Question: "When the Bible is translated into English, how do the translators decide what punctuation to use?"
Answer: Modern languages generally use punctuation marks. These typographical symbols are used to clarify the meaning of written information. For the most part, punctuation marks are not pronounced. A person reading a sentence aloud does not make any noticeable sounds corresponding to those particular symbols. However, the symbols do affect where the person pauses and what vocal inflections he uses. Punctuation can have a significant impact on the meaning of a sentence. An example is the statement “My favorite things are cooking my friends and family” rather than “My favorite things are cooking, my friends, and family.” The addition of commas makes a great difference in how we perceive you and your favorite things.
Many ancient languages were written without punctuation marks, including Hebrew and Greek, the original languages used to compose the Bible. Ancient Hebrew even lacked written vowels. Later copies of the Old Testament Scriptures included vowel points—marks above, inside, or below the consonants—for easier reading. Punctuation marks were also added, eventually, to aid the reader and help provide clarity. Many of these punctuation marks were later used to help create similar clarifications in English versions and other translations.
In ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, the early manuscripts not only lacked punctuation marks but also spaces between words. For a native reader of those ancient languages, the breaks between words and sentences could be easily determined. Formatted in a similar way, the English translation of Ephesians 1:7 looks like this:
Writing in this format, called continuous writing, is generally explained by the lack of paper in ancient times. With limited supplies of paper (or papyrus), continuous writing allowed for the most text per scroll or page.
Later Greek manuscripts began to add breaks for sections used in liturgical readings as well as accent marks and punctuations. Many of these clarifications are included in the edited Greek New Testament texts used today by translators to render the Bible into English and other languages. But even these marks are not sufficient for all translation issues. For example, although Ephesians 1:3–14 is one long sentence in the Greek text, most modern English translations break it into three sentences for clarity in reading. The three-sentence translation is not as “literal,” but the punctuation is added to aid understanding, since most English sentences are not nearly that long.
As to how a translator decides what punctuation to use, it all goes back to grammar. The rules of grammar and syntax dictate, in most cases, what punctuation mark should be used. For example, a question in English is brought to an end by a question mark. Galatians 3:1 says, in Greek, “tis hymas ebaskanen.” Literally translated, this means “who you has bewitched” in English. Since Paul is asking a question, the translators put a question mark at the end of the sentence. Also, the rules of English syntax specify a different word order: “Who has bewitched you?”
Another example: Matthew 9:4, in Greek, says, “kai eidōs ho Iēsous tas enthymēseis autōn eipen Hina ti enthymeisthe ponēra en tais kardiais hymōn.” The literal English translation is rather convoluted: “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 fit normal English syntax, we have the following: “And having known their thoughts Jesus said why do you think evil in your hearts.” Finally, we add punctuation: “And having known their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’” The rules of punctuation dictate that 1) we place a comma after introductory participial phrases, 2) we set off direct quotations with a comma, and 3) we end an interrogative sentence with a question mark. (We also capitalize the first word of a direct quotation.) If the translators understand the passage and the rules of grammar, placing punctuation is easy.
While punctuation marks are not part of the original, inspired text of Scripture, they do generally assist our understanding of the words of Scripture. Most modern readers need delineated sentences and the clues punctuation provides in order to understand what they read. It would be possible to translate the original languages of the Bible without punctuation marks, but it would cause more problems than benefits for modern readers. We should be thankful for the diligent work of translators who know the grammatical rules of both the source language and the target language. The goal of a modern translation is to provide an accurate, accessible, and understandable copy of God’s Word, and punctuation is a necessary part of reaching that goal.