Both literal or “word for word” translations as well as meaning-based or “thought for thought” translations are legitimate representations of the original biblical manuscripts. Each style of translation has strengths and weaknesses in providing readers access to the content of the biblical writings in their own language. The argument in these articles is that a common claim that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations is incorrect and can be harmful to the body of Christ. Because literal translations often obscure the meaning for the average reader, insistence on using those versions exclusively or primarily serves to keep people from engaging God’s word with the clarity offered by meaning-based versions.
Both translation orientations are found in all Bible versions and so, strictly speaking, it is misleading to label a version “literal” or “meaning-based.” Literal versions also consider what the translation will mean in the receptor language, and meaning-based versions often provide translation through which the reader may recognize words and structures of the original languages. (see the IBS English Bible Translation Comparison chart in which versions are charted according to their “degree of literalness.”) The following articles seek to show that the “degree of literalness” is unrelated to the accuracy of translation and should not be used to judge one version as more the word of God than another. Accuracy must be gauged according to the success of any translation to communicate the message of the original manuscripts to its intended audience.
In these articles “version” (n) refers to a complete translated text like the NRSV (literal version) or CEV (meaning-based version), while “translation” (n) refers to the text within the version. For example, any version, whether labeled “literal” or “meaning-based” will have both styles of translation.
The author of the articles has been involved in Bible translation as supervisor of the Sindhi translation project for the Pakistan Bible Society during the past 18 years.
2. Weaknesses of translation styles
“In your own words”
During our time in Pakistan, my wife, Karen, went with a friend to see a doctor. With little explanation, the doctor diagnosed the friend and prescribed some pills. My wife pursued the issue further and asked the doctor the reason for the diagnosis. Speaking in English, he began to explain the illness. Something about his style of speech struck Karen as strange, until she realized what it was: the doctor was reciting verbatim from an English medical textbook! Rather than provide an explanation in his own words, he repeated a passage that had been memorized in medical school.
“in your own words”
In contrast, I remember many times as I was growing up in Canadian schools that the teacher would tell us to explain something “in your own words.” The teacher’s goal was to ensure comprehension on the part of the students. Rote repetition probably meant that the student did not understand but was hiding their ignorance behind the words of those who did. This western education method is less valued in Pakistan where rote repetition is the norm, underlining the priority given to the wisdom and tradition of the elders and scholars.
Both literal and meaning-based translations … have limitations”
Both of these orientations are reflected in my work as I check the meaning of the Sindhi Bible translation. Although I am familiar to some extent with the original languages of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, I am far from fluent and rely heavily on the scholarship of others through commentaries and translation helps. One of my “short-cuts” is to use a literal translation, such as the NRSV, to provide an indication of the structure and words of the original manuscript. In contrast, when I am puzzled about the meaning of a verse, I do not consult literal translations because they do not clarify the sense, but only reproduce that structure and those words that have hidden the meaning from me. Instead, I turn to meaning-based translations. Because they have put the meaning “in their own words,” according to the English vernacular I am familiar with, I can often quickly discover what the verse means. Both literal and meaning-based translations are useful, but they both have limitations. The key weaknesses of both orientations are outlined below.
Weaknesses of Literal translations
a. Lack of clarity can mislead and discourage readers
ESV’s success … highlights its primary weakness
Kermit Titrud provides the following examples of awkward or misleading renditions in the highly literal English Standard Version (ESV). These examples do not constitute failure or inaccuracy of translation, for the version intentionally uses a Greek or Hebrew rather than English construction in order to provide an equivalence of the form of the original language (formal equivalence). At the same time, the ESV’s success in achieving this goal highlights its primary weakness, because communication of God’s word to those unfamiliar with the original text is sometimes lacking.
Mark 1:11 reads in the ESV, “with you I am well pleased.” Titrud asked a number of English speakers if they would ever use this phrase in addressing their children and none of them would. It reflects Greek structure but is awkward English. The form, which was natural in the 1st century, does not provide equivalent impact or significance in our context.
In Genesis 4:1 the ESV has “Now Adam knew Eve his wife.” In a discussion with teenagers, Titrud discovered that their understanding of this phrase was not in terms of sexual intimacy (its primary meaning), but in terms of familiarity in relationship. One teenager “said that since Adam was married to Eve, he of course knew her. The second one said that since Eve was taken from Adam’s rib, Adam of course knew himself. The third one said that it took him a while to really get to know her and accept her – to understand her.” This distortion occurred because the teenagers read the verse according to vernacular English, rather than recognizing the unique way the ESV uses English to reflect the constructs of the original language.
Psalm 1:1 reads: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners.” The latter phrase, “stand in the way of sinners,” if read according to modern English idiom, is a blessing on those who do not hinder sinners from committing crimes. The intent of the text is to pronounce a blessing on those who refuse to do evil.1
As mentioned in the introductory article on the two translation styles, the primary weakness of formal translations is that comprehending the meaning of the text requires a background education beyond the common day-to-day use of the reader’s language. The reader is expected to determine the correct meaning of the translated text based on comprehension of the original text. Unfortunately, few readers of the Bible have appropriate understanding of the background and context of the original text that allows them to adequately interpret the meaning. Even those with some training in exegesis and the original languages are at a disadvantage, because their limited perspective can lead them astray. We do not live in the same culture as the authors and original audience and so we do not approach the text with the same background information and assumptions. The saving grace is that there are commentaries and other Bible study guides prepared by scholars that provide the broader perspective and support required for a correct interpretation.
For example, consider Luke 1:46, 47 in which Mary says,
Soul … Spirit
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (NRSV)
As a literal translation, these lines in the NRSV reflect the poetic structure and words of the original language, but not in a way common to the English vernacular. The reader with background understanding will recognize the parallel structure and the likelihood that Mary is using two separate words – soul and spirit – for one expression of praise from her center of emotion. A natural reading of the translation by one unfamiliar with the poetic style could be that she is speaking of two separate experiences and aspects of her being.2 Understanding of this verse is obtained, not by reading the translated text at face value in the vernacular English, but by going behind the translated text and interpreting according to the way the original writing functions. In contrast, a meaning-based translation will provide a straightforward interpretation by using vernacular English, e.g., “…how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior” (NLT).
Those who insist that literal translations are superior probably do the greatest damage to people incapable of going behind the translated text to discover the meaning of the original manuscripts. For this vast majority of believers, the literal translation in their hands is often not understood, or worse they may misread the text. Even in the best-case scenario, readers are dependent upon others to provide interpretation. Because many passages are difficult to understand, the reader may quickly become discouraged or allow the comfort of familiar words to be a substitute for comprehension. Unfortunately, literal translations can convince readers that a lack of clarity in Bible reading is the norm.
b. Why Literal translations often lack clarity
But is it really true that literal translations often fail to communicate the meaning? Since every word is “breathed out” by God, should not a word for word translation that uses synonyms between languages be both necessary and sufficient to communicate the meaning?3 Although this assumption is often used to support the theory that literal translations are superior, it is based on misunderstandings concerning the nature of language.
“cat” + “hat” + “the” + “in” ≠ “the cat in the hat”
First, the meaning of a text does not reside solely in the words themselves, but in the way the words relate to each other to form ideas or thoughts. That is, in communication, the meaning of the sentence is not determined from the sum of the meanings of individual words, but by the relationship of the words to each other. For example, the meanings of the words “cat,” “hat,” “the,” and “in” considered individually do not mean the same as “the cat in the hat.” Because words do not relate in the same way in different languages, a simple word for word translation often fails to communicate the meaning.
Second, it is not true that there are equivalent synonyms between languages. No two words in any language are entirely synonymous in meaning but have their own unique range of nuance and emotion that has been shaped by history and environment. For example, the sentence “the cat in the hat” will evoke a far different image among those familiar with Dr. Seuss than among those who have not had the pleasure of reading his books.
Third, not only do words relate differently in different languages, but very often information crucial to the meaning is kept implicit because of a common understanding between author and audience. As a result, readers of literal versions must rely heavily on material external to the text in order for communication to occur. A literal translation of the sentence “He turned our place upside down like the cat in the hat,” into the Sindhi language would require considerable explanation before the average Sindhi reader would understand the allusion.
To provide a biblical illustration of the above three points, consider the description of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen 10:9, NRSV). This literal translation has provided a word for word representation of the original with the words “before the LORD.” Each word has meaning, but because the relationship between the words is different than in the original Hebrew, the meaning represented by this English translation is hidden; it is not obvious what it means for a person to be a mighty hunter “before the LORD.” The sum of the words do not equate with the meaning of the original.
Second, the word “LORD” is capitalized to indicate a non-vernacular stylized representation of the Hebrew name for God, “YHWH” (another stylized representation!). This is necessary because there is no equivalent for this Hebrew name of God in English. As a result, a descriptive word (lord = master) is capitalized to communicate a meaning that is not inherent in the word “lord” itself.
Third, it is the implicit information in the original setting that provides the meaning of the phrase, which is lacking in the NRSV’s literal translation. For the Hebrews, God is the ultimate point of reference and in order to express totality the biblical authors would at times refer to God. In this verse the likely meaning is “Nimrod was the mightiest hunter in all of God’s creation” (from Sindhi translation), or “in God’s sight” (NLT).
Despite this weakness, “word for word” versions often do provide a translation in which the vernacular understanding of the target language naturally carries the same meaning as the original text. Even though the intent is to point back to the original text, the receptor text in such cases also provides an equivalent meaning for the reader. Unfortunately, there are usually no signals in the text that allow the reader to know when the meaning is being communicated according to vernacular usage, and when it is not. This can result in frustration and confusion on the part of the reader when the wording does not adequately communicate.
Weaknesses of meaning-based translations
a. Lack of correspondence to form
Meaning-based versions do the work of interpretation for the reader by presenting the meaning of the original text in the vernacular language of the receptor audience. The readers are expected to gain an understanding directly from the translated text according to the way words are used in their language, not as symbols pointing back to potential meaning residing in the original text. Based on substantial scholarship and critical translation checking, the meaning of the original – the inspired message – is presented in structures natural to the reader; the meaning resides in the translated text. This consistency in the intent of meaning-based versions is helpful to readers because they do not have to wonder if a particular passage is to be understood as written or if there is background information that needs to be brought to the text.
However, as is the nature of translation, this strength has a corresponding weakness. Meaning-based translations sacrifice the representation of the form of the original in order to present the meaning in understandable ways. For example, the range of meaning of any word in one language does not directly correspond with the range of meaning of a word in another language. Because any word in the original language has a range of nuances and meanings depending on the context, a concern for communication of meaning requires the use of a variety of terms in the target language that are suitable to those contexts. So while they provide a better understanding of individual sentences or clauses, meaning-based translations do not reveal to the reader the structure or intentional word choices of the original language. The sentence provided above, “He turned our place upside down like the cat in the hat,” in a meaning-based translation would likely use a simile familiar to the audience, or ignore the reference to “the cat in the hat” as secondary to the meaning.
It is usually not possible to follow the theological development of a specific Greek term in Paul’s writings because a meaning-based translation will used a variety words depending on the context to provide clarity for the reader. For instance, Paul uses a pair of terms, pneuma and sarx (“spirit” and “flesh” – NRSV), a number of times in his letters. A literal translation will attempt to use the same English words in each case to assist the reader in recognizing the connection between the passages. In contrast, the NIV “construes sarx as ‘sinful nature’ in Rom 8, and sarkinos as ‘worldly’ in 1 Cor 3, with the result that the reader of this translation is not aware that in the original the same root form was employed…. [This translation choice] makes it more difficult to compare individual passages with parallel passages elsewhere.”4
b. Potential for Mistranslation
There are two other weaknesses to meaning-based translations that are more disconcerting. First, while meaning-based versions are more intentional than literal versions to present the meaning clearly according to receptor language usage, this increases the potential for mistranslation. “Since the translator is ‘freer’ from the grammatical forms of the original language he [sic] is more likely to exceed the bounds of an accurate translation, in an effort to speak naturally in the native language. That is, the [meaning-based] translations are capable of being more natural and more precise than are [literal] translations, but they are also more capable of being precisely wrong.”5 The primary complaint of those who disparage meaning-based versions is that they disagree with the meaning presented in certain passages. In such cases formal translations are usually obscure or encompass a number of possible interpretations.
In 1 Tim 6:17 the ESV translates “God… richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” By not clarifying the word “everything,” a potential misinterpretation is that we are to enjoy everything, even those things that bring discomfort or hurt. In order to mitigate this the CEV translates, “God… is rich and blesses us with everything we need to enjoy life.” While a correct aspect of the meaning, this limits God’s bounty to our needs, as Grudem points out, “[We] can freely enjoy the abundant diversity of God’s excellent creation,”6 which encompasses far more than what we need. While it would be going too far to call the CEV rendering a “mistranslation,” it nonetheless appears to have limited the meaning more severely than warranted in its attempt to avoid the lack of clarity evident in the (literal) ESV.
By translating Mt. 5:3 as “those people who depend only on [God],” the CEV may have mistranslated the phrase if this is not what it means (footnote: I think the TEV’s “who know they are spiritually poor” captures the essence better, but with a lesser degree of clarity). In contrast, the NRSV (a literal oriented version) with “poor in spirit” provides English synonyms and equivalent structures without clarifying the meaning. The NRSV cannot be accused of mistranslating, although to achieve this it chooses to under translate and therefore, for most people, fails to communicate because of the vast number of potential meanings. If the CEV is correct, then it not only provides the reader with the inspired message, but it also prevents the reader from coming to a wrong understanding, a very real possibility with the NRSV. At the same time, because clarity requires a narrowing of possible meanings, the danger of mistranslation remains a distinct possibility for meaning-based translations.
c. Inability to include all the possible nuances
The other major weakness of meaning-based translations, closely related to the previous, is that the full nuance of the original text is seldom, if ever, maintained. Whenever communication in translation occurs, it occurs within a new context and therefore the fullness and impact of the original context cannot be maintained. Meaning-based translations use the vernacular of the receptor audience; the meaning is determined by the context and conventions of the target people group. Elements of the original context that provided meaning for the original readers are unavoidably neglected.
In reference to the above mentioned verse, Gen 10:9, the sentence, “[Nimrod] was a mighty hunter before the LORD” (NRSV) by virtue of its obscurity, can be understood as including all the intended nuance of the original text. To provide clarity of meaning, meaning-based translations narrow the nuance to one possible image. For example, one meaning-based version has “Nimrod was the mightiest hunter in the whole world” (one edition of the NLT). While providing the probable meaning, it neglects the context of the Hebrew worldview with its reference to God. The translation “Nimrod was a mighty hunter in God’s sight” (NLT) maintains a sense of the Hebrew worldview but loses the superlative force – Nimrod as the mightiest hunter. Furthermore, these translations exclude other possible interpretations, such as the TEV, “whose strength came from the LORD.”
By virtue of providing a phrase that cannot be understood without bringing outside information to the text, the original nuance is not excluded from the translated text in literal translations, but it is not necessarily communicated by the text. Meaning-based translations, of necessity, exclude some of the nuance in order to bring clarity to the text. The translator has the choice between communicating the meaning while losing some of the surrounding nuance (meaning-based), or maintaining the full potential of possible meanings but without communicating a clear sense of the meaning (formal).
Together, greater confidence and comprehension
Though individually limited, together literal and meaning-based translations provide readers with greater confidence that they have grasped the intended meaning of the original text. Exclusive use of a literal version makes it difficult for the reader to understand the message. Exclusive use of one meaning-based translation will prevent the reader from exposure to other possible nuances of the original text. Excellent scholarship lies behind both literal and meaning-based versions so that we can read them with confidence and compare them in order to obtain a deeper appreciation of the message. Literal translations ensure that we maintain a tie to the original text as the standard for the meaning, while meaning-based translations provide clarity and comprehension.
A future article will explore the theological concerns and assumptions that lie behind the claim of some that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations.
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- 1 These examples are taken from Kermit Titrud’s article at www.geocities.com/bible_translation/list/files/titrud.doc accessed August 08.
- 2 In his article, “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God” in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2005, 19-56) Wayne Grudem proposes a distinction of meaning between the two lines (p. 39), but does not provide any guidance towards determining that distinction.
- 3 Wayne Grudem states, “the Bible repeatedly claims that every one of its words (in the original languages) is a word spoken to us by God, and is therefore of utmost importance, and … this fact provides strong argument in favour of “essentially literal” (or “word-for-word”) translations….” Ibid. p. 19.
- 4 T. David Gordon, “Translation Theory” 1985, at http://www.bible-researcher.com/gordon.html accessed July 4, 2008
- 5 ibid.
- 6 Grudem. p. 45.