A friend asked me this question the other day, and I thought I would take this opportunity to flesh out what I think the answer is.
The standard answer is that a “literal” Bible is the most accurate, and by “literal” they generally mean word-for-word. If the Greek has a verb, the English should have a verb. If the text uses the same Greek three times, the same English word should be used three times.
This understanding is seriously flawed at two levels.
First, the English word “literal” has to do with meaning, not form. Webster gives these three definitions of “literal.”
- Involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
- Giving the meaning of each individual word
- Completely true and accurate: not exaggerated
Meaning 1 and 3 are purely about meaning. A “literal” translation of a hyperbole is a hyperbole. A “literal” translation of a sentence is one that says what the original means and not exaggerating it.
Even meaning #2, at second glance, has to do with meaning. It doesn’t tell you how to give the meaning of each word. Maybe the best way to give the meaning of a single word in Greek is with a three-word phrase in English. Try translating any of the σύν verbal compounds with one word: συνακολουθέω.
Secondly, this common understanding is a misunderstanding because all translation involves meaning. Even the most word-for-word translations of the Greek know this. Other than an interlinear, all translations seek to convey meaning. Let me give you a couple examples.
The ESV says that Jesus “is the propitiation (ἱλασμός) for our sins” (1 John 2:2). Is that a “literal” translation? If you don’t know what “propitiation” means, then I would argue that it is not “literal” because it doesn’t mean anything, and how can something that doesn’t mean anything to 99% of the English readers be a “literal translation.” The NIV’s “atoning sacrifice,” with which I had nothing to do, fortunately at least means something, and I would argue is a more literal translation since it conveys meaning. I know the counter argument; you can always look “propitiation” up in a dictionary. But then the question becomes, how does that qualify as a translation?
Or how about πόλις. It occurs 163 times in the NT. I believe the NASB, every time, translates it as “city.” The problem of course is that the “city of Nazareth” had about 600 people in Jesus’ day. No one today, in the US, would call Nazareth a “city.” It isn’t. It is a “village,” perhaps. But the point is that in the NASB’s victory of form over meaning, it seriously mistranslates by ignoring the meaning of “city” and πόλις.
This is a debate that will go on for decades, but can we at least agree on two things?
1. Please stop using the word “literal” with reference to form. It simply is not what the English word means.
2. Can we become a little more nuanced in our discussion, recognizing that accuracy has to do with meaning.