Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Myth of “Literal” Translations (Luke 8:55)

Note: You can watch this blog on YouTube.

If you have been following my YouTube channel, you will know that I am focusing on dispelling the myth that there is such a thing as a “literal” translation. Even interlinears can’t, technically, be “literal.”

As is always the case, when you are thinking about something, you tend to see it more, and I am seeing verses every day that illustrate my point.

One of the arguments that is made for “literal” translations is that they reflect the underlying Greek and Hebrew structure. As I have been saying, there are two issues with this.

1. If you know enough Greek to benefit from seeing the underlying structure, then you should be reading Greek. If you don’t know the original languages well enough, then I suspect there is more danger than advantage in thinking you see the structure.

2. I suspect there is not a single sentence in the Bible that actually does what the marketing claims. Take for example Luke 8:55. “And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat” (ESV). Other than being poor English (we don’t start sentences with a conjunction, although Greek does), is that literal? Does this reflect Greek structure. Not entirely. Where does it diverge from the Greek? If you don’t know Greek, you don’t know where. So you are in a difficult situation in which you think you are sticking close to Greek structure, but you aren’t, and you don’t know where.

The NASB at least italicizes words that are added (which, by the way, is a perfectly legitimate and necessary thing to do when going from Greek to English). “And her spirit returned, and she got up immediately; and He gave orders for something to be given her to eat.” Greek does not always supply an object, but English needs one here. (In Greek, “something” would be the implied subject of δοθῆναι, or perhaps more accurately, the accusative of reference for the infinitive.)

My point is that if you are relying on an English translation to see the underlying Greek structure, you probably don’t know enough Greek to gain understanding from structural clues, and you probably don’t know where the translation moves away from the Greek structure in order to communicate in English.

I was making this point at a debate a few months ago, and one of the teachers on the panel argued that he liked “literal” translations since he gave him the opportunity to teach students in the classroom what the text was saying. Do you see the fallacy in this? Is the primary purpose of translations to give Greek teachers a tool to use in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the translation to communicate the gospel story so that people inside and outside of the church (not the classroom) can hear the gospel, follow Christ, and grow to be more like him?

I’ll go with the latter.