Translation or Transliteration: What’s the Difference?

Angel

Transliterations

I use the term transliteration a lot, but I realize that it is an unfamiliar concept for many. So I figured it would be good to define it for you now.

Translation is quite a familiar concept. A translator takes text in one language and converts it to the equivalent text in another language. In the case of biblical translation, a translator takes the ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text, which is unreadable to the majority of Christians, and converts it to the equivalent text in English (or the common tongue for another culture).

However, the problem with translation is that there is not always equivalent text from one language to another. We don’t just have different words; we have different sentence structures, different figures of speech, and some words which have no match in a different language or which carry different connotations and nuances. Yahweh did a very good job when he confused the language at Babel, and languages have only grown more complex and confusing since then.

Sometimes, these difficulties can be solved by paraphrasing the text. Other times translators will use a similar term and then expand the text to include a definition within it. But in many cases, when translators come across a word with no exact English equivalent, they will just skip translating that word entirely.

This is transliteration. A translator takes a word in one language, adjusts it a little to make it look and sound more like another language, and then places it in with the rest of the text in that other language. So in biblical translation, a translator would take, for example, a Greek word and adjust it to fit in in our character set, usually changing the pronunciation a bit to make it sound more like English. (Strictly speaking, what I describe here is known as partial transliteration. For our purposes, just calling it a transliteration should suffice.)

This can be a very useful tool for translators, especially biblical translators who want to be careful not to make the translation seem like it means something the original does not. Better to just stick with the original than to give a faulty translation, right? But it can also cause other problems. A transliterated word essentially creates a new English word. And over time, these new words take on connotations and nuances of their own, which may not have been present in the original word they represent.

Examples

The best way to see how all this works is with an example. Angel is a transliterated word. It comes from the Greek word aggelos, which literally means “messenger” or “envoy.” When we hear the word angel, we usually think of a heavenly being with wings, but such a meaning is not actually present in aggelos. However, in many examples, these messengers were indeed beings sent from heaven. In some cases, the biblical authors were referring to these beings when they used aggelos, while in other cases they just meant normal human messengers.

We could draw a parallel with the word alien. An alien is just a foreigner. However, the word has gained an extra connotation so that it is often used to mean a foreign being from outer space. Yet we still sometimes use it to refer to human foreigners.

In like manner, the New Testament authors went back and forth between using aggelos for heavenly beings or for human messengers. Many English translations try to reflect this by going back and forth between the transliteration and the translation respectively, yet this can be problematic as well, as sometimes the true meaning is ambiguous. Take, for example, “the angels of the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20, NASB). Were these heavenly beings assigned to those churches? Or were they the human messengers for the churches? I would tend to think the latter, yet the most common translations transliterate that word here.

It is good to know when you are looking at a transliteration, and it is good to know the literal meaning of that transliteration. Sometimes this can make a world of difference in understanding an otherwise confusing verse.

The following are just a few more examples of transliterated words in the New Testament:

  • Apostle comes from apostlos and means “one who is sent.”
  • Baptism comes from baptisma and means “immersion.”
  • Christ comes from cristos and means “anointed one.”
  • Deacon comes from diakonos and means “servant.”
  • Epistle comes from epistole and means “letter.”

Should I continue through the whole alphabet? Nah, I’ll save that for a later time. For now, just be on the lookout for other transliterated words. Remember that the connotations they have today may be very different from what the original represented.

What Do You Think?

Will knowing that these words are transliterations help you understand any passages better? Does it make any passages more confusing? What other transliterations do you know of?

Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.