what’s wrong with a literal translation?

Wayne Leman has been posting portions of a paper by Mark Strauss entitled Why the English Standard Version (ESV) should not become the Standard English Version over on the Better Bibles Blog. It’s long, and so it comes in parts, beginning here. Strauss highlights numerous problems with the ESV, its translation, its use of English, and so on.

The paper highlights what is, I think, a very important issue in translation (whether it be of the Bible or any other text), and that is the way in which “literal” translations can actually result in mis-communication of the meaning of the text. A relatively trivial example is Amos 4:6, for which the ESV reads “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” Yet the verse is not actually about dental hygiene! The point is, of course, that the translators have decided to translate words, but not larger semantic units such as phrases. The translation begins with the foreign language text but doesn’t result in an English language text, instead producing some sort of intermediate hybrid.

Now there is a place for the very literal translations such as the NASB. When I was sitting exams on Greek translation I recall one practice adopted by some was to attempt to memorise the NASB translation so that, when a particularly difficult Greek word was encountered, a recollection of the English would provide a suitable gloss. (There were, of course, stories of students past who adopted the technique only to produce a translation of the Greek which included three extra verses beyond the end of the passage presented in the exam!) In other words, these translations are certainly helpful if you have some grasp of the original language and its idioms. But to the person in the street, the meaning of these versions is all too often inaccessible or worse, readily misunderstood.

7 responses to “what’s wrong with a literal translation?”

  1. ESV #13, by Mark Strauss « Better Bibles Blog

    […] what’s wrong with a literal translation? […]

  2. James McGrath

    Thanks for this. My favorite example is the idiom that this or that king “slept with his fathers”. I got an interesting reply once when I asked students what they thought that meant…

  3. martin

    James, thanks for that one, it also reminds me of a story related by one of my lecturers many years ago whose father had come to an Anglican church and found the jargon impenetrable, and, as someone familiar with cars, was perplexed at the reference to God’s manifold mercies!

  4. minnis

    @minnis

    and the verse is about GOD withholding food as punishment. the whole verse read together shows the context.

    1. martin

      I did say it was a relatively trivial example!

      But perhaps the obscure language is not so easily deciphered as you suggest. It begins a list of punishments, and so it isn’t immediately clear to the reader of the English whether this is specifically related to the want of bread or is a different punishment.

      The real questions becomes, if you’re going to bother translating the Hebrew, why make it unnecessarily difficult for the reader of English?

  5. martin

    I did say it was a relatively trivial example!

    But perhaps the obscure language is not so easily deciphered as you suggest. It begins a list of punishments, and so it isn’t immediately clear to the reader of the English whether this is specifically related to the want of bread or is a different punishment.

    The real questions becomes, if you’re going to bother translating the Hebrew, why make it unnecessarily difficult for the reader of English?

  6. “is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 1 | “shields-up”

    […] about which translation methodology is best all over the web (including on this very blog, see here and here). Is a literal “formal equivalent” translation better, or is a “dynamic […]

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