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The problems of literal translations

Mark L Strauss

Mark L Strauss

In trying to explain to my nephew (on Facebook) why I have significant reservations about the English Standard Version, I came across this interesting survey by Mark Strauss of the kinds of problems produced by the ESV’s overly-literal translation philosophy.

Here’s part of Strauss’s conclusion:

There is an unfortunate tendency among biblical scholars—who live in the world of Hebrew and Greek—to think they are getting it “right” if they mimic the form of the original languages. The unfortunate result is a tendency to create “half-idioms” (half-English/half-Greek), transferring a few words of the original, but missing its meaning in standard English. This is what the ESV does when people speak “with a double heart” (Ps. 12:2), have “news in their mouths” (2Sam. 18:25), “go in and out among them” (Acts 1:21; 9:28), or “fill up the measure of their fathers” (Matt. 23:32). These are half-idioms—Biblish rather than English.
As noted earlier, idioms work as a whole rather than through their individual parts. In translating the English idiom, “He’s really in a pickle,” it would be a mistake to preserve cucumbers in the translation. It is not the component parts but the statement as a whole that communicates its meaning.

Some critics have claimed that the only way to protect the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture is to translate literally. This, of course, is linguistic nonsense. The translation that best preserves the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture is one that clearly and accurately communicates the meaning of the text as the original author intended it to be heard. The Greek idioms that Paul or John or Luke used did not sound awkward, obscure or stilted to their original readers. They sounded like normal idiomatic Greek. Verbal and plenary inspiration is most respected when we allow the original meaning of the text to come through.

Asking the simple question, “Would anyone speaking English actually say this?” is a good test for standard English. This simple question could transform our Bible versions and bring them in line with the finest translation practices used around the world. We must remember that the ultimate goal of Bible translation is not to give our students a “crib” on their weekly Greek and Hebrew assignments, but to clearly and accurately communicate the meaning of God’s inspired and authoritative Word.

4 comments to The problems of literal translations

  • Peter Parslow

    But how do we know which things are idioms, and what the idioms mean?

    I’m happy enough that “covered his feet” is unlikely to be literal, and the contexts mean it doesn’t matter too much, but “urinate” seems likely.

    But what about say Heb 4:12 – is Paul using an idiom from contemporary Greek, or does he accept the Greek idea that man has body, soul & spirit? I’ve heard there isn’t much support for that in the Hebrew scriptures.

  • Paul Shaddick

    It’s a very good point Peter and an ongoing challenge for translators. Each idiom needs to be considered carefully in the light of its original and current readers. In the case of Saul “covering his feet” the likelihood of non-comprehension is high if the idiom is retained, but the original idiom seems likely to have been euphemistic so its purpose might better be retained by use of a modern euphemism, but “Saul went into the cave to use the bathroom” has some problems 🙂

    In the Hebrews example I would want to consider the evidence for the Greek being an idiom, but I suspect that removing the tripartite reference might generate more heat than light among contemporary theologians.

  • Yusuf Garba

    this is a good attempt

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