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The difference between “S” and “s”

Whenever a Bible translation is released, it’s accompanied by much debate—everybody naturally wants to know how it differs from previous translations. What have the translators changed, and why? Most discussion centers on a handful of controversial translation topics, with hot-button issues like gender roles in the church and sexuality often taking prominence.

Those are fascinating (and necessary) discussions, but give the impression that Bible translation boils down to just wording and re-wording a handful of difficult Bible passages. In reality, some of the “smaller” translation questions can be just as challenging.

Here’s an example of a seemingly tiny issue, detailed in an exchange on the Perspectives in Translation forum: should we capitalize son in Psalm 2:7?

You wouldn’t think that changing the capitalization of one word in one chapter would hold any significance, but it does: capitalizing “son” makes it a clear reference to Jesus, whereas leaving it lowercase leaves that conclusion for the reader to discover. (Biblical Hebrew doesn’t capitalize words like modern English does.) On the surface, “son” is a reference to David’s son Solomon. A modern reader might see a possible Old Testament reference to Jesus here and choose to “make it official” by capitalizing the word; but is that a reasonable translation or is that imposing an interpretation on the text? Did the author of the psalm intend it to be read that way, or even imagine that his words would in retrospect look like a Messianic prophecy?

At the Perspectives forum, two Bible scholars weigh in. I like James Hamilton’s explanation:

The problem with capitalizing son in Psalm 2:7 is that it cuts straight from from 2 Samuel 7 to Jesus. It’s great to get to Jesus, but the short cut keeps readers from seeing the typological development that grows and deepens through the accounts of the sons of David. This can keep us from understanding what Jesus meant when he declared that one greater than Solomon had arrived (cf. Matt 12:42).

So capitalizing son in Psalm 2:7 gets the termination point right, but it can keep us from feeling the buildup of the development that swells and plunges between David and Jesus.

Seeing the thought process behind a tiny translation decision sheds some light for me on the truly epic task that is Bible translation. I’d never suggest that we should ignore the more major and controversial translation questions, but I know that it’s enlightening for me to consider these “minor” questions alongside the bigger ones.

Filed under Translations