Importance of a literal Bible translation

as I said before, I am kind of a nut about Bibles. The bottom line is that I think everyone should get a Bible that they will read and then read it for all its worth.

Having said that, at Bible study recently the importance of using a literal translation became apparent. (in another post , I explain why I use the ESV as my primary translation) We were looking at Colossians 1:24 as a case study for how to approach a difficult verse.

Here it is in a literal translation, the ESV:

“24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,”

Paul is telling the Colossian church that Christ’s afflictions lacked something and he is filling up that lack with his own suffering. Wow. That is a presumptuous thing to say. It sounds arrogant and borderline blasphemous. Time to wrestle with the text and figure out what he is saying.

Now look at the same verse in a paraphrase, the NLT:

“24 I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.”

Do you see the difference? In the NLT, the interpreters have already done the wrestling with the text for you. They decided that what Paul meant was that he was participating in Christ’s continuing sufferings through His body the church. Then that is how they wrote the verse.

I think it is a very important part of Bible study for each individual christian to see the text in as close to the original languages as possible. The Berean Jews examined the scripture for themselves to see if what Paul said was true. They couldn’t do that if somebody else had already interpreted away portions of the text and put into the text what they thought it meant.

If this verse is studied as it is rather than how it is interpreted to be, then a student might go to Philippians 2:27-30 and find a similar locution by Paul. They might see that what Paul believes was lacking in the service by the Philippian church and in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is delivery of the message. Then the student could see the beautiful thing that Paul is saying. That he is willing to put his own body on the line in much physical suffering in order to make sure that the colossian church and other churches like them all over Asia minor and Greece get to hear about Christ’s sufferings. The student might then reflect on the verse in Romans 10 where Paul, quoting Isaiah, called the feet of gospel messengers, “beautiful” and think about what those feet actually looked like after walking hundreds of miles to share the gospel. Dirty, blistered, gnarled, calloused, feet with bone spurs are beautiful because they are part of the suffering that completes Christ’s incomparable affllictions on the cross.

As part of the priesthood of the believers one of the spiritual sacrifices that we offer is sincere, disciplined, serious, regular study of the book that God breathed out for us.

In order to perform this task most effectively, we must study the text that we have that is as close to the one God breathed out as possible. I love the Bible.

The Bible you will actually read is the best one for you. Too many christ followers never pick up a Bible at all except to take it to church for an hour on Sunday morning (or Saturday night or whenever their group assembles in a big box with the chairs all facing same way). So first and foremost, get one that you can read and one that you will read.

But in order to do what Paul told Timothy to do, to engage in a disciplined effort to study scripture and get to know God better, you need to find and study a literal translation rather than a paraphrase where somebody else has already made decisions about the meaning of a difficult verse.


7 Responses

  1. Dear Interstitial,

    I think you unfortunately misunderstand the nature of translation. A literal translation would often make no sense, and certainly would not be readable.

    From the Greek, Col 1:24 Now I rejoice in the sufferings on behalf of you and I fill up the things lacking of the afflictions of christ in the flesh of me on behalf of the body of him which is the church.

    The ESV is a great translation, but to call it a “literal” translation is very misleading. As you can see above, it is far from a carbon copy of the Greek text, nor should it be.

    All translations translate because they are all done by humans with presuppositions and various training. There are better and weaker translations for sure, but it is not because one of them is more literal, it’s because some are more faithful to the text.

  2. Brian,

    I am sorry that you find my understanding of the nature of translation to be deficient. You will be unsurprised to learn that I disagree and that, in fact, I find you to be somewhat of a pedantic semanticist.

    If it makes you feel better, substitute “more faithful to the text” where I said literal above.


  3. Keith,

    Your response seems a bit touchy to me.

    When you put your thoughts out on the www aren’t you inviting people to engage, critically or otherwise? You certainly don’t have to apologize to me for holding a different opinion, but it would be helpful to know what specifically you disagree with in my comment. Saying you “don’t agree” is indeed not surprising, but it definitely puts an end to any possible learning or modification that either of us might arrive at.

    Responding to one comment, you sum me up (you find me, not my post) as a pedantic semanticist. Brother, not only is that reductionist and rude, it’s also not very loving. Your chosen title is “The Importance of a Literal Translation” and then you elaborate on this premise for the entire post. I really don’t think anything in my comment unfairly splices your words or imputes meaning unjustly and if you think so, please point this out with specifics rather than sweeping statements. If you are correct then I owe you an apology and so I would really like to know where I have been unfair.

  4. you are correct. I was unloving, reductionist and rude. But it is also correct that in this instance you are being a pedantic semanticist. I don’t know how you are otherwise, but I do know what your comment here was.

    You are most likely well aware of the way that Bible translations are categorized. You probably understand the differences between dynamic equivalence, formal equivalence and what the HCSB calls optimal equivalence.

    in colloquial English, we refer to translations that adhere as closely as possible to the underlying text as “literal” translations because of their attempt to be transparent to the underlying text. I believe that just about everybody that cares very much about this issue at all understands that “literal” translations aren’t precisely word for word literal because then they would be unreadable in English.

    Again, if it makes you feel better, substitute “more literal” or “essentially literal” where I said “literal” above.

    I speak French and English and I am very well aware of the issues involved in moving back and forth between the two as well as the tradeoffs between thought for thought translation and formal/literal translation.

    What I reacted unfavorably to in your comment is your assumption that I don’t know any of this and that somehow it is incorrect of me to use the commonly used labels attached to different approaches to Bible translating.

    I don’t mind give and take on the world wide web. that is why your comments are posted.

  5. p.s. i am something of a pedantic semanticist myself. drives my wife and kids crazy

  6. p.s.s. one more thing. Please permit me to produce a personal pedantic point about a problematic portion of your prior pioneer post. (I really like alliteration too)

    you say that calling the ESV a “literal translation” is “very misleading.” I wonder if you really mean that.

    Let’s compare a minute. We will first set out your(? this is an assumption on my part) translation of Colossians 1:24 from the greek:

    Now I rejoice in the sufferings on behalf of you and I fill up the things lacking of the afflictions of christ in the flesh of me on behalf of the body of him which is the church.

    Then the ESV’s translation:

    Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

    Do you really think that calling the ESV “literal” is “very misleading”?

    That leads me to wonder why you felt the need to make the comment in the first place.
    Do you have a bee in your bonnet about the ESV? Or have you been leaving similar comments all over the world wide web to stop this epidemic of the misuse of the word “literal.”

    just wondering what is going on.

  7. Keith,

    thanks for the response. No, I don’t have a bee in my bonnet about the ESV (well, I don’t think I do). I think it’s a fine translation, probably top 3 in my opinion. My only gripe about the ESV is how almost triumphalistic its supporters are and how the term “literal” is mishandled to compare it favorably to other solid translations.

    Your clarification has helped me to understand why you called me a semanticist. And if I have unfairly overinterpreted terms that you consider to have an agreed upon meaning that is different from what they actually mean, I apologize. Seriously. But I don’t think that “literal” should be a synonym for “formal equivalence”, and certainly not a synonym for “superior.” When you tell a layperson, who has no formal training in the underlying languages or the science of translation that one Bible is more literal than another, they are going to conclude that that one Bible is therefore better. That’s a God-honoring conclusion on their part, because they want a translation that is as faithful as possible to the text. But, as you know, the more literal a translation is, in no way guarantees that a translation is more faithful, and it often works in reverse. If being “literal” is an overriding goal then in many places of Scripture, the translation will not only come out very wooden, but at times it will obscure the unerlying meaning. This is why I eschew using the term “literal” as a commendation.

    I have not left comments all over the www about this. In fact, I can’t think of any other example. I was researching something on sufferings and peace and this post came up high on the list.

    Thanks for engaging and clarifying.

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