The meaningless virtue of literal bible versions.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 April 2018

There’s a discussion group I belong to. Every so often, one of the newer members of the group will ask us our favorite bible translations. Happens every other month. Y’see, the newbies don’t know we already had this discussion, so they bring it up again. And again and again and again.

Predictably some of us are ESV fans, NIV fans, NKJV fans, NASB fans, and so forth. I like to announce I’m a KJV fan, ’cause KJV fans should represent—but I feel obligated to include the disclaimer I’m not a KJV-only kind of fan. ’Cause those people are awful. And every so often one of the KJV-only folks see this, object, and wind up proving my point about them being awful.

Oh, speaking of awful: We also get a few people who wanna mock the bible versions they don’t like. Somebody’ll disparage The Message, loudly denounce The Voice, or mock the NLT. Won’t just be the KJV-only folks either.

My advocacy for the KJV aside, the new members who bring up the what’s-your-favorite-translation question don’t really care about, nor care to use, the KJV. They’re only interested in recent translations. They wanna know which of them the group considers good and reliable. Especially if they already have a favorite translation, and many of ’em totally do, and are hoping we’ll justify their selection.

Plenty of the group’s members don’t just state their favorites, but defend and advocate for their favorites as the best bible translation. I run into this behavior particularly among NASB fans. They love the NASB. Because it’s so literal.

How do they know it’s so literal? Did they learn Greek and Hebrew in seminary, compare the original languages to the NASB, and come away impressed by its literalness? Not even close. Somebody told ’em the NASB was the most literal. Usually that “somebody” is the person at Thomas Nelson Publishers who wrote that on the book jacket. And hey, the NASB is frequently so wooden and stiff, it has to be because it’s a literal translation, right?—it can’t simply be because the translators at the Lockman Foundation, the NASB’s sponsors, suck at English.

In any case they’ve swallowed the marketing spiel whole, and love to burp it up for anyone who’ll listen.

And for those of us who know multiple languages, it makes ’em sound naive and ridiculous.

Languages don’t work like that.

Y’see, anyone who’s multilingual—especially those of us who translate from one language to another, be it English to Spanish, Hebrew to English, or whatever—knows full well you don’t translate word-for-word literally. Because languages don’t work like that. They’re not codes. We’re translators, not codebreakers. If only languages were so simple.

A word in one language doesn’t always have an exact equivalent in another language. Fr’instance sombrero might be Spanish for hat, but we all know a Spanish-speaker’s idea of a sombrero ain’t the same as an English-speaker’s idea of a hat. In fact a New Yorker and a Texan are gonna have different ideas of what “hat” means as well. We’ll need to throw in a few adjectives to clarify things. But if we aren’t given any adjectives… well, we need to be aware there are cultural differences, lest we naively assume we all mean the same thing.

To those who only speak English, and no other languages, this fact may never have occurred to them.

In fact I’ve heard people who only speak English, who know no biblical languages, tell me more than once, “It’s so great how the bible” [specifically the New Testament] “was written in Greek! ’Cause Greek is such a precise language. More precise than English.” I don’t know who’s been spreading that rumor, but I’ve heard it all my life—and I guarantee you it didn’t come from somebody who studied Greek.

In Greek 101 we were rapidly disabused of that idea. We were taught about prepositions. (You remember what a preposition is? Indicates one’s position relative to something else? On the chair, above the chair, under the chair, by the chair, to the chair, from the chair? Well, maybe you slept through grammar classes.) We were taught a certain Greek preposition can be translated 10 different ways. Or more. It all depends on the context of the noun it’s paired with. And even then, Greek scholars are gonna debate which of the meanings the bible’s authors meant.

So whenever someone talks about how Greek (or Hebrew, or Aramaic) is more precise than English, I try to tell them as politely as I can that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Greek’s just as precise as English, and you know how English can get from time to time.

Sometimes—’cause people feel they gotta defend the inaccurate nuggets of falsehood they’ve been flinging around all these years—one of ’em will reply, “Well yes, I know there are certain idioms you can’t translate literally…” I wasn’t even talking about idioms. I’m talking basic words. Take agápi, the Greek word we translate “love.” In English, love has about eight different meanings. Plenty of Christians claim agápi had only one meaning in ancient Greek. It did not.

The reason the apostles had to define it with one specific meaning for the Corinthians 1Co 13 was because agápi has a dozen other meanings in ancients’ minds—meanings in which love wasn’t patient, wasn’t kind, did rage out of control, did brag, did exaggerate, was selfish, did plot evil, did fail. When Amnon raped Tamar in the Old Testament, y’know which word the Septuagint used to describe Amnon’s lust for her? Agápi. 2Sa 13.15 Yup. Yikes.

Okay now let’s talk idioms. Multiply the number of idioms you think are in any given language… by about a thousand.

The bible wasn’t written by lawyers. It was written by poets and storytellers. Like King David. Like our Lord Jesus. Even guys who wrote really technical theology, like Paul and John, were trying to do so poetically. Poets, and people who could use language creatively and expressively, were a big deal to the ancients. So they used plenty of idioms. Like “the word of God,” which had a unique cultural meaning which 21st-century Americans are guaranteed to overlook because of how our culture insists on interpreting that idea our way.

So yeah: Those of us who study biblical languages, those of us who are bilingual or multilingual, if we’ve ever actually thought about the ways in which we use language, aren’t impressed when people describe a bible translation as “literal.” Because word-for-word literalness isn’t a valuable thing in translation. We want idea-for-idea. Language is used to communicate ideas, and we do it using words. But the words we’d use in one language aren’t always gonna be the words we use in other languages. So, where necessary, we’ve gotta change the words. We need to not be literal. We need to be creative.

Problem is, monolingual people don’t realize this. Often they don’t value creativity either. They want precision—however they imagine precision works. They want accuracy—assuming poetic languages can be decoded like a computer program. They wanna feel confident that their favorite bible translation tells ’em exactly what the original-text bible said.

And because they’ve been falsely told a word-by-word translation is just the thing, they now have a false sense of overconfidence about their favorite bible translations. And for some of ’em, they get mighty arrogant when they put down other translations for being “not as precise” as their faves. (As if they’re in any way qualified to determine this.)

Dynamic equivalence.

When people translate word-by-word, we call it formal equivalence: Formal ’cause it’s the kind of translating people expect to see in important documents and bibles: They wanna see each individual word get its own translation, with no words dropped, skipped, summarized, abbreviated, anything. They wanna see the same number of words in the original as the translation, with every original-language word synced up to an English word. (Well, every word possible. Some original-language words are markers, which indicate direct object or case, and we simply don’t translate them. And our words “a” and “an” don’t have equivalents in Hebrew or Greek, so we gotta insert them. You know, like that.)

In the rest of life, from diplomatic meetings to court cases to business meetings to conversations between people through a translator, we practice dynamic equivalence: What a person meant, gets communicated. The words aren’t gonna be precise, because precision is gonna create confusion: Yikhár-af YHWH/“the LORD’s nostril burned” Nu 11.10 is gonna create weird speculation about God’s anatomy, when really all it means is God was angry. And even the most “literal” translations aren’t gonna be so stupid as to translate this literally…

Numbers 11.10 NASB
Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased.

…as you can see in the NASB.

Yeah, there’s a catch when it comes to idea-for-idea translations: There’s always gonna be some debate about whether we understand the ideas accurately. One Christian is gonna insist the apostles meant one thing; another Christian is gonna insist they meant what they teach. We’re gonna have disagreements. That’s to be expected. And that’s fine: That’s what footnotes are for! So long that everybody is honest about their translation, and points out, “But others claim it means this,” we’re not misleading anyone. And when you do your bible study, you are comparing multiple translations, right? Hope so.

See, those who insist they have the “most literal translation” have a bad habit of not comparing translations. ’Cause why bother?—they have the most literal translation. Problem is, translators can always be wrong. The scriptures might be infallible, but translators make mistakes all the time. That’s why we don’t hang our hats on any one translation. Look at many, and see what the consensus of translators thinks. “Wisdom in the counsel of many” Pr 15.22 and all that.

I know; you’d think it’d be a better idea to translate the bible literally—even though a literal translation will be confusing—then explain what the wooden translation means. Sounds more exact than translating it dynamically, and possibly introducing an error. Problem is, when you go with a wooden translation, then put your explanation in the commentary or the footnotes, Christians have the bad habit of skipping notes. Especially those Christians who trust no one but themselves: They wanna figure out the interpretation on their own. It’s a pride thing. It’s why they go spreading their misinterpretations far and wide, and won’t listen to correction. It’s why I’m pretty sure a dynamic translation solves far more problems than it creates.

But if you really wanna know what the original text says, do as I did: Go learn the original languages. Take a few upper-division courses, where we get into syntax and idiom and all the things words can mean. Things’ll be as clear as mud… but you’ll gain humility, which is way more valuable for bible study anyway.