Translating the Bible Literally, Meaningfully
When translating the Word of God, some people assume we want a "literal" translation, thinking that this will give us the closest possible rendering to the original source texts. After all, if you can't understand Greek and Hebrew, the next best thing is a word-for-word rendering, right? Literally!
Let's test this theory.
Here's a sentence from John's gospel in the original Greek:
τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ ζῳοποιοῦν, ἡ σὰρξ οὐκ ὠφελεῖ οὐδέν· τὰ ῥήματα ἃ ἐγὼ λελάληκα ὑμῖν πνεῦμά ἐστιν καὶ ζωή ἐστιν.
Here is the same text transliterated into Roman alphabet:
to pneuma estin to zoopoion, he sarx ouk ophelei ouden; ta remata ha ego lelaleka humin pneuma estin kai zoe estin.
And here is my word-for-word English gloss:
The spirit is the life-doing, the flesh not helps nothing; the matters that I I-had-spoken to-you spirit they-are and life they-are.
You can see word-for-word translation is awkward and confusing at best, downright unintelligible at worst. And if translation produces something the audience still can't understand, well, it's not really a translation at all.
What is a Literal Translation?
If "literal translation" doesn't mean literally word by word, it must be something else. Dr. Katy Barnwell offers the following definition:
"A literal translation is one that aims to communicate the original message while also following closely the form of the language used in the source text. A literal translation has a high level of formal correspondence (similarity in form)."
-Bible Translation, an Introductory Course in Translation Principles
Note that although our word-for-word "translation" above does closely follow the form of the original, it doesn't actually communicate the message very well because we've kept too close to the Greek grammar and word order, which is different from English grammar and word order.
To make our English translation clearer, we need to take out or rearrange the Greek forms that sound unnatural or confusing in English. A literal translation of that same sentence might read:
The spirit is life-giving, the flesh helps nothing. The words that I had spoken to you are spirit and life.
Hey, that actually sounds like English! It communicates the original message while still following the form (word order, vocabulary, and syntax) of the Greek fairly closely.
What is a Meaning-Based Translation?
All bible translations fall somewhere along a continuum from more literal to more meaning-based translation. That does not mean meaning-based translations are the opposite of literal translations. It's a spectrum.
Meaning-based translations are still aimed at communicating the original message, but they do so by using the natural form of the target language, not the source language. So to create a meaning-based translation, translators often rearrange words or phrases, change idiomatic expressions, and make the translation sound more natural. Often meaning-based translations are more paraphrased because they correspond stylistically to the target language.
Literal and Meaning-Based English Examples
Below I've listed the translations of the sentence we started with above, in order from most literal (closest in form to the Greek) to most meaning-based (closest in form to English).
(If you don't see your favorite English translation below, I'm not implying it's a bad one! There are just a frillion of them, and I chose these seven to illustrate the spectrum.)
"The spirit it is that is giving life; the flesh doth not profit anything; the sayings that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life;" -Young's Literal Translation, 1862
"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." -King James Version, 1611
"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life." -New American Standard Bible, 1971
"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." -English Standard Version, 2001
"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life." -New International Version, 1978
"What gives life is God's Spirit; human power is of no use at all. The words I have spoken to you bring God's life-giving Spirit." -Good News Translation, 1976
"The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life." -New Living Translation, 1996
All of These are Good Translations
This is important, y'all: Bible translators are all striving for ACCURACY and CLARITY in their translation. Every time.
The spectrum between literal and meaning-based translation is NOT a spectrum between accuracy and clarity: we want both! How closely do translators want the form of the language to match the source or target languages? The different translations above merely represent choices between forms - literal and meaning-based styles of translation.
On that note, I hope I've presented this clearly and accurately! The topic admittedly requires more than a blog post. For further reading on literal- and meaning-based bible translation styles, check out Dr. Barnwell's article.
Translation involves so many of these little decisions with huge impact. After all, the words, phrases, sentences, and discourses in Scripture are "spirit and life!" It's a good reminder of how carefully and diligently translators must work to convey them into every language.