God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Power of the Footnote

T. C. Robinson reminds us how important footnotes are.

Footnotes are generally used for three purposes:

1. To offer additional information, such as a source the text might be quoting, or a similar passage.

2. To let the reader know that the translator is not sure what the original means.

3. To let the reader know that even though the original meaning is clear, the translator is not sure how to express that meaning in English.

Footnotes like (1) seem helpful, but only in some contexts. Sometimes too much information can detract from the power of a passage, and I can understand why some readers might not want these extra-information footnotes.

I think that a careful translator will let the reader know how much faith to have in a particular rendering, so footnotes like (2) can be very important. If the Greek or Hebrew really is inscrutable, I think the translator has an obligation to let the reader know. Still, sometimes the footnotes offer alternative meanings without giving the reader any further guidance. (I have a particularly egregious example here.) I’m not sure how helpful these are, particularly as some lay readers may want to make do with the experts’ best guess.

But I think a translation without footnotes like (3) is deceptive. If the translator knows what the original means, and knows that there’s no way to express it fully in English, why wouldn’t the translator use a footnote to make the full meaning clear?

Robinson suggests in a response to a comment that, “Some translations are so committed to a particular rendering that they don’t even want to consider an alternative rendering.” That would reduce the need for category (2) footnotes, but not category (3). Surely every translator must encounter Hebrew and Greek that can’t be nicely coerced into English.

What do you think? Is there a situation when you’d prefer not to have any footnotes?


December 22, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,


  1. There are other classes of footnote that are important and were important to me when I was first reading the Bible – though perhaps not for all the ‘right’ reasons. These are intertextual references and allusions, and reception history. Perhaps a good example is the issue of virginity and its meaning at this time of year – from Isaiah to Matthew/Luke and Revelation. I pick this at random and I have no idea whether I would footnote it the same way every year!

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | December 22, 2009

  2. Joel H,
    This is good stuff. Thanks for taking this discussion to another level.

    Given the ongoing debate around what Paul really means, esp. dia pistews Iesou Christou and so on, the ESV has taken a side in this debate. Ha!

    Comment by T.C. R | December 22, 2009

  3. I value the better volumes of the Anchor Bible highly, precisely for the wealth of information in their footnotes. The information in those notes has been so helpful to me, that I now tend to feel almost as crippled when I have only Bibles without such notes, as I do when I have no Bible at all.

    Comment by Marshall Massey | December 23, 2009

    • I also thoroughly appreciate the transparency that the Anchor series employs in their footnote system. The NETBible is similar, and is getting richer all the time, with their “Discovery Box” of related images and songs and what not.

      I also appreciate the KJV tradition of italicizing added text. It is non-intrusive when being read, but gives a clue to what might have been a difficult text to render.

      Electronic texts make it possible to allow a readable text coupled with the ability to “drill down” that a paper text just doesn’t allow.

      Two features that I would highly encourage more use of is some way of representing **emphases** that will reflect their presence in the source. This is a huge nuance of the Greek that is often lost in translation. The other feature is plural versus singular in the second person. KJV had, of course, “ye” and “thee,” etc.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | December 24, 2009

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