Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Word for Word

“If you don’t have access to the original language, stick with a word-for-word translation like the NASB ...”

There is a common misconception, usually among those who are only familiar with a single language, that it is possible to translate Hebrew or Greek — or any other language, for that matter — word for word. I used to believe it myself. It is not the case, and the translators of the NASB would tell you themselves that they have not attempted any such thing.

Loved the God Him the World

Here, very roughly, is what a real word-for-word translation of John 3:16 from the Textus Receptus looks like:
“So for loved the God him the world that he Son his unique gave that whosoever the belief in him not perish but have life everlasting.”
As you can see, it ain’t English. Not even close. We can parse this one out because we know what it’s supposed to say, but try doing that with verses with which you are not so familiar, or verses in which pronouns and their referents are even further apart in the original language.

Each language has its own unique sentence structure. Its native speakers are comfortable with these quirks and understand what their peers are trying to tell them. Some languages are syntactically similar; others are quite different. English is sufficiently different from both Hebrew and Greek that reading a whole Bible translated word for word would be an exceedingly painful and minimally communicative exercise. If word-for-word translation were useful, nobody would need language experts. Anyone with a dictionary and a lot of patience could sit down and do his own translating.

Needless to say, that doesn’t happen.

Metaphors and Idioms

But syntax is not the only area where a hyper-literal translation will reliably fail to do the job. Metaphors and other figures of speech translated word for word would be utterly confusing, or would fail to communicate the same thing in English that they communicated in the original language. For example, it is possible to translate ἀμὴν ἀμὴν as “verily, verily” or even “amen amen”, but the NIV’s “I tell you the truth”, though quite non-literal, is probably closer to the sense. At times, an idiom like “eat bread” is more understandable to moderns when simply translated “eat”. In such cases it is also more accurate; in OT usage, no bread may have been consumed at all.

Closer is Better?

Okay, so maybe a precise word-for-word translation is not possible, but surely it is desirable to get as close as possible to a literal translation in English, is it not?

Well, yes and no. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Word-for-word and literal translations are useful ways of comparing scripture with scripture provided words have been translated consistently from one language to another, but a Strong’s Concordance will get you to the same verses and some you wouldn’t have thought of with greater speed and accuracy by way of the original language.

There is nothing magical or especially spiritual about translating either literally or word-for-word. The Greek Septuagint was neither of these things, and there are plenty of quotes in the gospels from the Lord Jesus that have a strong Septuagintal flavor. I say “flavor” because the Lord almost never quoted any OT text precisely as experts believe it to have existed in his day. As one writer has put it, “his usage of scripture is allusive, paraphrastic, and — so far as it can be ascertained — eclectic.” And if the Lord Jesus paraphrased (or, frankly, even if the gospel writers paraphrased what he said), then surely accurately conveying the intended sense of the Old Testament text is more important to God than slavishly reproducing in the same order all the words of one language in another.

Intellectual and Spiritual

Sloppy paraphrases and the use of too-modern idiomatic language in English are better avoided, but there is no guarantee reading in the NASB or KJV will give you a better intellectual understanding of the meaning of the original text than reading in the ESV or NIV.

It certainly will not make you more spiritual.

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