The Myth of Literal Translation


In the Western world the term “literal” is used to refer to the way an expression is supposed to be understood. As translator David Bellos explains, “The distinction between the literal and figurative meanings of words has been at the heart of Western education for more than two millennia. The literal meaning of an expression is supposed to be its meaning prior to any act of interpretation, its natural, given, standard, shared, neutral, plain meaning.”

A few years ago I had a slight obsession with bible translations and finding the most “literal” ones. In my mind this meant translations that were translated word-for-word as much as possible. I held that this type of translation retained the original meaning, and therefore truth, to the highest degree without translators’ own interpretations and theologies getting in the way.

This was probably a result of my often hearing christians say that “we need to read the scriptures literally unless it is impossible to do so” (figurative interpretation was generally considered a bad thing, unless it was necessary to get a passage to conform to “orthodox doctrine”).

A simple observation, however, will reveal the absurdity of this way of thinking.

Many Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the languages the scriptures were written in) words and phrases have no equivalent to enable a word-for-word translation. For example, the scriptures contain about 200 different kinds (and even more occurrences) of figures of speech that, when translated literally, do not communicate the intended meaning. Some words and phrases found in biblical languages are so foreign to modern languages and cultures that, to truly understand their usage, we need a whole paragraph explaining their meaning. This is never done, however, because it would make reading the scriptures rough and tedious (and sales would decline). (There are “study bibles” containing notes, but these are hardly sufficient to explain the wide range of words, idioms, parables, etc., and most often no explanation is given anyways, as if the literal meaning communicates the intended meaning.)

The early church didn’t have a fixed theological language; they created it as they spoke and wrote. Yet this was not a linear process since even within a single language, sentences and even words can mean different things to different people. Thus pretending biblical words in their original language are always used with the same meaning across the Old and New Testaments is naive and yields inaccurate understandings. Inversely, even if a word is found in two separate passages in a translation, it often will have been translated from different words in the original language, helping to confuse readers and distancing them from comprehending the text.

Our understanding of expressions (including individual words) are initially (at least) formed through interpretation; we hear a person say something, interpret what they meant by it, then attach some meaning to it. As time passes and we experience expressions being used more, we refine our understanding of their meaning. Hence, a “literal” meaning of an expression prior to any act of interpretation varies at best and is unlikely to exist.

Therefore, the idea that we should read the scriptures as literally as possible, except where it is “obviously” (which is completely subjective) figurative, is ridiculous.

David Bellos writes, “…all that is actually meant by calling something a literal translation is a version that preserves meaning in grammatical forms appropriate to the language of the translation.” But since each language has different grammars, the meaning will not be perceived the same. This is true even if there were perfect equivalents for every word.

We need to free ourselves from traditional assumptions underlying our understanding of language, such as the following (which cognitive linguistics consider to be false):

  1. Metaphors are figurative ways of stating what could otherwise better be said literally.
  2. Definitions and conventional everyday language are literal.
  3. Only literal language can be true or false.

When you allow yourself to read the scriptures with this kind of freedom, you’re eyes will be opened to understand them in new and more accurate ways.


Also see:

The point of the scriptures is not literal truth

Hyperbole in the scriptures

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