Troublesome Topic: Here’s What an Exclusively Word-for-Word Translation Looks Like

Lesson 6 of 10

Many Christians think of translation work as building bridges across a linguistic river to a culture on the other side. Each word is a bridge carrying meaning, and a paragraph is a series of bridges that together convey a set of meanings.

Many people assume that a truly literal / “word-for-word” translation would consist of bridges that go straight across the river. Therefore a literal / word-for-word translation should be better than any other, right?

Well, actual translation work is not that simple.

In reality the bridges of an actual translation end up going across that linguistic river at many varied angles; they cross each other and even twist and turn. More often than you think the verses of a word-for-word translation would be unintelligible.

If you wrote a letter to someone in a foreign country and wanted it translated into their language, you would want a meaning-for-meaning translation that is as close to the wording of your letter as possible while prioritizing the meaning. You would not want a word-for-word translation that places one-word equivalencies above intended meaning of the sentence or paragraph.

There are several challenges for Bible translators:

Words left out (this is very common)

Words have several meanings

Usages add even more meanings

Meaning and usage that differ

Self-opposing statements

Example #1: Words Used In Ways that Don’t Fit Their Basic Meaning

For this example I will go with the most extreme form of word-for-word translating. I assume that some people who want a word-for-word translation have in mind the least amount of interpretation by the translator and the fewest choices possible on the part of the translator. “Don’t do the interpreting for me; give me the raw material (what it actually says) and I will build the intended meaning of the passage myself.”

The first problem with this is that many words have multiple meanings. Therefore some people desire a word-for-word translation that goes with the most basic, foundational meaning of the word and that is what I offer you in my example of Isaiah 11:6.

Allow me to show you how a translator has to progress through various steps to get from what the original text was really saying to the intended meaning. Below I will show this verse 6 times, starting with the option that is the least clear but the most literal, word-for-word rendition and working toward the option that has the greatest clarity but is furthest from the original.

The underlined words are those that were altered or added compared to the stage prior to that one.

1. Dangerous Yellow Thing will dwell with Dominator

and Filtered and Cutter will lie down 

Around and Covered and Flapper united

and small shaker will drive them

2. A dangerous yellow creature will live with the one who dominates by butting;

the stained one and the one that cuts grass short will lie down;

the one that frisks around, the one covered in a mane and the one that beats itself with its wings, ____ in unity.

And a small child shall lead them.

3. A ferocious yellow canid will live with the one who dominates by butting with horns;

the one that is splotched and the one that cuts grass short will lie down;

the one that frisks around, the one covered in a mane and the one that is too fat to fly even if it beats itself with its wings ____ in unity.

And a small child shall lead them.

4. A ferocious yellow canid will live peaceably with the one who dominates by butting with horns;

the one that is spotted and the one that cuts grass short will lie down;

the untrained one that frisks around, the one beginning to be covered in a mane and the one that is too fat like an ostrich, ____ in unity.

And a small child shall lead them.

5. A yellow wolf will be inactive and not be aggressive with a young ram;

the leopard and the young goat will lie down together

the year-old, untrained ox calf , the juvenile lion, and the fat calf [will lie down] in unity. 

And a small child shall lead them.

6. A ferocious predator will live in fear of the defenseless prey;

the untrustworthy and the helpless will trust each other completely

the weak and untrained, as well as those that are pampered with special care, will be comfortable around the wild and dangerous

That which is insignificant will lead them all.

Notice that what I offer as a translation was cleaned up or clarified 4 times before it got to what I presented you as my translation.

Example # 2: A Word that Is Used in a Way that Is the Opposite of its Meaning

This example pertains to the word that is both italic and bold.

Basic word meanings:

And Haggai said, “If polluted living breathing soul touches any of these, will it be unclean?” Then the priests answered and said, “It will be unclean.”

Cleaned Up a Bit:

Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a living breathing person, touches any of these, will it be unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It will be unclean.”

Clarified Some More:

Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a person touches any of these, will it become unclean? The priests answered and said, “It will be unclean.”

Clarified even more:

Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a person’s dead body, touches any of these, will it become unclean? The priests answered and said, “It will be unclean.”

The Intended Meaning:

Then Haggai said, “If one who is in isolation because of a dead body, touches any of these types of food, will the food be cast aside as inedible?” The priests responded by saying, “Yes, It will be cast aside as inedible.”

The full version of this phrase appears in Numbers 19:13 where it uses the words “dead living breathing soul” implying a dead person’s body. Numbers 9:7 says “a living breathing human,” but means a dead person’s body and Numbers 9:10 and 5:2 say “because of a living person” once again meaning “because of a dead person’s body.” The concept of avoiding a dead body was so common in the law that it was unnecessary to say the entire phrase; they could shorten it. The irony is that the full version of the phrase (numb 19:13) used the word meaning “living soul” and the adjective “dead” side by side. Then the shortened version uses only the word for “a living breathing soul” but means “a dead person’s body.” To ancient Jews the meaning was quickly recognized. Translators also know what to make of this, but a true word-for-word translation would give the wrong idea.

Do you really want a truly literal, word-for-word translation?

Do you want a Bible that presents you only the first step of what I have shown in the examples above? Or would you rather have a translator that dresses things up for you so you can understand them? In reality, translators must make some decisions for you, they cannot let you make all the decisions, or it would often be unintelligible. The real question is, “How far from the original text is the right amount?” That is where the debate lies, but we all need to admit that a true word-for-word translation would be unintelligible enough of the time as to make it an unacceptable option.

If you must know, the closest thing to a truly literal translation is an interlinear text, which gives you the Greek or Hebrew words with the corresponding English word above or below them (and usually Strong’s corresponding number for that word). However, even they often rely on a major version such as the KJV or the NASB for much of their English wording. What’s more, interlinears usually supply assumed words to fill the gaps for things that are left out, and they clean up a text like the ones demonstrated above. The interlinears I have found online use the word “wolf,” not “yellow.” So even most interlinears are not word-for-word presentations of the original! No such thing is available for sale today, and if there were, quite a bit of it would be unintelligible.

Despite all this, Our Bible Is Reliable.

Despite these challenges, despite the difficult choices a translator must make, we can still be confident that we have a reliable Bible. Why can we make that claim? How is it possible to have a reliable Bible if so much interpretation and decision-making is required? With very few exceptions, all the versions of the Bible are pointing the same direction. There may be slight differences in the choices the translators made, but usually, the various choices point in the same direction. In Isaiah 11:6, does it matter if it is referring to a wolf or a Hyena? They are both ferocious and dangerous. Does it matter if it refers to a little lamb or a young ram? Neither one is a match for a true predator. Does it matter if the true meaning later in the verse is a young lion or a full-grown lion? They are both predators to be feared. That is what I mean that the various options all point the same direction.

Therefore, we can trust our Bible, and we can be glad it is not a word-for-word translation.

So, Which Bible is the Best?

I heard a preacher once say, “The best Bible for you is the one you can understand.” I agree with him.

Most of the Bible versions available today that I am aware of were translated by very capable people whose intentions were right. There are some differences between the versions, but most of them point in a similar direction for any given passage. All of the Bible versions I have seen are helpful in some ways and also have things I disagree with. Thankfully, the problems are few compared to the size of text in question – 31,240 verses in most Bibles and even more in the Catholic Bible. God can use any of the Bible versions available today to speak to someone’s heart.

The next lesson is Question the Bible But Do It the Right Way