A Literal Translation?

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.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

7 thoughts on “A Literal Translation?”

  1. What translation do you favour? When your going out of the door to make your way to Church which translation do you pick up? Or if your sitting reading quietly on your sofa?


  2. Mr S – I generally use the common translations like the NIV, NLT, NRSV, and the NKJV, but for “normal” reading I use the ESV.

    (Though not under the topic of translations, I recommend using the Hebrew and Greek Reader’s Bible if you know the original languages. They are a good help in reading the Word!)



  3. Shane – while I can agree that slavish devotion to “literal ” translations needs some interpretation I strongly disagree with the authors critique of literal translations such as the AV or the Geneva Bible – in my view one of the issues that separates us as a church was and is the plethora of modern and revised translations that are current – no longer is there a commonality of Scripture for congregational worship or for personal memorization – we are no longer united as the Body of Christ through the most important foundation post of the Kingdom – Gods Holy Word – this has only bought confusion to not only the reformed churches but Christs church as a whole – The Lord values His word above even His own name – All of the modern versions ( from the Revised version onward ) are based on the Alexandrian texts which have been shown to be flawed and influenced by Gnosticism – this includes the vaunted ESV which is an essential literal translation – the Dynamic Equivalent translation has changed the Word of God so as to make it suspect and untrustworthy- we should rather want to know what our God has said through His work and not what some translators flawed ideas are – in Christ Michael Smith Lynden URC


    1. Michael – thanks for the reply.

      I do share your lament over the vast number of translations out there. It is a sad American truth that many publishers push out translations simply to make more money (not to mention the 4,248 “Study” Bibles!).

      However, I’m not sure your gnosticism comment holds water. I’d like to see several citations from the experts and scholars on that topic since it sounds sort of like a conspiracy theory to me.

      The main point to my post – and I think this is quite valid – is that you cannot just grab a chunk of words from one culture, language, and time, and then plop them down in another culture, language, and time without any sort of contextualization (in the best sense of the term).

      Even in similar cultures, times, and contexts, two phrases can mean vastly different things (i.e. “he made it all the way home” can mean Mauer scored on Morneau’s double or it can mean my son ran 2 miles from school to our house). A “literal” translation of that phrase just isn’t helpful and can actually distort the meaning if it isn’t translated/contextualized properly. We need to be careful not to assume literal means “most faithful.” Translation is just not that simple.

      Hope this makes sense. Thanks again for the comment.



      1. Hey Shane. Your response got me thinking … thought I’d take a little intellectual stroll …

        I’m struck that generally the desire to retain the textus receptus is one that (unintentionally) concedes just how messy the manuscript traditions are from a text critical perspective. It’s easy for someone like Josh McDowell to rattle off the text critical sound bytes and make it sound like this is a simple process. When one actually begins to wrestle with the data, things aren’t so simple. For OT textual criticism, things are even harder due to the late date of the main Hebrew text (ca 1000 AD for the massoretic text). While the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed many readings from the massoretic text – thereby showing that it preserves a very ancient tradition – it also shows a period of history where the Hebrew text was in significant flux. Qumran has 2 Jeremiahs, 2 versions of 1&2 Samuel and several other texts that at times agree with the massoretic text and other times don’t. The septuagint is likewise challenging with several different versions that agree with the Dead Sea Scrolls at times and with the massoretic text at others.

        All this to say – the manuscript evidence is really difficult. The desire to hold onto the textus receptus and the Authorized Version is a laudable attempt to side step the challenges. After all, it offers a measure of confidence that the rest of us simply cannot have. The cost of it, however, is a confidence that is quite misplaced; the decision to privilege the textus receptus is fairly arbitrary. For those who need this kind of certainty in order to retain their faith, I suppose white knuckled retention of the Authorized Version is probably the way to go. I’m afraid, however, that this is a pristine example of the QIRC – the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. We’ve written about the QIRC several times here on this blog and are truly amazed at how prevalent it is, especially in conservative circles.

        There are no simple answers. Suffice it to say that God – by his providential care – has preserved his word for his church throughout the ages. To affirm this doesn’t allow for an easy set of answers to a tough set of text critical questions. To deny it, however, or claim that it is somehow insufficient, is to plant ones feet squarely in the midair of the QIRC. The QIRC feels good at times, but forces one to play the proverbial ostrich a bit too much!

        Anyway, this was a totally great post!


  4. I totally agree. That’s one reason I like having multiple translations. I typically read NIV, but I also will check out what other translations like the ESV, NASB and NRSV have to say on it when I’m trying to get really in depth. I really like how http://www.biblegateway.com gives you instant access to dozens of translations.


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