Fifteen Myths About Bible Translations

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ScottS's picture

I'm particularly disappointed of Dr. Wallace's remarks in two ways. The first is his point #2, where he argues that one myth is "a literal translation is the best version," but does so by looking at added word count! Now I am a formal equivalency person, meaning I hold that a more literal translation is the best (so in some respects, I hold to what he calls myth #2), but he should know better than to make this statement in respect to that:

For example, the Greek New Testament has about 138,000–140,000 words, depending on which edition one is using. But no English translation has this few.

Of course an English translation doesn't, for various common reasons:

  1. English verbs do not ever contain the pronominal subject within the word, unlike Greek verbs which do. So any instances where the Greek relied on the subject within the verb, a literal English is going to add a word.
  2. English has helper words (prepositions) for the genitive (especially) and dative relationships expressed in declensions of Greek words. So any instances of those will have a literal English translation adding a word.
  3. English has helping verbs to express certain tenses that Greek expresses in a single word. Again, a literal English translation will add a word (or words) to bring out the verbal sense.
  4. English has an indefinite article (Greek doesn't) and also tends to add a definite article before some concepts that Greek tends not to even though the concept is clearly definite (of course Greek has some opposite cases, like tending to put a definite article before a proper name when English doesn't, but the balance is that more words are added to English for a literal translation).
  5. The Greek often omits the "being" verb; English does not and a literal translation would add the word.

I don't have the hard statistics, but simply the difference in expressing the verbal relations between the two languages is probably going to add on average at least one word per clause to the Greek to express the concept in English. But the main point is that adding words does not prevent the translation from being a literal translation and to use that statistic to try to argue that is highly misleading. That is why Wallace's fallacy is so incredibly disappointing on that particular point.

Related to the above is his statement in his myth #3, where he proclaims:

3. The King James Version is a literal translation. The preface to the KJV actually claims otherwise. For example, they explicitly said that they did not translate the same word in the original the same way in the English but did attempt to capture the sense of the original each time.

A "literal translation" is not bound to translating "the same word in the original the same way in the English" each time (fallacy #1 in his argument), and a literal translation also attempts to capture the "sense of the original" (fallacy #2). It just that a literal translation tends more often than not to try to capture the sense more on a word for word basis, rather than a phrase, clause, or larger word group basis.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Bert Perry's picture

As someone with very minor expertise in Greek and Hebrew, the word count point is very well taken.  "In the Water" can be rendered as one word in Hebrew (bamayim)--lots of beautiful redundancy that really isn't done justice by mere word counts.  

Really, it's my opinion that Wallace missed an excellent chance to show a lot of the beautiful subtleties to those untrained in the ancient language, choosing instead to more or less pick a fight with the KJVO crowd.  In doing so, he missed a wonderful chance to actually make a point with those favorably disposed towards things like KJVO theology. 

A great place to show the difficulties of translation would have been to use a favorite verse of KJVO advocates, 2 Corinthians 2:17, where one translation says "corrupt" (the KJV uses an idiomatic translation to get "corrupt") and the other says "peddle".  If I read my "Littel Kittel" correctly, either would be acceptable, and either would be great with a footnote about the other meaning.  Which is literal, and which is idiomatic?  And which would be better?  Not always an easy decision. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture


Wallace wrote:

Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. 

I think this is a very good point. A true "literal translation" is an interlinear, which is no translation at alI. This whole issue of functional equivalence and formal equivalence has fascinated me. Anybody who has had foreign language training knows translation is more an art than a strict science. 

I have read Leland Ryken's little book Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach, and appreciate a great deal of what he says. However, Ryken is not a translator and I am not sure what experience he has with Koine Greek. But, in general, I agree with him. His book is important, and people ought to read it.

On the other hand, I've read some of Eugene Nida's UBS translator's handbooks, and was fairly horrified at how far he advocates going from the actual words of Scripture. 

D.A. Carson's essay "The Limits of Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation - and Other Limits, Too" (in The Challenge of Bible Translationis very interesting reading. He seems to take a mediating position. He wrote this, among many other things, about the dogma of formal equivalence and the quest for "literalness:"

. . . what sounds like high theological motivation becomes a blunt instrument that fails to recognize the subtleties of translation (p. 69). 

There is something to be said for that. In essence, sometimes people who seek a "literal" translation really don't know what they're talking about. Translations exist along a spectrum; there is no "black and white." And, truth be told, there is no "literal translation" on the market today - unless you grab an interlinear. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.