Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed. You cannot quote an exact English equivalent for a French word, as you might quote an exact English equivalent for a French coin. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp. Think of the delicate differences there are between the shades of meaning in a group of words like “mercy, pity, clemency, pardon,” or a group of words like “fear, terror, awe, reverence, respect,” or a group of words like “glory, honor, fame, praise, credit.” How is it to be expected, on the law of averages, that any such group of words in English has an exactly corresponding group of words in Latin, and another in Greek, so that you can say, for example, doxa always means gloria in Latin, always means “glory” in English? Tsedeq or dikaiosune can mean, when used of a man, innocence, or honesty, or uprightness, or charitableness, or dutifulness, or (very commonly) the fact of being in God’s good books. Used of God, it can mean the justice which punishes the sinner, or, quite as often, the faithfulness which protects the good; it can mean, also, the approval with which God looks upon those who are in his good books. Only a meaningless token-word, like righteousness, can pretend to cover all these meanings. To use such a token-word is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here.
The translator, let me suggest in passing, must never be frightened of the word “paraphrase”; it is a bogey of the half-educated. As I have already tried to point out, it is almost impossible to translate a sentence without paraphrasing; it is a paraphrase when you translate “Comment vous portez-vous?” by ‘How are you?’ But often enough it will be a single word that calls for paraphrase. When St. Paul describes people as “wise according to the flesh,” the translator is under an obligation to paraphrase. In English speech, you might be called fat according to the flesh, or thin according to the flesh, but not wise or foolish. The flesh here means natural, human standards of judging, and the translator has got to say so. “Wise according to the flesh” is Hebrew in English dress; it is not English. You have not translated “Galeotto fu il libbro, e chi lo scrisse,” if you write,“The book was Galahad, and so was the man who wrote it.” Dante’s “Galeotto” (being paraphrased) means “a pandar”; and how (shades of Lord Tennyson!) is the English reader to know that?
The sentence, the phrase, the word—over all these the translator must keep watch; must beware of the instinct which bids him save trouble, or avoid criticism, by giving a merely photographic reproduction of his original. Nor does his task end there; his matter has to be duly chopped up into sentences. The first sentence of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans has ninety-one Latin words in it. The second sentence in his epistle to the Ephesians has a hundred and eighty-two. I admit that these figures are exceptional, but it is the clear fact about St. Paul that he thought in paragraphs. St. John, on the other hand, has an insatiable passion for periods. And nothing, I fancy, is so subtly disconcerting to the modern reader as having his intellectual food cut up into unsuitable lengths. The easy art of making it masticable has been learned to perfection by the journalists and public speakers whose thought he is accustomed to follow. If you want him to read Scripture without a kind of unconscious indigestion, you must prepare it more or less according to the current formula.
– Msgr. Ronald Knox, “Thoughts on Bible Translation.”
English priest Ronald Knox is translator of the famous “Knox Bible,” the New Testament in 1945, the Old Testament in 1950, at the commission of the English Catholic hierarchy.