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


The Nonexistence of “The Bible”


The phrase “the bible” comes from the Greek “ta biblia” meaning “the books.” Indeed, it is a collection of “books” (writings that can be categorized into genres such as historical record, love poetry, ancient biography, and epistle).

But truth be told, there is no “the bible”. There are only bibles – different translations based on different interpretations from different collections of manuscripts transcribed by different transcribers to form different canons.

There’s an Italian saying, “traduttore, traditore.” Translated this says, “translator, traitor.” Essentially it means that perfect translation from one language to another is impossible. Even the translation of this saying demonstrates its truth, as the full rhyming of the two words is lost in the English. This saying holds even truer for extinct languages, such as Koine Greek (the primary language the New Testament was written in), because it is impossible for people such as ourselves to grasp them to the extent that we do our native tongues (as the original writers and readers did).

Every translator is also an interpreter, because there is no translation without interpretation. It is impossible to translate without preconceived notions and biases interfering, regardless of whether their interference is intentional or not. Further, translation trivializes the currently popular doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy/infallibility because such properties do not carry over into translated products. Even if the original manuscripts, which are forever inaccessible to us, had such properties, their transcripts and subsequent translations (what we have) are not.

But even if we do not translate and instead read the transcripts (which are not the original manuscripts) in the languages they were originally written in, since the languages are not native to us, nor are we people living during that time period, nor do we know the full context in which they were written, nor do we have relationships with the authors – all of which were true of the original readers – our understanding of the writings would not only be limited but most surely flawed as well (in some ways, at least). This remains true no matter how much academic effort is made to study the languages.

(A note on past transcriptions and modern publications: Most past transcribers were and most modern bible publishing companies are profit-making ventures, often very profitable. To think that everyone involved in transcription and translation knew or knows Jesus personally is an assumption. Thus, we don’t know their true motivation for transcribing and translating. We would have to assume that unbiased accuracy was and is the transcribers’ and translators’ highest priority because, for example, translations that would seem to promote unpopular doctrines might be more likely to be discarded, even if they seem more accurate, since they could negatively affect sales.)

“The bible” give the impression that there exists a single authoritative entity. But if there really is such a thing, where is it? If it really does exist, please show it to me; I would like to see it!

Naw, it ain’t real. “The bible” is only a figment of religious imagination.

Some might object that ultimately it is not up to our rational minds but up to Holy Spirit to open our eyes as we read bibles. To that, I would agree. Yet I would add a question: Since it’s up to Holy Spirit, why, as has often been assumed, does it have to be through this one particular book that he teaches us truth? I don’t believe it does. God is not limited by a book in communicating with us (as the scriptures themselves attest), nor has he ever claimed that he would reveal himself to us primarily through a book (although humans have claimed so).

He communicates with and reveals himself to us primarily through Jesus.

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…the exact representation of [God’s] being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

The Irrelevancy of Inerrancy / Infallibility

Inerrancy is the doctrine that the scriptures, in their original manuscripts, are accurate and totally free from error of any kind and do not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.

Infallibility is the belief that what the scriptures say regarding matters of faith and practice is wholly useful and true and that the scriptures are completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.

(Thanks, Wikipedia, for the definitions.)

Since people believe different varieties or combinations of inerrancy and infallibility regarding the scriptures, in this post I will collectively refer to these concepts as “inerribility.”

Inerribility has not always been something believers thought (or cared) about. There have been long periods (especially prior to the canonization of scripture) where the question of inerribility was insignificant. In fact, formal doctrines of inerribility have only appeared in the past two centuries. Their appearances are largely due to the veracity of biblical texts increasingly being questioned in the 18th and 19th centuries (for example the literal interpretation of the creation account and the worldwide flood). The scriptures themselves, however, never claim to be inerrible. Inerribility is a concept devised purely by man in reaction to criticism.

But even if the original writings were inerrible, it doesn’t matter to us because our transcriptions, translations, interpretations, and applications can err and are fallible. Its inerribility (if it indeed is) could never be extended to anything we could do or say about what is written. Ultimately, the scriptures cannot be used in an “absolute” way as an authoritative basis for truth because our use of it is necessarily subjective. Thus, such doctrine can serve no useful purpose.

But here’s a useful doctrine for ya: Jesus is inerrible. I don’t mean the things written about Jesus, but the person himself. And this idea, although not stated in the way I have, is supported historically as well as biblically, unlike biblical inerribility.

Sweet, inerrant, infallible Jesus. LOL!


Also see:

The Bible Isn’t Perfect And It Says So Itself

Christians have not been ‘reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years’

‘Inerrancy’ is not a victimless crime

Rob Bell on inerrancy