Is A "Literal" Translation Best?

William Arnold III


A friend has a "Jewish Bible" which she prefers to read over any other, stating that it is a literal translation of  Hebrew and thus more accurate (she believes Greek translations have twisted the Hebrew).  I have read your article and understand our translations today come from copies of manuscripts from Greek. But my question is, are there are any from Hebrew?  I have an interlinear Bible with the OT in Hebrew and the NT in Greek.  This makes me assume there are no Hebrew NT manuscripts.


Although you can get a "Hebrew" New Testament, the NT was originally written in Greek and so a Hebrew one is simply a translation. In other words, it gets us no closer to the original than our English translations. The only purpose it really serves is for Hebrew speaking people, just as a Spanish Bible would for Spanish speaking people. Some people today seem to be of the opinion that there is something "sacred" or "spiritual" about the Hebrew language. The truth is that it was simply the language that the people of Israel spoke whom God gave the Old Testament to. On the other hand, at the time of Christ, Greek was the most universal language of the Roman Empire. So when God decided to open the door of salvation to "all nations," he chose the language that most people were speaking. The point being that there is nothing inherently sacred about either language. The only reason Bible scholars even study these languages is because the original is obviously more accurate than any translation.
Concerning the Old Testament, all modern translations are a direct translation from the original Hebrew. As far as being "literal," that varies from translation to translation. The NASB is an extremely literal translation as is Young's Literal Translation, with the KJV and NKJV following not too far behind. However, contrary to popular opinion, an extremely literal translation is not always the best way to convey the meaning of the text. Actually, interlinears are the most literal translations available. Yet they could hardly be used as the common Bible in our Sunday School classes. For instance, an extremely literal translation of John 3:16 reads this way:
So for loved the God the world that the son of him the only-beggotten he gave that all the ones believing on him not may perish but have life eternal.

Now this may be useful for studying purposes, but it would be difficult to read on a day-to-day basis. The Bible which I think most faithfully conveys the meaning of the original is the forthcoming NET Bible. There is a short discussion in the preface regarding the issue of literal vs. faithful which I think is helpful. Here is an excerpt from the discussion:

No translation is completely literal, nor should that be a desirable goal. A completely word-for-word literal translation would be unreadable. John 4:15, for example, would be rendered: "Says to him the woman, ‘Sir, give to me this the water that not I thirst nor I come here to draw." Matthew 1:18 would say, "Of the but Jesus Christ the birth thus was. Being betrothed the mother of him, Mary, to Joseph, before or to come together them she was found in belly having from Spirit Holy." Such examples are not isolated, but are the norm. Claims for a literal translation must necessarily have a lot of fine print.

Literal is also not necessarily faithful. The word order differences between English and Greek, the use of the article, case, infinitives, participles, voice, mood, and other grammatical features are often so different that gibberish is the result if an absolutely literal translation is attempted (as in the two examples cited above). Not only this, but the idioms of one language have to be converted into the receptor language. Thus, in Matthew 1:18, no English translation (not even the King James Version) would dare speak of Mary’s pregnancy as "she was having [it] in the belly." Yet this is the Greek expression for pregnancy. But it is not English. The real question in translation then is not whether it is literal, but whether it is faithful. And fidelity requires converting the lexical, grammatical, idiomatic, and figurative elements (to mention but a few) of the original language into the corresponding package in the receptor language. At times this can be accomplished by maintaining an approximately literal force. At other times, a loose rendering is required if the sentence is to have any meaning in English at all. Of course, this can be overdone. There are two dangers to avoid in translation. First, a translation should not be so literal that it is not good English. The meaning of the original needs to be as faithfully rendered into good English as possible. Second, a translation should not be so loose that it becomes merely an interpretation or allows sectarian interests to overwhelm the resultant text. All translation is interpretation; it cannot be otherwise. But the issue is how much interpretation and how idiosyncratic an interpretation is.

Part of the problem is this: the more literal a translation is, the less readable it generally is; the more readable it is, the less faithful it is to the original meaning (at least in many cases). Some modern translations are quite readable but are not very faithful to the biblical author’s meaning. A major goal of good translation is of course readability—but not at the expense of the intended meaning. -- NET Bible preface, p. 9-10.

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