God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Value of a Word for Word Translation

All of my training and experience has taught me that a word-for-word translation is a siren. It has superficial appeal in that intuitively it seems to bring a reader closer to a foreign text, but, in fact, it misconveys the original text.

Still, I also believe that it’s important to understand both sides of a debate. So what might the value of a word-for-word translation of the Bible be?

The best answer I can think of is this: if the importance of the Bible lies in the actual words and not in what those words do — meaning, poetry, etc. — then a word-for-word translation is better than a translation that captures the meaning and poetry and so forth.

I have always tacitly assumed that the primary point of the Bible’s narrative text was to convey meaning, the point of the poetry to be poetic, and so forth. But that may not be so.

In fact, the evidence we have from antiquity is that the words were more important than what they meant. This is why, for example, the NT frequently quotes the words of the OT out of context. (The early-first-millennium collection of Jewish writing known as the Midrash does the same thing.) Modern readers sometimes see this approach as deceptive, but ancient readers would probably be baffled by our modern insistence on quoting meaning instead of quoting words.

So it’s not a crazy idea to suggest that the words themselves are what’s important.

What other value can you find for a word-for-word translation?

May 18, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 53 Comments