Thinking Out Loud

February 4, 2014

Want to Own the Most ‘Literal’ Bible?

Bible translation

The answer to the above question is, ‘No, you don’t.’ You simply would get nothing out of each sentence. It’s like those words on the puzzle pages of newspapers where you’re given a quotation and asked to put the words in order. Mean you if what I know.

I was thinking about this yesterday reading an article about Bible translations. By that I mean currently existing translations. I tend to nod off during some discussions on translation history, because I’m not really a history guy, and because I consider it sufficient to know that Eve was tempted by a Septuagint in the garden.

So every once in awhile I check out Kouyanet, the blog of Eddie and Sue Arthur, who work for Wycliffe and admittedly don’t write very much about English Bibles. Still, even if you don’t understand everything, if you have an interest in something it’s good to immerse yourself in what other people are talking about, even if you feel like a car wash attendant in a room of automotive engineers.

Anyway, they recently linked to this article, Lost in Translation by David Shaw at the website of The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches in the UK, and while I personally found the whole article informative, I thought I’d give you a short word-bite from near the end:

…Some argue that because God inspired the words of the original texts that we should try to translate on a word-for-word basis as much as possible. While there is some truth in this, it’s also a rather naïve view of translation. After all, what’s the best translation of “Au revoir”? Well, “Goodbye”. We’ve translated two words with one word, but that’s a good thing because we have clearly conveyed the meaning. To take a biblical example, borrowed from Rod Decker’s excellent brief review of the ESV (see the further reading section below) here’s a word for word ‘translation’ of 2 Corinthians 6:12:

“Not you are being restricted in us you are being restricted but in the intestines of you.”

Of course, that won’t do. And it proves that any translation will have to rearrange and change words in order to convey the meaning. The KJV reflects a more standard English word order but still doesn’t make much sense:

“Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.”

The ESV moves further away from the Greek word order and imagery:

“You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.”

That makes more sense but the nature of the ‘restriction’ isn’t clear. Enter the NIV, which says:

“We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us.”

Has this made more significant changes to words of the original? Certainly. But doesn’t this also convey the meaning more clearly and effectively than the other options? Just from this example we can see that every translation has difficult decisions to make, but the great advantages of the NIV – its accessibility and clarity – still stand.

That’s just a sample passage to whet your appetite to finding more reading on the topic of translation.  I hope it resonates somewhere in the intestines of you.

Intelligent comments welcomed, but if you’re an NIV-hater or KJV-onlyist, please resist the temptation.



  1. Thanks for the link, Paul. I reckon your line about Eve and the Septuagint is the best line I’ve read in ages!

    Comment by Eddie Arthur — February 4, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

  2. As a NIV user for 30 years now, what excited me when I first came across the translation was its fine balance of fresh readability (yet nothing radical), acknowledgment of the KJV tradition (without being a revision) and accuracy (without being slavishly word-for-word). I still believe no other English version offers such a unique combination. Coming from India, where I necessarily have to use English as well as my mother tongue (the one Indo-European, the other a Dravidian language), I simply cannot comprehend the claims of certain translation partisans that theirs is literal (“essentially” or otherwise) while the NIV is not. How on God’s earth can you have a “literal” (if what you mean is “as word for word as possible”) rendering from a Semitic language (Hebrew) to an Indo-European one (English)? Is that even linguistically possible? NT Koine Greek might perhaps lend itself better to English equivalents, both being of the same language family, but even there the distance is too far to successfully claim equivalence. It is even more amazing that anyone can claim to take a translation, however “literal” it is, and attempt to study the original Hebrew or Greek with it. Would we do that with Homer or Virgil? Literalness, the way it is worshipped in American evangelicalism, is a heresy. What we need in a translation is accuracy, which does not equate always, or most of the time, with verbal equivalence. Let’s stop saying “literal” when we really mean “word-for-word”, because an accurate dynamic equivalent often is more literal than a word for word equivalent.

    Comment by Manoj Ebenezer — September 2, 2014 @ 8:04 am

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