“Literal” Bible Translations: Not As Literal As We Might Think

When it comes to Bible translation, the word “literal” needs some explanation. First of all, if a translation was completely literal, it would be very difficult to understand. We wouldn’t want an utterly literal, word-for-word translation because it would in many places be unintelligible. Secondly, translations that call themselves “literal” aren’t always literal in every situation. Interestingly, sometimes the most literal translations utilize a “thought-for-thought” translation method for many passages. Third, even translations that are more literal don’t routinely translate one Greek or Hebrew word the same way in every instance.

Dave Brunn does an excellent job explaining translation principles and methods in his book One Bible, Many Versions. And speaking of literal translations and translating one Greek or Hebrew word differently, here’s Brunn’s helpful explanation:

As we consider the importance of words in the New Testament, it would be fitting to examine the Greek word logos, since this term is most often translated “word” in our English versions.

If I were to ask you what logos means, you would probably say it means “word.” But that is only partially correct. “Word” is the most common way to translate logos into English, but it is not the only way. The KJV translated logos twenty-four different ways. Here is a list of the KJV renderings of logos (table 4.2).

The word logos occurs inconspicuously in some very familiar verses. The average reader of the KJV may be surprised to learn the various places where logos is used. The following chart (table 4.3) lists several occurrences of logos in the King James New Testament. The words used by the KJV to translate logos in each of these contexts are included in parentheses underneath (behind) the word logos.

Yes, sometimes logos does mean “word.” But in the KJV we find that it also means “treatise,” “account,” “reason,” “communication” and “saying,” among the twenty-four possibilities. Many of the twenty-four renderings of logos in the KJV are used in other versions too, such as the ESV and NASB. But those versions also translated logos in ways that the KJV did not. If we survey all the ways the ESV and NASB translated logos, we will find more than thirty additional renderings. Here are several examples (table 4.4).

In these three English versions alone, the Greek word logos is translated more than fifty different ways! So back to our original question: Is a word always a word? Apparently not.

If we apply the translation model introduced in chapter 2 to the word logos, it could look something like figure 4.4.

It is clear by this illustration that the area of meaning of the Greek word logos is much broader than the area of meaning of “word” in English. There is some overlap, but it is not 100 percent.

I’ll come back to Brunn’s book on translation again later. For now, I very much recommend it. One Bible, Many Versions was enlightening for me as it showed how translators have to wrestle with methods and context and meaning in their attempt to get God’s word into understandable language.

The above quote is found in chapter four of One Bible, Many Versions, by Dave Brunn. You can find it on Amazon here.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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