Literalism and Accuracy in Bible Translations

For Christians seeking to follow the Lord Jesus according to what He has revealed to mankind in the Scriptures, few endeavors prove as important as ensuring the faithful transmission of the Word of God to the present and future generations (2 Timothy 2:2, 3:14-17). Since modern man speaks neither Classical Hebrew nor Koine Greek, the Old and New Testaments must be translated into English and other modern languages. In the past few years we have witnessed an explosion of various types of Bible translations into English, all of which claim to strive to help people in the 21st century better understand the message of the Scriptures. While they all translate rather similar source texts, the end result can often look quite different, all depending on the philosophy undergirding the translations. Many Christians have very strong feelings regarding the value or quality of such translation philosophies; we do well to explore how these philosophies balance literalism and accuracy in conveying the meaning and import of Scripture.

The four primary translation philosophies are called literal, formal equivalence (“word for word”), dynamic equivalence (“thought for thought”), and paraphrase. A literal translation seeks to communicate as much of the original language as possible in translation: Hebrew and Greek sentence structure is often maintained and words are translated but are phrased in ways foreign to good English but manifesting good Hebrew and Greek. Both formal and dynamic equivalence translations seek to communicate in effective English the text and meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek: formal equivalence does so at the level of each word, which maintains strong literal features while sometimes confusing meaning, while dynamic equivalence does so at the level of the thought or phrase, emphasizing primary meaning while sometimes masking the original phrasing. A paraphrase does not seek to translate inasmuch as to convey the primary meaning and force of the text; it would be difficult to find much equivalence between the paraphrase and individual Hebrew and Greek words.

For many Christians, “literal” is the only way to go. They feel as if anything beyond “the literal” is just an attempt at imposing an interpretation and a doctrinal agenda on others. Such is an understandable concern: some translations, like the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are translated so as to promote certain doctrinal conclusions. At the same time, “literal” need not automatically mean “accurate.” We must do better at defining our terms, clarifying our philosophies, and be willing to see what gets lost if we were to insist on literalism at the expense of accuracy.

The belief that a literal translation would be the most accurate is itself a reflection of a very rationalist and positivist philosophical position. It presumes that the Bible can be so translated as to provide the modern English reader with every advantage maintained by the original contextual audience and allows the translator to do the least amount of interpretation possible.

And yet such a view is fantastical. All translation, by its very nature, is interpretive. To suggest that Hebrew or Greek could be so easily flattened as to convey all necessary elements for interpretation through an arbitrary one-to-one word conveyance process is ludicrous. Classical Hebrew, Koine Greek, and modern English are three languages separated by time, distance, and even language families (Hebrew is “Semitic” while Greek and English are “Indo-European”). Each language conceives of nominal and verbal structure differently; each language maintains its own idiomatic flavor. Each language conceives of various realities in different ways very difficult to capture in translation; semantic domains map over different boundaries in different languages. Many times a “literal” translation will not accurately convey the intended meaning of the author; for this reason there is no fully literal translation available, for even in literal versions the translators will often have to supply extra words in English or rephrase things lest the meaning be entirely lost.

Let none be deceived: much of the Bible can be translated in a fairly “literal” way which will allow the original author’s primary meaning to be conveyed in a series of words which reasonably reflect the original. There are many other times, however, when accuracy to meaning will demand a move away from the literal in various ways. We can explore this in terms of individual words as well as whole phrases.

Words in Translation

Most of the time we can effectively and efficiently communicate the meaning of a given Hebrew and Greek word in one mostly equivalent English word. Nevertheless, in many instances, English either has no single equivalent for a concept expressed in a Hebrew or Greek word, or English combines concepts expressed with different words in Hebrew or Greek.

The word חסד (hesed) is quite powerful in Hebrew, used frequently throughout the Old Testament as a way of describing YHWH’s disposition toward Israel (e.g. Psalm 136). It has no single word English equivalent. Hesed seems to center on the concept of “covenant loyalty”: not in a cold, transactional way, but with affection and care; it is translated variously as “mercy” (KJV, LITV), “kindness” (YLT), “lovingkindness” (ASV, NASB), “loyal love” (LEB), or “steadfast love” (ESV, RSV, NRSV) in the literal and formal-dynamic equivalence translation traditions. How could one go about “literally” conveying the force of the Hebrew hesed into concise English? Note well how the two exemplars of the literal tradition (LITV, YLT) focus on the “affection and care” concept in hesed; one need not discern any note of “covenant loyalty” in such a translation. Of all the translations so far considered “loyal love” is clunky but most effective, and “steadfast love” does best at conveying all elements of hesed in less stilted English; nevertheless, to get the full flavor one would still need to consult other sources which would provide the expanded understanding of meaning.

It is instructive to consider the dynamic equivalent and paraphrase translation in how they approach hesed: “faithful love” (ERV, NIrV), “love” (GNB, HCSB, NIV), “gracious love” (ISV), and “loving-commitment” (TS2009). Ironically these versions, freed from the constraint of one-to-one equivalence, are generally better able to convey the full force of hesed, incorporating both covenant loyalty and care. Nevertheless we can see how one might be led astray by “gracious love,” envisioning the concept in new covenant terms and not ascertaining the “covenant loyalty” flavor of the original.

A corollary in Greek is πορνεια (porneia), used frequently throughout the New Testament to condemn a range of sexual sins (e.g. Matthew 19:9, 1 Corinthians 6:13-20, Galatians 5:19). It also has no single word English equivalent. Porneia is related to Greek πορνη (porne), “prostitute,” and thus has a center in “that which one would do with a prostitute”: examples would include sexual intercourse before marriage, sexual intercourse with a person other than a spouse (i.e. adultery), and/or sexual intercourse with members of the same gender, family members, children, or animals (i.e. homosexual practice, incest, pedophilic practice, bestiality). Translations of porneia all manifest great difficulty. “Fornication” (as in KJV, ASV, LITV, MLV, N/RSV) is common, and in the past reflected a range of sexual indiscretions (since it is derived from the Latin term used to translate porneia), but in modern parlance is used almost exclusively to refer to premarital sexual intercourse. “Sexual immorality” (as in ESV, HCSB, LEB) or “immorality” (as in NASB), maintain the width of behaviors under discussion, but are so broad as to incorporate all sorts of other practices which are often sinful but not covered by the semantic range of porneia. “Whoredom” (YLT) hews close to what might be deemed “literalism,” but actually remains so attached to the root concept of the word so as to miss its extension into other realms: one can commit porneia and not commit harlotry/whoredom/prostitution.

When the full range of porneia is considered, something akin to “sexually deviant behavior” most fully captures the semantic range of the term in Greek. “Sexually deviant behavior” may make for an excellent description or explanation but is not effective translation, proving neither concise nor fluid. Yet again certain dynamic equivalence translations prove most effective at conveying the meaning of the Greek accurately precisely because they are not restricted to a one-to-one equivalent: “illicit sex” (GW), “sexual sins” (ERV, NIrV).

The opposite challenge proves no less acute. Hebrew שחה (shahach) and Greek προσκυνεω (proskuneo) maintain a similar semantic domain: the act of prostration or rendering obeisance as a gesture of humiliation before a superior. Hebrew ענד (‘abad) and Greek λατρευο (latreuo) also maintain a similar semantic domain: to render service, especially religious service through prescribed ritual cult behaviors. These terms could be differentiated in English with “to prostrate” and “to serve.” For a host of reasons, many of which involving tradition, shahach/proskuneo is almost always translated “to worship.” ‘Abad/latreuo is often translated “to serve,” but many translations are beginning to prefer translating it frequently as “to worship” as well. Translating these terms as “worship” is very defensible: the English word “worship” means both “to bow before a superior” and “to perform acts of religious devotion” (cf. Webster’s Dictionary). Yet the wider semantic range of English “worship” thus proves problematic in religious discourse: modern “worship wars” have featured not a little argumentation in which two sides highlight one definition or term over the other. The general conception of what “worship” looks like now has very little to do with the actual meaning of shahach/proskuneo, often excluding the very act which prominently defined the term in antiquity! Much confusion would be lifted if we returned to “literal” translations of prostration/rendering obeisance and service: we could appreciate both for what they mean in the original text, and we would be able to much more accurately handle the text than current discourse allows.

Phrases in Translation

Individual words do not stand alone in a vacuum; they are combined as thoughts conveyed in phrases or clauses. The specific meaning of any given word in any given phrase is contextually based. In this way all language is, to some degree or another, contextual. Beyond this lay the context of the author and his intended audience, the condition of their relationship, and what the author feels as if he is able to imply or elide and what his audience will be able to infer or understand. For this reason translation is an art, not a science; it is at the phrase/clause level where many of the distinctions, and various strengths and weaknesses, of the literal, formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and paraphrase translation theories are manifest.

The Hebrew בן (ben) in construct, “son of,” can refer to actual lineage (i.e. “Son of David”), but can also frequently be used idiomatically to denote a relationship between the subject and the concept in construct. In Genesis 17:1 Abraham is ninety-nine years old: the text literally says he is a “son of ninety and nine years.” Certain “literal” translations, like the LITV and Darby, translate the idiom, while Young renders the idiom literally; in this way we can see that even a “literal” translation will feature interpretive decisions, whether to maintain literalism to the detriment of accuracy or whether to provide more translation so as to reflect accuracy even if that demands a departure from literalism.

This interpretive decision proves less acute with age than it does with certain titles. In Psalm 8:4 we are introduced to the Hebrew-אדם ןב (ben-adam), literally, “son of man.” Yet, as with “son of ninety nine years,” so with “son of man”: it is a Hebrew idiom for a human being. Jesus consistently speaks of Himself as the “Son of Man” (e.g. Matthew 25:41): He no doubt evokes the Messianic prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14, but the original idiom never loses its meaning. Literal translations, formal equivalence translations, and even the majority of dynamic equivalence translations prefer “Son of Man.” Yet some dynamic equivalence and paraphrase versions have shifted to “Human One,” thus translating the meaning of the idiom. Considering the “Son of Man” as the “Human One” in some verses like Matthew 25:41 or Acts 7:56 emphasizes Jesus’ continuing humanity in the resurrection in a way some Christians have missed by focusing on the Messianic element of the use of the phrase to the detriment of the phrase’s idiomatic meaning. Such is a powerful example of the value of a paraphrase or a more “loose” dynamic equivalence translation: a change in style may jolt us out of a type of exegetical complacency and force us to re-consider a text’s meaning in a healthy and productive way which would not take place if we kept only to the “literal” or formally equivalent.

In 1 Timothy 3:2 Paul listed one of the qualifications of an overseer as μιας γυναικος ανδρα (mias gunaikos andra). What we are to make of this phrase exemplifies the challenges of literalism and accuracy in Bible translation. Literally the phrase reads “one woman man,” or “one wife husband.” Such is why most literal and formal equivalence translations render the phrase “the husband of one wife.”

But what does it mean to require an overseer to be “the husband of one wife”? Does it mean that he is presently married to one woman, or can it refer to a past condition which is no longer true? Does it exclude a man whose first wife died and he remarried another, or a man whose first wife committed sexually deviant behavior for which reason he divorced her and then he remarried another (cf. Matthew 19:9, Romans 7:1-4)? Does it require the overseer to be a man, or, for that matter, is it more about what would be negated, and thus not require marriage at all?

Some dynamic equivalence translations capture the primary meaning of the phrase as “faithful in marriage” (so CEV, ERV). Such understands Paul’s concern as primarily present in scope and conveys its primary force: the overseer presently is married to a woman and is faithful to her. Nevertheless, if this were the only way we understood the text, could we not find a way to commend bigamy, polygamy, or even gay marriage? Could not a bigamist or polygamist be “faithful in marriage” if he confines himself to the women he has married? Could not two homosexuals prove “faithful in marriage”? In this way we can see one weakness of a dynamic equivalence translation: in order to represent a possible primary meaning, the translation is open to be misconstrued in terms of inferences. One might find a way to consider a polygamist or one practicing homosexuality to be “faithful in marriage,” but none can suggest either is a “one woman man.”

Other dynamic equivalence translations emphasize the “one” wife and thus capture the meaning of the phrase as “the husband of only one wife” or “he must have only one wife.” Such a translation, while understandable, runs perhaps the opposite problem of that of the CEV and ERV: by adding the limiting “only,” they run the risk of overemphasizing what can be inferred and suggesting it as what Paul primarily means, suggesting he is quite concerned about a bigamist or polygamist being considered as an overseer.

Yet even the formal equivalence NRSV renders the phrase as “married only once.” Such is a defensible translation which attempts to express one way the idiom could be understood, and yet it takes a stand in terms of the questions brought up earlier. Literalism is often a “way out” of thorny exegetical problems. Even phrases often derive elements of meaning based in their context, and in the context provided in 1 Timothy 3:1-12, we cannot find any “smoking gun” which would definitively establish whether Paul demands the overseer to be presently married to only one woman ever, presently married to a woman but not the same woman he has been married to in his life, or perhaps even not presently married to a woman but having been married either only to one woman or only to one woman at a time in the past. Thus, what is best in such a situation? Leave it to the reader to work through and render it without bias: “the husband of one wife.” When accuracy cannot be guaranteed, literalism can be effective.

Many more examples could be adduced, yet these should prove sufficient to demonstrate the challenges in conveying certain Hebrew and Greek words and phrases into English.

We do well to appreciate the complexity and difficulty involved in the work of Bible translation and should not expect any Bible translation to bear the load of conveying all nuances and explanation necessary for the reader to come to a full understanding of what God intended to reveal. Each Bible translation philosophy has its strengths and weaknesses; exemplars of each have their place on the bookshelf of the Christian. We must not fall into the trap of so believing in the strengths of any given translation philosophy so as to declare it the absolute way forward. Literal translations can provide the flavor of the original text; nevertheless, none ever fully literally translate, and literalism obfuscates as much, if not more, than it clarifies. Formal equivalence translations provide the best balance for study, teaching, and preaching, seeking word-for-word equivalence while seeking to communicate in relatively understandable English. And yet formal equivalence translations always suffer from its trade-offs: sometimes much is lost when they move away from the literal, shades of meaning are lost when a one-to-one equivalence is demanded, and primary meaning can be lost in minutiae. Dynamic equivalence translations are great reading versions, able to convey the primary meaning first and foremost. In the process, however, one cannot maintain any confidence in any inferences or conclusions one might draw from the way a dynamic equivalence translation has framed the text without consulting a literal or formal equivalence translation. Paraphrases serve best to challenge our thinking and conception of the message of the text; they provide no benefit in terms of understanding how the text of Scripture was composed.

We must be careful in presuming nefarious motives on the part of translators if they translate a word or phrase in a way within the parameters of the original yet not according to what we perceive to be the faithful/accurate doctrinal tradition. They may have a different perspective, perhaps even informed by their doctrinal tradition, but such does not automatically make them Satan’s agents to corrupt Scripture. Few are led astray by a Bible translation alone; interpretation, teaching, and preaching all prove equally important if not more so. If our disagreements have merit, we will be able to ground them by exposing the weaknesses of such translations, pointing out either what they add to or detract from the semantic range and domain of the original terms or phrase in context.

We do well to recognize that both the literal/dynamic equivalence and the dynamic equivalence/paraphrase philosophies have their strengths and weaknesses; above all things, we must confess that neither full literalism nor full accuracy can be reflected in any one given translation. Translation is interpretation; to explain interpretation, or the meaning of words, many times commentary and lexicography must be written and consulted. Such is why, from the beginning, faith comes by hearing the Word of God both read and preached/explained (Romans 10:12-17): one cannot express all the possible semantic conceptions or textual and grammatical nuances in one translation or even across all translations. A place remains for explanation; while that explanation features interpretation, it may prove critical for an effective understanding of the will of God as revealed in Scripture.

Thus, in the end, we do well to study, preach, and teach from formal equivalence translations, consult literal translations when beneficial, and read dynamic equivalence translations and paraphrases. We should consider how different translations, even within the same philosophical tradition, approach and translate the text. We do well to consider textual and linguistic commentaries and lexicons so as to develop an appreciation for the semantic domain and range of given words. We ought to be conversant with various textual difficulties, whether based on textual transmission or lexical or grammatical ambiguity. Above all things we must keep in mind how Bible translation is one part of the wider task of coming to an understanding of the Word of God as made known in Scripture, and should not be considered the whole task. May we fully apply ourselves to coming to a greater understanding of God in Christ as made known in Scripture!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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