I used to think “literal” Bible translations were the best. I no longer hold that view for several different reasons which would take too much time to discuss here. However, I do want to point out just one small part of this bigger discussion by noting a helpful section of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?.
To begin, I agree with this: “A good translation accurately contextualizes a communicative act in another language” (p. 387). In this context, Vanhoozer also writes the following.
“What is a faithful translation? Fidelity should not be confused with reiteration. It is the literalist who attempts what we might call a ‘reproductive’ translation. The literalist tries to erase himself or herself from the interpretive process, to be so obedient to the text that the first step – submission – is also the last. The literalist ‘does not aim to appropriate and bring home…[but] to remain ‘inside’ the source.’ Perhaps the most obvious example of this kind is the interlinear translation. Yet as [George] Steiner archly observes, the interlinear is less a translation than a translation help: ‘It sets a dictionary equivalent from the target-langauge above each word in the source-language. Strictly defined, a word-for-word interlinear is nothing else but a total glossary, set out horizontally in discrete units and omitting the criteria of normal syntax and word order in the language of the user.’”
“The notion that only word-for-word translations are faithful rests on a faulty view of semantics that sees words, rather than speech acts, as the fundamental unit of meaning. Faithful translation, however, is not a matter of matching locutions [i.e. propositional statements] so much as finding equivalent illocutions [i.e. the force of the statements]. As we have seen [in the earlier parts of the book], the literal sense is the sense of the literary act (an illocution) (p. 388).”
Well said. One can slavishly attempt to render a word-for-word (and even syntax-for-syntax) translation yet miss the main thrust of the text. The same words in the same order may mean radically things in a different context (time, location, culture, etc.). This also leads me to wonder what role the Enlightenment played in translation preferences and methods, but again, that would take too much time/space here. The main point is to remember that “literal” Bible translations are certainly not flawless. In other words, Bible translations can be too literal. I highly recommend Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning if you want to wrestle through this a bit on your own.