The Myth of Literal Translation

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I haven't read everything he's saying in context, but nobody is claiming it's either possible or desirable to translate "literally" in the sense of following the Greek structure. And I don't think there is any "myth" that this is being, or should be, done either.

In reality, literalness exists in degrees, and you have more or less literal translations. At the extreme non-literal (i.e., non-formal-equivalence) end you have the paraphrases. At the other end you have the relatively close correspondence translations like NASB. In the middle you have your NIV and CSB et al.

Probably the most important issue in translation is purpose: if you want a general use translation for a wide mix of English-speaking/reading people that you hope will retain strong usefulness for many decades, you want to be somewhere between the middle and the most formal-equivalent translations. The reason is that the more dynamic/paraphrastic/nonliteral a translation is, the more interpretive it is -- the more interpretive work it takes out of the hands of the reader. That has its place, but for general use, it's best to give readers options and let them study, or listen to a good sermon/lesson.

Don Johnson's picture

Of course it isn't meant for general readership, but it is helpful in study

Mounce is stretching it a bit in his argument, at least with the verse he mentions, 2 Th 2.3

In the YLT it says:

YLT  2 Thessalonians 2:3 let not any one deceive you in any manner, because -- if the falling away may not come first, and the man of sin be revealed -- the son of the destruction,
 

But the phrase he criticizes as being interpretive "For that day will not come" is the pretty obvious interpretation if you read the verse in context. Here is YLT adding in verse 2:

YLT  2 Thessalonians 2:2 that ye be not quickly shaken in mind, nor be troubled, neither through spirit, neither through word, neither through letters as through us, as that the day of Christ hath arrived; 3 let not any one deceive you in any manner, because -- if the falling away may not come first, and the man of sin be revealed -- the son of the destruction,

I think his example actually blows up in his face with respect to the point he is trying to make.

 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

YLT seems a bit like an interlinear without the Greek... so, without the "inter" part.

Sometimes literal can be confusing/misleading to general readers. 

On, 2 Thess 2:2-3 -- yep, as usual, context is key.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I believe he's writing to normal, interested Christians, and making the point that there is no such thing as a "literal" translation. Everything exists on a spectrum. People who say they're looking for a "literal" translation philosophy are well-meaning, but don't appreciate what a misnomer that quest really is. He just used 2 Thess 2:2-3 as an example. In my own article, which is somewhat related and came out a few days ago, I used 1 Pet 3:9 as an example. 

Many Christians (unwittingly?) malign worthy translations as "dynamic equivalent," when the truth is far more complicated. The bottom line is that, if you want a "literal translation," you should just buy an interlinear. You cannot avoid some manner of interpretation in translation; the question is "how much is too much?"

A Christian who doesn't know a foreign language has no appreciation for the insane amount of interpretative decisions a translator has to make when rendering one single passage. Consider the prepositions alone!

Anyone who has done translations on his own (e.g. parsing every word, classifying the voice, tense-form and mood of every participle, verb, infinitive, considering the use of every preposition, conjunction, pronoun and adverb, and then consulting many, many exegetical commentaries and adjusting your decisions when you feel it's necessary) understands how misinformed someone is when he asks, "I wanna a literal translation!" 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

When people say "literal translation" they mean "formal equivalency" ... even if they don't know what "formal equivalency" means. They sense that the more "dynamic equivalency" translation (they don't know that term either) are doing something for them (or to them) that the more literal ones are not.

I think it is foolish to chide people for wanting a literal translation. You know what they mean by the term. And there is value, much value, to preferring the literal translations. I don't mind people using some of the more dynamic translations, but at some point they should be shunned because their interpretations go to excess, in my opinion.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

I don't know where Mounce falls really here--I see his dad worked on the ESV--but it strikes me that all too often, the two sides are talking past one another.   One side is pointing out that the verb structures in Greek and Hebrew are quite different than English, the other is pointing at places (e.g. a bunch of 'em in the TNIV) where nouns with well-known equivalents are translated using other words.  Both are, in my view, correct, and if both sides would concede that obvious set of points, we might get somewhere.

Minor, fun correction to Tyler's point about "if you want a literal translation, get an interlinear."  It might be rephrased as "if you want a literal translation, become a native speaker of koine Greek, classical Hebrew, and Aramaic."  

Thankfully translation is good enough for us to get out of it what God wants.  :^)

 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

My aim is to get people to understand that they shouldn't malign translations based on bad information. The labels "literal" and "dynamic" are more than a bit disingenuous, even though we all use them for simplicity. I understand the desire to "shun" translations with a more dynamic translation philosophy, but I don't think that's a very good idea. I think you'll find that, when you examine the passage's context, you can "get" where they were coming from with their translation decision. You just happen to disagree, that's all. 

Again, we're going back to abstractions. Any translator makes dozens of major interpretive decisions in every passage he translates. The reason why these discussions are rarely profitable is because they're often abstract and theoretical. 

Consider these condndrums:

  1. In 1 Peter 1:5, is σωτηρίαν "salvation from sin" or "deliverance from danger?" How would you translate this, in context?
  2. Even better (or worse, for the translator), consider 1 Peter 3:7; what does ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει mean? It's commonly rendered "weaker sex/vessel/person." What does it mean, in context? How should it be rendered? You can see my thoughts on this one here.

This is when we leave the pie in the sky, and get down to brass tacks. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

Tyler, it isn't disingenuous to use the terms literal and dynamic. They have a meaning. Strictly speaking, there is no strictly literal translation. But there are translations that have a philosophy of "as close as possible to the formal equivalence philosophy" that is what is meant when people use the term literal. You know this and so does Mounce.

There are translations that have a "dynamic equivalence" philosophy, some are worse than others. I think that some of them should be shunned, while others I don't shun but don't recommend either.

What is disingenuous is for Mounce to try to put down the preference for a more formal equivalency by resorting to a ticky-tacky precision on the meaning of "literal." He should know better than that. His argument isn't a real argument here.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

TylerR's picture

Editor

Fair enough. Take care. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?