Lost in Translation Part 3

There are many brethren who are persuaded that a “word-for-word” version of the Bible, or a literal translation of it is the best and only way to truly learn God’s word. A few versions exist such as Young’s Literal Translation that attempts to render every word exactly as it appears in the original Greek.

Is it true that literal is best?

In one sense, it is true, but for the most part, it is not. In fact, a literal translation can actually create more confusion than clarity if certain concepts, knowledge of the original language, and translation skills are not correctly employed. So, why do people say that they want a word-for-word translation? Most likely, what they mean is they prefer a translation that comes as close as possible to translating every word directly from the original text.

Unfortunately, translating from one language to another simply doesn’t work that way. Many languages have multiple words implied within a single word, such as a conjugated verb or declined noun. One language may have numerous words for an object while another may not. For example, Norway’s northernmost indigenous people, the Sami, have 180 words for “snow” while the Swedish have just 25! The Bible is similar to that. There are approximately 140,000 words in the Greek New Testament while there are between 175-185,000 words in the various English versions. How does one translate word-for-word with such a vast discrepancy? Obviously, it is not possible!

Problematic Placement

As mentioned in our previous articles on this subject (available on our website), there are numerous factors involved when it comes to translating the Bible. Some of the challenges we discussed were idiomatic expressions, linguistic concepts, and difficulties with loan words. However, there is yet another challenge that encumbers translators, and that is, word order. It can greatly affect how we understand what is happening within a statement and who is involved. English has a rather strict set of rules regarding word order. Here is a simplistic description: the subject (the person, place, or thing doing the action) comes first, then the verb (action). Afterward, a direct object (that which receives the action) and an indirect object (that which is effected by the action) can be added onto the end of the sentence. “Bob threw the ball to Mark,” is an example of subject, verb, direct object and indirect object. With this order, we can easily discern who did what to whom.

Biblical Greek is not restricted to word order!

Each and every word can be written in a way that determines its function within a sentence. The verb can be placed first in a sentence, with the subject last, and so forth. In fact, Greek does this quite often for emphasis. This is because the beginning of the sentence carries more emphasis than the end. Here is an example from Hebrews 4:12 in a direct, word-for-word translation and word order, “Living for the word the God and active …” Does that make any sense to you? Probably not. If we apply English word order rules, then what is meant by “living for the word” and so forth? But if we apply Greek word-function rules and order, we easily see that emphasis is being placed upon the word “living.” We might translate it this way, “The word of God is living and active.” Emphasis was added to the word “living” by writing it in bold letters.