Literal Greek Translation Does Not Work

…in this case.

The translation of the Greek participle is often idiomatic. You must look at what the Greek means, and then figure out how to say the same thing in English. Going word for word will usually not work.

–Bill Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek (emphasis added by me)

In this quote, purposely taken wildly out of context (I really am using the book though, as an addition to Black’s grammar)–taking out the first sentence, and changing usually to often explains how I feel about translation.

I’m just spouting off here. Just take it as rantings from a maniac who doesn’t know what he’s talking or writing about.

I’m extremely thankful for all of the translations we have. One of the best exercises in doing exegesis for me (which is somewhat laughable, but bear with me) is printing out at least six translations of a passage and comparing them. That alone shows how valuable they can be. Various people have various reasons to like certain types of translations.

I disagree when people say that the very formal equivalent (literal end) translations are the best and only ones that should be used as a primary translation, and the dynamic (previous called thought for thought, or paraphrase for those who aren’t familiar with what a paraphrase is) should only be used for comparison. I have to think that they are very educated in Biblish, Scripture and are very used to the language used, which is certainly fine.

I think that translation should be into English English, not Greek English or Hebrew English.

Although I have no problem with literal translations and certainly not with anyone who prefers them, in my mind it seems that literal translations aren’t translated ‘all the way’ into English. They try to use original language grammar and word order and fit it into English, except when they can’t, which is much more of the time than many people think. Some of the language in the ESV for example would get red marks by an English teacher. Bad word order, bad sentence structure, repetitive. I think that translation should be into English English, not Greek English or Hebrew English. That’s an extremely general statement of course, fraught with issues that books have been written about.

Bill Mounce used to be staunchly in the literal camp, but softened a bit when he sat in on updating the NIV (correct me if I’m wrong on the details), although that translation is more on the literal end than many would think. Even though I’ve had detractors, I still love the God’s Word translation. Many translations have been done ‘from the ground up’, like the NIV, but then they still borrow so many phrases from the KJV that you would think it’s a revision of a revision. Even the NLT does that in many places, John 3:16 NLT being the most notable. GW finally breaks out of that pretty well. Koine Greek (as far as that smaller portion of Scripture goes) was the common language of the time, unless that’s been revised. Not that it’s slang or plain, but I see it as a well written novel that nearly everyone could basically understand. Devices like alliteration, idioms and word plays were often used. I see the GW as one that’s just a bit more formal than the NLT in spots, but reads like it was written by someone who knows how to write for a good publication (as opposed to “how they speak on your favorite sit-com”). Unfortunately, it shies away from some traditional theological terms, but you can’t have everything. It still leaves many Hebrew idioms in place, like in Ecclesiastes and other poetry, instead of trying to explain them, which I appreciate.

I’m very thankful for the effort translators have put into what they do, and I pray that more will be done in other languages. I’m glad that after getting tired of reading the NIV for over two decades, as wonderful as it is, and then bouncing from NRSV for three years, to HCSB to REB, the latter of which I think is pretty fantastic, I’ve finally found my home. I can read the Bible for the most part without feeling like I’m reading a translation, but just reading the Bible in our English, if that makes sense.

The thoughts above are completely my own. I just looked at their Translation Philosophy page, which I haven’t seen in a few years, and am reminded how much I like what they have to say there.

Addendum: The one thing I strongly disagree with as mentioned above is not using theological terms. People need to learn them. One advantage to not using them is they can translate the nuances in the original language. Grace can mean different things in different contexts. But convenant is so fundamental. They explain why they don’t use this if you go to the Word Choice page and scroll down to Eliminating Technical Theological Language. I can kind of see their point with covenant, but with justify and righteous, I think it’s better if everyone is on the same page. Learning those terms is part of education. I even think propitiation should be used, even though 1% of Christians (guessing) actually know what it means. But that’s like the most righteous word in the whole English Bible. Word.

2 Responses to “Literal Greek Translation Does Not Work”


  1. 1 tom

    I have mentioned this before but I also love the God’s Word translation. As you stated it reads well but stills retains some sense of formality and seriousness.

    And oddly enough I also really love the REB! I just wish it wasn’t so hard to find. (it could also use an electronic edition)

    The REB is a WONDERFUL reading Bible.

  2. 2 Scripture Zealot

    That’s strange to find someone so similar. Nice to know. Also strange that there is no electronic version of the REB except for Accordance (Mac) does have it. I really wanted something different than the same KJV phrases handed down, and the REB is fairly different, and I really love how it words things. But I found that my reading comprehension wasn’t as high as others. I still like to read it now and then. Thanks for commenting.
    Jeff

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