The Myth of the Word-For-Word Bible Translation. (Languages Don’t Work That Way.)

When I was young, people (who should have known better) told me that I should only read Bibles that were translated with a “word for word” method so as to preserve the original meaning of the text. Anything else was unacceptable.

This made sense to me, at the time. Why read a translation that isn’t literally the same words as the original? It was a simple concept. Or, so I thought. Later I noticed that in the front of every Bible I owned (I owned a lot of them – and still do) was a section describing the method of translation used by the scholars and none of them claimed to be literal, word-for-word translations. None of them.

Did you know that the old Hebrew and Greek texts didn’t contain punctuation? It’s all added in by translators. A misplaced comma can change the meaning of an entire paragraph, and in this case they aren’t even in the manuscripts. However, punctuation is how languages work, today, so it wouldn’t be a proper translation without commas, quotation marks, and the rest.

But anyone who’s studied languages, at all, can see a more fundamental problem: languages cannot be
translated with word-for-word methods.

For example, take a simple sentence that we all learn in Spanish class – “Como se llamas.” It means, “What’s your name” to us, but a word-for-word translation would be “How you are called?” It’s not even readable that way, and that’s just a simple example. When you apply this method to a very ancient language the problems are much more complicated.

To put it simply: it is impossible to translate anything in a word-for-word manner – especially something written in ancient languages. (To make matters worse, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but his words were recorded in Greek, so our manuscripts don’t even have His original words – they had to be translated into something else to be preserved.) To bring an ancient text to a modern audience the translator must understand the meaning of each sentence and then translate that sentence into contemporary rhetoric. Since language changes with each generation these translations must be updated regularly or they’ll stop making sense.

What bugs me the most is that the people who told me to seek out word-for-word translations were ministers who had graduated from conservative, Christian seminaries. How could they make this mistake?

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