Literal Bible Translation Should Not Literally Be Done

It is sometimes (often?) a theme in more conservative Christian circles that the more literal Bible translations are the better translations. Translations that are “less literal” and more “thought for thought” are not as faithful to the text and may end up adding to it, or at least so the thinking goes.

The thing about literal translation is that you cannot literally have a literal translation, else you would have something far less than a translation. Rather than communicating what the text meant in the source language, a truly literal translation would end up reading like nonsense and would not only fail to communicate the meaning of the text, it may even miscommunicate it.

Personally, I prefer the formal equivalence translation philosophy—the philosophy that is often termed more “literal”—but there is a limit to how “literal” you can become. It seems to me that the main motivation behind desiring a more “literal” translation is seeking a translation that best represents the source text of the Bible word for word. Because most Americans are monolingual, I’m not sure the implications of what a very literal translation would ultimately entail.

To demonstrate why literally literal translation is not truly possible (since it does not count as translation), I am going to present my own “literal” translations as a reductio ad absurdum to show what literal translation would look like taken to extremes. To make the effect stronger, I will not provide standard Bible translation alternatives and leave it to the reader to look the passages up if they want to understand what is actually being said.

And the woman saw that good the tree for eating and that pleasant it for the eyes, and desirable the tree for making-understanding, and she took from its fruit and ate and she gave also to her man with her and he ate.

Genesis 3:6

And they destroyed all that in the city, from man to woman, from young man and to old, and to ox and sheep and donkey with mouth of the sword.

Joshua 6:21

For you formed my kidneys, you knit me in belly of my mother.

Psalm 139:13

The, now, of Jesus Christ the birth like this was: Being betrothed the mother of him, Mary, to Joseph, before the coming together of them she was found in stomach having from Spirit Holy.

Matthew 1:18

Says to her the Jesus, “What to me and to you, woman? Not yet has come the hour of mine.”

John 2:4

This way, for, loved the God the world, such that the Son the only begotten he gave, so that all the believers in him might not perish but have life everlasting. Not for sent the God the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but that might be saved the world through him.

John 3:16–17

This think among you that also in Christ Jesus, who in form of God being not to be grasped considered the being equal to God, but himself emptied form of a servant taking, in likeness of men becoming, and in appearance being found as man, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, death even of cross.

Philippians 2:5–8

To messenger of in Ephesus church write, “Thus says the holder of the seven stars in the right of his, the walker in the midst of the seven lampstands the golden.”

Revelation 2:1

I assume there is enough here that is familiar to make out the meaning, but only due to your familiarity with how the passages are normally rendered. I have intentionally translated each passage incredibly “literally.” I have not accounted for English syntax and have not translated any idioms meaningfully. I have largely not inserted English words required for comprehension. The result is a mix between completely foreign sounding English and some parts that sound reasonable. It is of course possible that you could learn what is truly meant if the Bible was translated in this fashion, but it would only be through a lot of extra unnecessary study to cut through the confusion that being completely “literal” would create.

Mapping one language onto another is not as simple as translating word for word. Translators must rearrange wording to account for English syntax, must translate words according to their semantic range and what is the best meaning in context, and must communicate idioms and turns of phrase in a way that is meaningful to a native English speaker. It is hard work and it is a process that is always open to criticism. 

In the end, I still generally prefer formal equivalence translations, such as ESV, NASB, or NKJV. These translations give the reader a solid idea of what words underlie the translation and preserve to a reasonable degree the form of the original language. But they are not “literal” in a literal sense. Every single formal equivalence translation accounts for syntax (some would say they do not do so enough). Every single one must resort to translating some parts in a functional or “thought for thought” manner. Doing so is not being unfaithful to the text, but is simply a requirement when trying to translate in a way that meaningfully communicates to an English-speaking audience what the text says.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s