The answer to your question is “no” “yes” or “sometimes” depending on what you mean by the word “literal.” There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the word “literal” as it applies to Bible translations. There are two extreme views in regard to literal Bible translations. Some people think that a literal translation is the only right way to go in a Bible translation. At the other extreme some ridicule the term “literal translation” as meaningless and impossible. Both of these mistakes are due to a simplistic understanding of the term “literal,” which fails to do justice to the complexity of the term “literal” and to the complexity of the art of translation.
But the meaning of “literal” is actually not that complicated. Most people understand the two main senses of “literal” quite well, including how the term applies to understanding and translating the Bible.
The first dictionary meaning of “literal” is “the primary or strict meaning of the word or group of words—the meaning that is not figurative or metaphorical.” The part of this dictionary definition that refers to a word’s “primary or strict meaning” is not very helpful because it is too vague to be useful, but the words “the meaning which is not figurative or metaphorical” gets right to the heart of the matter. Everyone understands that the literal meaning of the word “heart” is the organ that pumps blood through the body. “Heart” also has many metaphorical meanings, including courage and generosity. Metaphorically, a “big heart” is a good trait. Literally, a “big (enlarged) heart” is a bad medical condition. Everyone understands that the primary literal meaning of the word “hand” is a part of the human body. When “hand” refers to “power,” this is a derived or figurative meaning.
The ability to distinguish literal uses of words from metaphorical uses is one of the key skills to understanding any language. But in most cases fluent speakers of a language do it quite easily. Most figurative uses of words that one encounters in the course of a day are very familiar, and the reader or hearer hardly even notices them. Readers understand that the statement, “the performance of the play was so dramatic that the eyes of the audience were glued to the stage” is metaphorical. They would laugh at the not uncommon blunder, “the performance of the play was so dramatic that the eyes of the audience were literally glued to the stage.” The first situation, a metaphorical experience, would be fun. The second, a literal experience, would be painful.
Readers of the Bible distinguish between literal and figurative uses of words all the time. When Jesus calls Herod a fox, readers easily recognize that the expression “fox” is a metaphorical reference to the character of a man, not a literal reference to an animal. This skill of distinguishing the metaphorical from the literal is necessary for understanding any form of communication.
Though this skill is essential for a Bible reader, most of the time it is not particularly useful to a translator, because the statement “Herod is a fox” would be translated the same regardless of whether the use of the word “fox” is literal or metaphorical. When “hand” is a non-literal reference to “power,” it should still, in most cases, be translated “hand.” Otherwise the translator is destroying the literary choice made by the author. The exception to this is when the figurative use of the term means something different in the receptor language than it does in the biblical language. For example, the literal meaning of “heart” is the same in Hebrew and English. In English the non-literal uses of “heart” refer most often to love, courage, and other emotions. In Hebrew heart often refers to mental activity, which in English would be attributed to the mind. So the Hebrew “heart” can sometimes be translated “mind” and the Hebrew “kidneys” can sometimes be translated “heart” since in Hebrew the kidneys are thought of as a seat of emotions.
It is this second meaning of the word “literal” that that creates a challenge for the translator. My dictionary says that a literal translation “follows the words of the original language very closely and exactly as in ‘a literal translation of Goethe.’” Once again the dictionary definition is partly right and partly wrong. We can start by crossing out the word “exactly” from the definition. It is impossible for a Bible translation (or any translation for that matter) to follow the original language word-for-word, because the structures of the two languages are too different. For example, Hebrew does not normally express the verb “to be.” An English translation that followed the Hebrew word-for-word would seldom include the words “is” and “are” which are essential in English. Some languages have no definite articles; others require them. Besides that, the rules for use of the definite article are different in different languages. It is impossible for a translation to follow another language exactly word-for-word unless it is an academic exercise, not intended for reading with understanding and enjoyment.
A translation cannot follow the source language exactly except for very short clumps of words, but it can and should follow the original language closely. What does it mean to follow the text closely? It is answering that question which requires skill and good judgment on the part of the translator. It is perhaps easier to say what a literal translation is not, than to define exactly what it is.
We have already seen that a so-called “literal translation” does not try to follow the original text word-for-word, but thought-for-thought, because it does not look only at single words but at the clusters in which they occur. Even the King James Version which tried for high degree of “literal translation” recognized that it is impossible to translate word-for-word. They frequently had to add words to their translation, but they demonstrated their regret over this undeniable fact by putting the words they had to add into italics.
Nevertheless, a word-for-word translation is very often possible and should be followed if there is no reason to depart from a word-for-word translation. In the verse “Jesus wept” there is no reason not to follow a word-for-word translation. This is true for very many Bible statements, maybe even a majority of them. “Son of Man” and “a baptism of repentance” are two cases where a literal translation is the best option.
There is no reason to belittle the idea of literal or word-for-word translation as some people do. Literal translation is the starting point of a good translation. But it does not work all the time. A translator has to depart from word-for-word translation or literal translation1 when such a translation would be unclear or clumsy, but a good translator follows a very literal translation very often.
Sometimes good translators even translate letter-for-letter. This is called “transliteration.” A number of common biblical words in English are simply transliterated from Hebrew, words like amen and halleluia. The writers of the New Testament also used these and other transliterations from the Hebrew. The writers of the Old Testament occasionally used transliterations from other languages including Sumerian (for example, the Hebrew hekal (temple) is apparently a transliteration from the Sumerian e gal (big house). Transliteration from other languages is a part of every living language. Modern Hebrew transliterates the English word pizza which is itself a transliteration from Italian.
The English theological vocabulary is filled with transliterations, some of them from Hebrew (amen), some from Greek (angel), some of them from Latin (justification, sanctification).2 Where transliterations are an established part of theological English, we are inclined to keep them in our translation because of our respect for the theological traditions of past generations of translators. We see no need to change all the angels to envoys or all occurrences of justifies to declares righteous. We seek to preserve heritage terms like sanctify, justify, angels, and saints, but not to the exclusion of make holy and declare righteous, etc. We make an effort to retain key terms that appear in the creeds, catechism, and hymnal.
Another place in which transliteration has been the rule in biblical English is in personal names and geographic names. Biblical names usually have a literal meaning, but it is customary to transliterate them rather than to give a literal translation of them. WP retains the traditional Bethlehem. We do not freshen it up to House of Bread or Breadbasket. If necessary, footnotes can indicate the literal meaning of the name. In transliterating, we sometimes translate not simply word by word but letter by letter.
To some degree, a translation has to be shaped by contemporary English, but a good translation also tries to remake the meaning of English words to fit biblical content. In some rare cases, this means inventing new English words like at-one-ment. Words in biblical English derive their meaning not just from contemporary English usage, but from the context of Scripture which shapes the meaning of the word. The Bible pours new and fuller meaning into English words. The words derive their meaning not just from contemporary usage but from centuries of use in the context of the Bible. We can look at just two examples: saints and priests.
Saints is a much changed transliteration of the Latin sancti “holy ones.” If we let contemporary English rule, we might conclude that we have to get rid of saints because casual readers might think of Catholic saints, who are deemed to be or are declared to be especially holy people on the basis of their lives. But faithful readers of the Bible will soon understand that the saints are every believer who has been declared holy because of Christ’s death. The proper understanding of saints is worth saving.
An even more complicated example is provided by the word priest. Priest is a much changed transliteration of the Greek word presbyter, which means elder and refers to men who held an office very similar to pastor. The English word priest, therefore, is not derived from the Hebrew (cohen) and Greek (hiereus) words that are commonly translated priest. To gain a good understanding of what priest means, readers of the Bible must do two things. To understand what an Old Testament levitical priest was, a Bible student must read everything the Bible says about Old Testament priests. To understand what a New Testament priest is, a Bible student must read everything that that the New Testament says about the priesthood of all believers. In short, we must base our concept of what a priest is, not on contemporary Catholic usage or on analogies from heathenism, but on everything the Bible says about priests. The word priest can be rescued for its proper use.
Translators have to assume that their readers have the ability and desire to learn new words and to deepen their understanding of important biblical words. Translators should not be condescending or patronizing to their readers, but should be dedicated to helping them grow. Translations should not be “dumbed down.” The Bible was written for ordinary people, but it is a very literary work, with lots of figures of speech and lots of rare words. The Bible is a book to be read, but it is also a book to be studied.
Many, perhaps even most, words have a primary, literal meaning. Nevertheless, it is usually not possible to translate one common Hebrew or Greek word with only one English word. This is because if a Hebrew word has meanings a, b, c, and d, but meanings a and b match up with one English word, but meanings c and d match up with a different English word, it requires at least two English words to translate one Hebrew word. Nevertheless, translators should try to be consistent in the way they render terms. There is no reason to translate the Hebrew kinnor as lyre one time and as harp another time. Translations should not wander all over the map. Though “one Hebrew/Greek word = one English word” is not a viable standard for a translator to apply consistently, the translator should strive to be consistent rather than casual in his renderings of specific words and word groups. Our translation strives to be consistent in the rendering of terms, but not to the degree of never varying if the context calls for it.
So how many of the goals of the Wartburg Project do we think we will achieve? Probably none of them, because they are high goals. There is not much point to setting goals that we can easily achieve. In every area of life our goals should exceed the expectations others have of us and even the expectations we have for ourselves.
In every area of life achievement is measured by three standards: our duty, our goals, and our accomplishments. The highest standard is our duty. In sanctification our duty is perfection. In sanctification, therefore, our goal is perfection. In sanctification our accomplishment on earth will be considerably less than perfection. But that does not mean that our duty is any less than what God has set for us, or that our goals should be any lower than the target God sets for us.
Two years ago when we started the Wartburg Project we stated our duty and our goals in this way:
Thesis 1: The duty of a translator is to convey all the meaning (or the openness to more than one meaning), all the beauty (or the ugliness), all the style (high or low), and all the emotional impact of the original text into the translation.
Thesis 2: Thesis 1 is impossible.
Thesis 3: Thesis 2 is not entirely correct.
Thesis 4: In small bits and pieces a translator can come close achieving the aims of thesis 1. Tetelestai > It is finished. The only major thing wrong with this translation is that it has too many words. Were it not for the weight of tradition, we could probably improve the translation by reducing it to a single word, “Finished!”
We also stated our methodology:
The translator should not be too locked in to any one theory of translation whether so-called “dynamic equivalence” or “literal translation” because:
a. Literal (or more accurately, literalistic, word-for-word) translations sometimes give the wrong meaning or they do not communicate clearly in the receiving language.
b. Dynamic equivalence, though a worthy goal, is not fully possible. We would be happy with any translation that was dynamic and equivalent, but too often translations labeled “dynamic equivalent” are either not equivalent or not dynamic. We would like every translation to be both “meaning equivalent” and “emotional equivalent”.
c. The translator will have to weigh whether a more dynamic or more literal approach best conveys the divinely intended meaning on a case-by-case basis.
It is necessary for a translation to have a set of rules and rubrics to guide the translators, but the relationship between two languages is so complex, that it is hard to imagine a rule or rubric which can be applied without exception. We now have over 240 rubrics, and so far I do not think we have found one that we can follow as a rigid rule. Translation is more of an art than a science.
Though we are always adding rubrics and tweaking our old rubrics, our duty, our goals, and our methodology remain the same. Our duty is to convey all the meaning (or the openness to more than one meaning), all the beauty (or the ugliness), all the style (high or low), and all the emotional impact of the original text into the translation. Our goal is to strive toward these results with the talents, time, and support which the Lord has given us. Where this all ends up of course depends on the Lord’s blessing. For the time being we are content with the spiritual growth we are experiencing through the work of the project and the harmonious spirit with which the participants are working together. We don’t know what the end results will be, but we know that the end results will be if we do nothing. The result will be Nothing! The only sure thing in any venture is that no effort always results in no results. In basketball the lowest percentage shot is not the long-range three-pointer, but the shot that you do not take. The scoring percentage on such shots is always 0%. If we leave all the work of translating to others, we know what our results will be—we will produce nothing for the church. If we faithfully invest the talents the Lord has given us, we know what the results will be—something. Whether the return of investment is ten-fold, or a hundred-fold, or a thousand-fold is in the Lord’s hands. And so we will keep pressing toward the goal, not being distracted from the work of producing sometime purely positive for the church.
1The terms “literal translation” and “word-for-word” translation are sometimes used interchangeably but this is a confusing practice. It would be clearer to call a word-for-word translation “literalistic” or “wooden.”
2Just as literal translation is not always exactly word-for-word, transliterations do not always match letter-for-letter. This would be impossible because the two languages may not have letters that match the letters of the other language.