebrew and Aramaic languages were written without punctuation and without vowels, but did include spaces between words. The original Greek was written in all uppercase letters, known as uncials, with some (but inconsistent) punctuation, and without spaces in what is known as continuous writing. In English, however, vowels, spaces, and punctuation are required to render a text legible. So how do translators do it?
The first answer is that translators must understand both the original, or source, language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) and the target language (in this case, English, but also any other modern language). English follows certain grammatical rules for structuring sentences as far as syntax (word order) and punctuation. For instance, Matthew 9:4 literally translated word for word from the original Greek would read, "And having known Jesus the thoughts of them he said so that why think you evil in the hearts of you." Rearranging the words to follow correct syntax, translators render the phrase, "Jesus knowing their thoughts said why do you think evil in your hearts." Adding correct punctuation, translators then render it, "Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, 'Why do you think evil in your hearts?'" The grammatical rules for English dictated that commas offset the participial phrase ("knowing their thoughts"), that a comma introduce a direct quotation, that quotation marks surround the quote, that the first word of the quotation be capitalized, and that the interrogative sentence end with a question mark. So the translators first had to understand the original source language to know what was being said, and then they simply followed the grammatical rules of the target language.
Second, the Hebrew (Aramaic) and Greek texts have been modified since their original format. From the 600s to 900s AD, a group of Hebrew scribes called the Masoretes copied and distributed a manuscript where they added vowels and a system of accents that function similar to punctuation. This manuscript is now known as the Masoretic Text. This text made the Hebrew Scriptures easier to read aloud. During the Middle Ages, the Greek was rewritten in cursive script, called miniscules, spaces between words were added, and there was a more sustained use of punctuation. Bible translators of today use the punctuation found in these more modern transcripts of the original language in order to translate the Bible into current target languages.
Last, however, there are punctuation decisions that are at the discretion of the translators and editors of the particular version in question. For example, Ephesians 1:4–5 in the KJV reads, "According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us…" In the ESV, however, it is rendered, "even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us…" So the prepositional phrase "in love" can either be connected to the thought preceding it or to the thought that comes after it. It is up to the translators and editors of each version to decide which thought should be connected to that prepositional phrase.
Because there is some amount of editorial choice in each version of the Bible, it is helpful to consult multiple translations. Reading different versions of the Bible will help illuminate particular biases among translations and will give a more complete conception of different ways to understand each passage of Scripture. Modern translations seek to make Scripture accurate, accessible, and understandable to today's readers, and punctuation is an important part of achieving that goal.
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