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Does a Literal Translation Matter with a Digital Bible?

Over the past several decades there has been a lot of debate over the philosophy of translation of various recent English versions of the Bible. Generally this has centered around the two extremes of literal or word-for-word on the one hand (which has also been called "formal equivalence") and paraphrase on the other hand (formerly known as "dynamic equivalence," though today terms like "idiomatic translation," "closest natural equivalent," or "functional equivalence" are often used instead).

Over the past several decades there has been a lot of debate over the philosophy of translation of various recent English versions of the Bible. Generally this has centered around the two extremes of literal or word-for-word on the one hand (which has also been called "formal equivalence") and paraphrase on the other hand (formerly known as "dynamic equivalence," though today terms like "idiomatic translation," "closest natural equivalent," or "functional equivalence" are often used instead). Advocates of both these approaches have been around for some time, and generally those with formal linguistic training tend to prefer the dynamic equivalence approach (like the NLT, TNIV, or CEV), while those with more theological training often prefer a more formal equivalence approach (like NASB or ESV). Generally the argument for dynamic equivalence goes that a word-for-word translation from the original biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) does not communicate very well to a reader of contemporary English, and often obscures the meaning. An example of this would be a phrase like "some have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 11:30). Here the literal translation could be mistaken by a contemporary English reader not familiar with the biblical idiom to mean literal sleep, whereas idiomatically the phrase refers to death.

My point here is not to discuss the relative merits of formal versus dynamic (or functional) equivalence as a translation theory. That debate is ongoing and is much broader than the point I want to make, which is simply this: With the development of digital Bible text, if the desire of those wanting a literal or word-for-word translation is transparency to the original language texts of the Bible, that can be achieved through the software and not through the translation itself. For example, the NeXtBible (online study interface for the NET Bible) now features linked interlinear translations with Strong’s numbers included. Going to the main NeXtBible start page and clicking on any verse number in the Old or New Testament will produce a page of parallel verses in a number of English translations as well as the original languages. Toward the bottom of the list will be KJV, NASB, and NET along with the Greek or Hebrew text in reverse interlinear format (that is, following the order of the English translation rather than the Greek text). Mouseover any word in KJV, NASB, Greek (or Hebrew) and NET and yellow highlight will appear around the corresponding words/phrases in the other versions. The Strong’s numbers are also links that can be followed to the dictionary. This is about as close a correspondence between an English version and the original languages as one is going to get. Using a tool like this one can read a Bible translation that is more functionally equivalent (for understandability) and still see transparently behind it to the original biblical languages.

8 Comments

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    Antoine of MMM

    The better question is would
    The better question is would a functional translation matter if you have all the tools needed to correctly interpret the text in front of you. People don’t usually need someone to tell them how to create the meaning of a story when all the facts are present. Why then would they need someone to give them a functional translation, if the literal meaning (which is the basis for that functional translation) is right there first off. That would seem like working backwards.

    To answer the question of the post, a literal translation matters just as much if it were digital or print. The changing of the type of paper does not change the intent of meaning.

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      Mike

      Not that good of a question
      Antoine assumes that the so-called “literal meaning” is the correct meaning. This is an incredibly simplistic view of semantics that doesn’t fit with reality. Lexical semantics – expecially when we go from one language to another – is too complex for the basic “literal” translation to be accurate. So when we get to idioms, as Harris discusses in his post, the idea of literal translation becomes even more unhelpful.

      I think Antoine also misunderstands the meaning of literal translation and literal meaning. It could very easily (and I have previously) that a literal translation is a kind of syntactic transliteration, while truly “literal meaning” would result in a functional translation. The term literal in of itself is utterly unhelpful at time.

      Finally then, I think the title of this post is completely correct and the better question is not the better question.

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    Wayne Leman

    linked
    Hall, I agree. IMO, true translation is that which is natural to the grammar and lexical patterns of the translation language. The meaning remains constant while the forms vary from one language to another. Literal translations are, by nature, not as accurate because they distort the meaning, using translationally non-equivalent forms, for people who speak the language into which the translation has been made.

    I have linked to your post at the Better Bibles Blog:
    http://englishbibles.blogspot.com/2008/05/digital-bibles-and-literal-translation.html

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    Barry Applewhite

    Yes! It Does Matter!
    I may be mistaken, but I think the NET takes the view that a (somewhat) dynamic translation is suitable for the text and a more formal translation may be found in the marginal notes. Supposedly, that gives one the best of both worlds. I think Dr. Harris is extending that idea to say if you really want something literal, just use what amounts to an interlinear in digital form.

    I regret to say that I do not agree, or at least not fully. It gets a bit tiresome explaining to the motivated layman why the text he (or she) is reading in his dynamic translation is not quite what the biblical text says. Some words are left out; others are added; referents are supplied “for clarity.” One may wonder how the early Christians got along without all this clarity.

    Textual; criticism has made wonderful strides in approaching a Greek text with high confidence. The Reformation helped us get the priest out of the position of telling us the one true interpretation for each passage. So, why would we now want to let the translated text get fuzzy again in the hands of a dynamic equivalent translator who so frequently interposes his interpretive judgments? Seems to me we are giving up the very gains we have fought for!

    Bruce Waltke used to say (in the ’70s) that God didn’t put all the cookies on the lower shelf. Dynamic translations try to move all the cookies within reach, but I’m not sure they are the same cookies we started with. Readability can never replace accuracy as a matter of first importance.

    With respect,
    Barry

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    Kevin Sam

    The need for literal translations will never go away
    With the digital age of bibles, we still need formal equivalent translations. We will always need them. Some people don

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    Barry Applewhite

    Overview of This Discussion
    I think anyone who reads all these posts would reasonably conclude that it would be more effective to talk about some real verses (one or two). All this semantic shuffling does little to illustrate anyone’s point. Unless I know how you are translating a given verse, I have no basis for knowing whether any of you (or me!) have any idea what we are talking about.

    I think we are experiencing discussion-death by abstraction.

    -B

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    CD-Host

    Literal aren’t really literal
    The “word for word” translations like the ESV aren’t really that literal. I agree with Dr. Harris that if you want literal get an interlinear (the NeXt being a fine choice for a digit interlinear). The “literal translations” which are still good for casual reading and liturgical use aren’t literal enough to do quality study while at the same time because they are so hesitant to use dynamic methods they don’t convey meaning well. So you end up with a bible you can trust neither to be accurate in the text nor in the meaning.

    I wrote a post about this, Is the ESV “essentially literal”

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    Mathew Farney

    A literal translation of the
    A literal translation of the bible won’t help. There are too many hidden meanings thus one can never fully understand it unless he gets the right translation. It’s juts like reading the great French writers, its always better to read them in French because a translation might ruin the melody of the language.
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