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More Literal Than Thou

Who wins in the race for the most accurate Bible translation?

More Literal Than Thou

Who wins in the race for the most accurate Bible translation?

In the past several decades, a stream of new English translations of the Bible has flooded the market. Many have tried to distinguish themselves by claiming to be more literal or accurate than any other translation. Crossway’s English Standard Version (ESV) advertises itself as “essentially literal” and “word-for-word [accurate].” B&H Publishing’s Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is billed as an “optimal” translation that is both “highly literal” and “highly accurate.” The forthcoming Legacy Standard Bible (LSB) from Three Sixteen Publishing, itself a revision of “the most literally accurate English translation”—the New American Standard Bible (NASB)—is marketed as “the most accurate, the most consistent translation in English.” This is not a recent trend, with a centuries-long tradition of translations with literal right in the name, from Young’s Literal Translation of 1862 to 2020’s Literal Standard Version.

But which version succeeds in doing what it says—or, perhaps a better question, is this a race even worth winning?

What We Want from a Literal Translation

While publishers rarely specify what the term literal means, one message is clear: When it comes to marketing Bible translations, literal is best.

People want to know that their Bible is reliable and true, ensuring they understand what the authors—and, more importantly, God—actually said. Words like literal and accurate appeal to that desire, but the most literal translation may not be the best translation. In fact, this fixation on accuracy can cover a multitude of potential misunderstandings about language, translation, and the nature of the Bible itself.

I have no qualms with literal translations or the people who work on them; the high market demand clearly speaks to a need. But let’s pin down what Christians want when we chase after these literal translations and whether this pursuit truly quenches our thirst for understanding.

The desire for literal translations of Scripture is not new. It seems to have been the impulse behind Aquila’s translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the second century, and since at least the time of Jerome’s translation of Scripture into Latin in the fourth century, readers have complained that new translations weren’t good enough or literal enough. In response to this charge, Jerome freely confessed in his letter to Pammachius that he translated not “word by word” but “meaning by meaning,” and he further asserted that this is how the New Testament authors themselves quoted and translated the Hebrew Bible. Not all were convinced, and to this day, many Christians long for an accurate word-by-word translation.

For those of us who hold that the words of the Bible are inspired by God, the words themselves matter in a way that the words of other ancient works don’t. There’s a categorical difference between interpreting the words of Plato or Aristotle and interpreting the words of Jesus. Additional rigor is required to do the latter properly.

Why We Can’t Have It

If we believe the words themselves are a product of inspiration, how are we to view translations, which by their very nature use different words in a different order?

Historically, some have avoided the issue by claiming that the translation itself is inspired. In the ancient world, this was how many viewed the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jerome’s own Latin version, the Vulgate, came to hold a similar authoritative status in the Catholic church. More recently, largely in America, some have viewed the King James Version in this light.

The idea of inspired translation, however, is not in keeping with what most Christians believe about inspiration, and so we are left reconciling the vagaries of translation with a strong sense that the precise words of Scripture, as written in its original languages, matter.

An emphasis on literalism would seem to address this tension. If the words matter, and if you do not understand the original language, then surely the best answer is a translation that consists of a word-for-word swap, staying as close to the wording and order of the original as possible.

Language, however, is complicated and layered. Even those who only studied French or Spanish in high school understand that a direct word-for-word translation of even a simple phrase is almost impossible to capture the full nuance and meaning. This hope for a literal translation relies on the belief that language is a cipher where each word is part of a code that will yield a consistent, perfect result if only the correct substitute for the code can be found.

But languages aren’t codes. And good translations can’t be find-and-replace swaps.

Every word in every language has a web of meanings, one that only partially overlaps with the separate web of meanings found in another language. To add to the confusion, identical words in the same language can have drastically different meanings with little reason to translate them using the same word. For instance, an athlete, a refrigerator, and a nose may all run, but no one believes that they are all performing the same action. Similarly, although the Greek New Testament uses the same verb for John being arrested, Jesus being betrayed, and Paul being commended, there is no reason to translate them consistently with identical English terms.

Context governs meaning. While a Bible version can boast that it consistently translates a Hebrew or Greek noun with the same English noun, the words may be preserved but the meaning could be lost entirely.

Adding yet another layer of complexity is the translation of idioms. I’m not aware of any mainstream translation, no matter how insistent it is about being word-for-word, that provides a literal version of the Greek idiom “to receive a face” found in Galatians 2:6 or Acts 10:34. To English readers, this phrase simply doesn’t make sense. Instead, “to receive a face” is replaced by the English idiom that conveys the same meaning: to show favoritism.

Instead of being a betrayal of the word-for-word method, this change is a credit to the translators. Ultimately, a word-for-word translation, in the strictest sense, is not feasible. Though it may be an ideal or even a marketing tactic, it cannot be the grounds for a legitimate translation.

What We Have Instead

Readers should instead think of so-called literal translations as “essentially literal” (as the ESV bills itself) and an attempt “to be a window into the original text” (as the LSB describes itself in its preface). These kinds of translations attempt to reproduce not just the meaning of the original words but also the syntactical structure and linguistic choices of the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but there are limits to this method as well.

English does not function the same way as Greek or Hebrew. Indeed, a given translation’s “literalness” is often a measure of how comfortable a translation committee is with bending English into increasingly odd shapes to accommodate the Greek or Hebrew grammar. This is not always wrong or unhelpful, but it is far more complicated and less direct than it can appear on the surface.

In a critique of “maximally transparent” translations, linguist Mike Aubrey argues that discussions about literal translations often fail to discuss language correctly because they privilege a certain set of English words and then judge a translation by how closely it translates that set of words. These discussions have at their core a fundamental conceit that “meanings are, effectively, English, and there are Greek words for them.” Aubrey argues translators should instead evaluate the language on its own. We should be wary of overly literal translations, Aubrey explains, because “concepts are bigger than just individual words. … The best translators understand that. They understand that language has dynamic power for evoking ideas by the repetition of concepts without necessarily using the same word over and over.”

Put another way, Greek and Hebrew words do not mean English words, just as French words do not mean English words.

All this may sound like an argument against literal translations, but it’s not. This is merely a reminder that despite many translations being described, justified, and marketed as literal, English will never be Hebrew or Greek or any other language, and no translation can make it so.

Words Matter

Literal translations are worthwhile insofar as readers do not think of them as superior. They offer specific tools to interpret the Bible, tools that should not replace every other item in the toolbox, but which most certainly have their place.

After all, words themselves matter. The syntax matters. The verb forms matter. The rhyme schemes matter. These all matter because how God said things provides nuance and depth to help understand who God is.

Meaning is not the sole consideration in translation. Diction, syntax, register, assonance, implication, and style are vitally important when trying to understand—and then translate—any literary text. Since most people only ever access the Bible through a translation, a version that gestures at rhythm and rhyme and repetition can be another immensely helpful tool.

These translations are still approximations, yes, but they can be useful in providing a readable, if sometimes awkward, glimpse at both what the texts say in their original languages and something approaching how they say it.

Some literal translations provide evocative phrasing that better reflects the original language. For example, the NASB tells us that Paul’s “spirit was being provoked within him” when he saw that the city of Athens was full of idols (Acts 17:16). This may read a bit woodenly, but it tells you that the verb is both imperfect and passive. You can see that the action is both continuously happening and that it is being done to Paul. That’s a useful bit of information, especially when contrasted with the New International Version’s translation that says Paul was “greatly distressed.” In the NASB’s case, the translators have fulfilled their goal of bringing readers closer to the source language.

For the vast majority of readers, however, this glimpse of the original Greek is less gripping and meaningful than translators might hope. The attempt to hold on to the flavor of the original Greek is a plus for readers who can identify the source language, and an even greater bonus for those who have a good grasp of Greek and Hebrew. These readers are in a position to understand the significance of the translators’ grammatical decision.

The general reader, however, may have difficulty viewing this idiosyncrasy of translation as anything more than an awkward phrase. Literal translations may indeed provide a better map of the texts as written in their original languages, but these maps may be difficult to decipher unless one is already familiar with the terrain.

Embrace the Weird

No matter how skilled its translators may be, any literal translation will be in turns awkward and archaic. Now, if the intention of the translation was for it to read as fluid English, then this would be a failure, but, as previously noted, that’s not the goal of a literal translation. A reader can benefit from bits of stilted phrasing.

Moments of woodenness in a translation offer us small disruptive opportunities to remember that when the Bible speaks to us, it does so with a foreign tongue and with underlying assumptions that are not our own.

Many Hebrew or Greek constructions imported into English will sound strange to the English reader, though they would have sounded natural to the original audience. Sometimes, however, the biblical authors used intentionally strange turns of phrase. Translators smooth over such turns of phrase at their, and their readers’, peril. The awkwardness is itself a virtue. What if there’s value in preserving Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1:13 when he writes to “gird up the loins of your mind”? That likely sounded as odd to the original audience as it sounds to us. Readers, learn to embrace the odd.

It can be easy to forget that the Bible is a collection of dozens of books, the most recent of which was written nearly two millennia ago. These books were written in places, cultures, and eras—not to mention languages—that are very different from our own.

More dynamic translations do the valuable work of making the Bible understandable and readable to modern readers, as though it were always intended to be read in our own place and time. Literal translations, with their occasional bits of jarring syntax, make us uncomfortable, but it’s their very intent to make us uncomfortable. Literal translations remind us that while God speaks to us today through Scripture, the words were not written with modern American readers as the primary audience. In the brief glimpses offered by the infelicities of a literal translation, we are given a window that looks back over 2,000 years to a time and a place that’s not our own.

Sometimes the best thing a translation can do is remind us of the words that aren’t on the page and the phrasing we can’t see. A translation can push us back to the original contexts, the original languages, and the early ways in which these books were first written, read, and passed on.

A Place for Every Translation, and Every Translation in Its Place

There isn’t one perfect Bible translation. Every translation has its strengths and weaknesses. Each brings something unique to the table. The best practice, if you don’t plan on learning Greek and Hebrew, is to read several different translations and be aware of what each one is trying to achieve.

Most of us will continue to read the Bible in translation, so it’s important to keep a couple key truths in mind.

  • Every translation is a translation. No matter how literal it may be, it cannot fully reproduce the original text in modern English.
  • All translations serve different functions, but the unique features of a given translation do not always perform the work we think they do. It’s okay to be a little bit skeptical and to seek out more information.
  • Don’t be too quick to smooth out the little disturbances in the text. These rough edges provide us with a useful reminder that these words were written in a foreign world—more bizarre, more enchanted, and more wondrous than the one we typically imagine. These small disruptions drive us to explore the context of the Bible.

We have so much to learn from the Scriptures that God has given us. Thankfully, as Jesus says in Matthew 5:18, “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter shall pass from the Law, until all is accomplished!”

Or at least that’s how the NASB translates it.

Daniel Stevens is director of the Scholars Initiative at the Museum of the Bible, where he oversees research projects and develops new ways to responsibly make the museum’s collections accessible to the public and useful for scholars.

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