Should Bible Translations Be Literally Accurate?

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One of the big guns often hauled out in Christian fights over Bible translation is the literal gun. “BLAM!” says the literal gun. Then it says in a booming voice, “TRANSLATIONS SHOULD BE LITERALLY ACCURATE, WORD-FOR-WORD!!!” And then it adds another “BLAM!!!” for good measure. (We’ll get to the translations shouldn’t be literal gun in the next column; don’t worry.)

But I can’t agree that translations should be literally accurate. That is a massive oversimplification of the issues involved in translation. And to prove my contention, I want to show you two utterly random places in the Bible where literal translation is impossible. 

I find that people mostly like to speak in generalities about Bible translation; patient attention to the details is very difficult—especially because those details are written in ancient languages most Christians have not been given the opportunity to learn. But you are a word nerd, so you are going to be able to follow.

First, here’s Romans 15:14 in the usually very literal New American Standard Bible, a translation I love and use all the time: “I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another.”

Notice something very simple: the same English root word appears twice: “full” and “filled.” But in Greek, “full” and “filled” are two completely different words, words that are not even related. No one ever seems to define literalness, but as best I can tell by watching the way people use the concept, one requirement of literal translation is supposed to be that you use one English word for each Hebrew and Greek word. You’re not supposed to double up like this. The Literal Gun has in its instructions, “IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT SYNONYMS IN GREEK BE DISTINGUISHED CONSISTENTLY IN ENGLISH! BLAM!!”

But this is impossible. That word “filled” is often best translated “fulfilled”: “Then what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled (Matt 2:17).” But you can’t consistently translate it with “fulfill,” because that would require us to have Jesus saying to his disciples, “Sorrow has fulfilled your hearts” (John 16:6), which is meaningless. Consistency is nice; it’s often useful—but it’s ultimately impossible in Bible translation. So it can’t be a universal obligation. 

Second example: “Keep a close watch” in 1 Tim 4:16 (using the esv for this example) takes four English words to translate one Greek word. Now, this is a fine translation. But the Greek word is an imperative verb, while the English translation contains an imperative verb (“keep”), but also an article (“a”), an adjective (“close”), and a noun (”watch”).

Sometimes it takes four words in four different parts of speech to translate one Greek or Hebrew word (likewise, sometimes it takes fewer English words to translate longer Hebrew and Greek phrases). This means that another principle of literal translation—“stick to the parts of speech used in the original”—also falls. Often literal translation is easy to do, but often it’s impossible. So it can’t be a universal obligation.

Some translations say that they translate literally whenever they can, but they stray when they can’t. This is not a bad principle. It creates useful translations. But there is no clear line between can and can’t here. Somebody still has to make a judgment.

Over and over I see good Christians I love falling prey to the idea that we can remove the human element in Bible translation. We can set up the perfect principles that will ensure accurate communication of God’s word—nothing more, nothing less. Those translations perceived to be less literal are excoriated, maligned; people empty their gun clips upon them. 

I say: Make love, not war. Learn to see the benefits in literal and not-so-literal translations. Think of me as the lawman who steps into the dusty high street in between rival posses and tells them to holster their guns. I stand tall and say, “Blessed are the peacemakers—or I’ll shoot.”

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This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is an editor in the book division at Crossway. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018). He is an active YouTuber.

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