More about the Bible

About Those ‘Literal’ Translations

Every so often, someone writes to ask me about some obscure Bible translation, and invariably they add, ‘it is supposed to be a literal translation.’

For me, this is a red flag. Let me explain.

New Testament Greek is quite a different language from English, and a strictly literal translation is impossible. For example, su eipas means you have said, but English requires a different tense and an object, so we would have to change it to you said it or to you said so, which is one step away from ‘literal.’ However, su eipas is a Greek idiom that means, simply, yes. So if the translator puts down yes it is not a ‘literal’ translation, but it correctly conveys the meaning. The reader might interpret the more literal rendering you said it as evasive, which it is not, so the more literal translation is actually misleading. This is a simple example, but Greek has an entirely different tense system, which is largely misunderstood by neophyte translators, and it makes heavy use of participles that have absolutely no equivalent in English at all. (These participles allowed Paul to write a single sentence that is 104 words long in Greek that is impossible to render as a single sentence in English.) Greek also allows the equivalent of prepositional phrases that lack prepositions; the meaning is quite vague. English doesn’t have cases, so the translator has to supply a preposition, which means that the translation necessarily eliminates possible meanings that the Greek permits—so whatever the translator does, the result is not ‘literal.’

Then there are vocabulary problems. In the New Testament, the Temple has hierarchs and the church has presbyters. Most translate hierarch as priest, which is really incorrect, because priest is just an English contraction of the word presbyter. But if the translators put down priest for presbyter, it looks like they are discrediting churches that do not call their clergy priests. But if they put down presbyter, which is the untranslated Greek word, or elder, which is the word’s meaning, they discredit the churches that are so old that the word presbyter turned into priest as the language of their members changed. So there is no neutral, literal solution. The same is true of the Greek word episkopos, which means supervisor, but is the source of the English word bishop. Most translations speak of a priesthood of all believers which can mislead the reader into thinking that all Christians are clergy. The Greek says that we have a hierarchy of all believers, not a presbytery of all believers, meaning that all Christians can approach God directly, but not all have supervisory or sacramental duties in the church. I don’t think there is any way to translate it that flawlessly conveys the meaning, mainly because in English, the word hierarchy means any bureaucratic structure, while in Greek it only means an organization of temple functionaries.

Some translators try to use the same English word for any given Greek word, but that is also a flawed approach. Let me give you some examples from English and German, which are very closely related and structurally more similar to each other than English and Greek. We distinguish between a street and a road, but in German, either one is just a Straße. The English word bed means either a place to sleep or a place to plant flowers, but in German the former is a Bett and the latter is a Beet. So in English, you can make a joke about a person who stayed home from work to spend all day in bed, not sleeping, but gardening; but you can’t translate the joke into German, because it relies on an ambiguity that does not exist in German. In English you can get all these things: warm, married, a new car, a present, into trouble, or out of bed. In German, there is no single word with all the meanings of English verb get, you need a different verb for each of these situations. There is never a one-to-one correspondence between the words in two different languages, even if they are closely related and structurally similar.

All translation is interpretation, and none is strictly literal. When someone calls their translation of the New Testament a ‘literal’ translation, it means one of two things. It could mean that they are sacrificing an easy read for a responsibly accurate rendering. In that case, they are just using the word ‘literal’ in the naive sense. Or it could mean that they have a doctrinal ax to grind and are using the word ‘literal’ to make you think that the Greek made them do it. So in the latter case, the word ‘literal’ is synonymous with ‘tendentious.’ Beware of people who, armed with a grammar, a lexicon, and only one year of self-study, are making definitive, ‘literal’ translations of the New Testament into English! The New Testament is a very small book, it has been rigorously and thoroughly scrutinized for two thousand years, it is highly unlikely that anyone will find something in it that no one saw there before. So test the translators, to see if they come from God. Be skeptical, and not easily convinced.

It is difficult for even the most conscientious translator to overcome the weaknesses in his own expertise and to avoid inserting his own bias. Therefore, as your Bible-study mainstay, it’s best to use a Bible that was translated by a committee, especially if the members of the committee are diverse in their affiliation. It’s also best to use a translation that has been through at least one edition. For example, the 1972 edition of the Revised Standard Version is much better than original edition, which came out in 1952.

I am leery of translations that bill themselves as ‘literal,’ because it means either that the translator is a neophyte or that he is dishonestly trying to give his translation more credibility than it might deserve. I also don’t use translations by individuals as a mainstay for study. These translations make good supplements, because they can give valuable insights, but don’t use them as your rule of faith.

Remember, if you find a translation that ‘reveals’ a meaning that is too good to be true, it probably is.