Because this blog is for ordinary people, who don’t typically know Greek or Hebrew, we don’t write much about translation issues. But once in a while there’s an opportunity to speak to an issue that impacts ordinary Bible readers broadly. One such issue is the popular, yet misleading, assumption that some English Bible translations are more literal than others.
Bill Mounce, Greek scholar and author of one of the best-selling Biblical Greek textbooks, wrote recently about translation philosophies, and the popular misconceptions of what they mean. Mounce has served on translation committees for both the ESV and the NIV, so he’s well qualified to comment on a variety of philosophies.
Speaking about the two main categories, he writes:
Most people say there are two translation camps, formal equivalent [word-for-word] and functional equivalent (or dynamic equivalent) [thought-for-thought]. The longer I am in translation work, the more I see how simplistic this division is.
There actually are five methods on translation with three sub-categories for the handling of gender language. Translations are all on a continuum, overlapping one another, and hence it is misleading to picture them as different points on a line. I am guessing, but for example, about eighty percent of the ESV and the NIV are the same, once you account for different translations of individual words.
Mounce goes on to explain that, except for a few interlinear Bibles (which aren’t really English translations), no English Bible is literal.
The word “literal” should never be used of any other form of translation since all of them, every single one, despite their marketing, rarely translate word-for-word. They will say they translate word-for-word unless it does not make sense or misinforms, but that is a red herring argument. They are never consistently word-for-word, unless you can find a translation that translates John 3:16 as, “in this way for loved the God the world so that the Son the only he gave in order that each the believing into him not perish but have life eternal.” No Bible on the market is “literal.”
Mounce goes on to describe more nuanced categories of translation, which should inform how we think about our English Bibles. In addition, he addresses the matter of gender language, arguing that there is no English translation in existence that is “gender neutral,” and we should not ignorantly use the term to describe any well-known, modern English Bible.
Mounce’s full article is useful and easy to read; it uses no Greek. Check it out!