Lots of people want their Bible translations to be “literal.” But what does “literal” even mean?
The NASB has called itself “the most literal” English Bible. The CSB calls itself “highly literal.” My own church’s ESV is “essentially literal.” The Literal Standard Version calls itself “the most literal translation of The Holy Bible, with significant improvement over previous literal translations.” The impression is alive and well out there in Bible-reader land—in which I was recent-ly dubbed a low-ranking earl—that “literal” Bibles give you what God said, and not-literal Bibles give you what people think he said. “Literal” is a label many Bibles want to claim.
But, again, when you really dig into “literalness,” what do you find? What does it even mean for a translation to be “literal”?
I once sat down with a fellow editor at Lexham Press, my re-spected friend and consummate word nerd Doug Mangum (whose name shows up on all kinds of cool Bible study resources you should have, such as the Lexham Theological Wordbook and the Lexham Context Commentary), to define the very concept of “literal” Bible translation. And we found that it was an essentially impossible task.
The impossibility is baked into the word: “literal” is itself a metaphor. It compares careful attention to the straightforward details of a text to minute exami-nation of just a letter at a time—“literal” comes from the Latin word for “letter.” But that just pushes the question back: how do you know when your translation is “straightforward”?
Because Doug and I knew that there is no heaven-sent definition of “literal” Bible translation, we did a little working backwards: what do people usually mean when they say “literal”? It seemed to us that three things were at the top of people’s literal list: (1) consistent word choice (often called concordance), (2) maintenance of original language word order, and (3) equivalence of grammatical categories (nouns in the Hebrew are nouns in the translation).
Our theory was that a “literal” translation, in order to deserve the label, would just have to reflect as many forms as possible in the original before it started sounding like something other than English.
But my work with Doug helped confirm for me that it is impossible to be consistently literal. Take each element above: (1) You can’t translate ekklesia as “church” every time, or you end up calling the Ephesian riot a “church.” (See this Word Nerd episode on YouTube for more details.) (2) You can’t keep the original language word order, or you get sentences no native English speaker would ever utter, like, “About but the things of which you wrote” (1 Cor 7:1). (3) You can’t keep relative pronouns in Greek as relative pronouns in English, or you make no sense: “About but those you wrote.”
You can’t translate the Bible for more than a minute without being required to “violate” all three top priorities of “literalness.” So maybe they’re useful, maybe they’re valuable, but they just can’t be a universal moral requirement. If they were, God would have made it possible to be perfectly literal.
Ironically, perhaps, considering that I am a well-known opponent of the doctrine of KJV-Onlyism, I think the KJV provides a better way forward than the escalating arms race of literalism. I think it established a good tradition worth maintaining—a tradition of basically literal Bible translation that nonetheless self-consciously refuses the ideal (or idol?) of perfect consistency. The KJV is a pleasing-but-not-perfect blend of “formal” and “functional” translation.
The KJV translators denied that their goal is to use the same English word for each Hebrew and Greek word. They said that they should have the right to say “journeys” in one place and “travels” in another. They said that to “mince the matter” by insisting on perfect consistency would “savour more of curiosity than wisdom” They “violated” all the principles of literalness—many times. And guess what: the Christian church in English-speaking lands did okay.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
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