Friday, May 30, 2014

Is a "Literal" Translation the Best?: Martin Luther Weighs In

What is the best Bible translation? Should I go with a ‘literal’ translation (word for word) or a dynamic equivalent one (thought for thought)?” How many times have we had someone ask us those questions? How many books and blog posts have we read on the subject? If you’ve been a Christian-intellectual-in-training for a while, then you have probably seen or heard your fair share. Some people swear up and down that there is only one correct translation (usually the KJV) or method (usually the literal with its current champion the ESV) while all the other ones are an abomination.

One of my colleagues at seminary, the Rev. Chad Brooks, said that while he was working at a Christian bookstore he actually had a man come in and ask for “one of those Bibles like Paul carried.” Chad replied, “I’m sorry, sir, we are fresh out of scrolls.” That little story illustrates the fact that too few people understand—unless we read Greek and Hebrew we are not reading the Bible as it was originally written. I have written about this more fully in my post Kissing Through a Veil. But if we get locked in on one method or translation we may miss the actual message of the Scripture itself.

Interestingly enough, debates of this nature go back to the Reformation. While some Reformed churches today get their britches in a wad over “dynamic equivalent” translations versus “literal translations” (one thinks of the nearly fallacious claims made about the ESV over and above translations like the NLT or NIV for instance), Dr. Martin Luther was battling this way of thinking as early as 1530 A.D. He did it in high style, lambasting Papists and calling many people “asses” along the way.

A couple of weeks ago I read a short treatise called “An Open Letter On Translating.” [Click here to read it.] In it Luther justifies his translating methods, particularly surrounding his decision to include sola fide even though it was not in the original language. He writes, “It has been charged by the despisers of truth that the text has been modified and even falsified in many places, which has shocked and startled many simple Christians, even among the educated who do not know any Hebrew or Greek.” This could easily have been written last week, but he moves on to explain why this claim has been made in the first place. “The letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these knotheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text-if the translation is to be clear and accurate, it belongs there…We do not have to ask about the literal Latin or how we are to speak German—as these asses do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this. We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.

Of course, he spends more space on his arguments than I have quoted here, but I hope you can catch the drift. For Luther, the most important thing was for common people to be able to understand the Bible in their own vernacular. He had no qualms in smoothing out idioms or shifting syntax to aid comprehension. I wonder how he would have weighed in on the subject if he were alive today.

 I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please let us know what you’re favorite translation is and why.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I use the ESV as my "everyday" translation, however, if I'm doing a study on a particular chapter or verse I will consult an NIV(1984), NASB, NKJV and the KJV. I will also go to an interlinear to see if there is a more robust meaning in either Hebrew or Greek. It can be argued that a good "literal" translation will encompass both precision to the original text and precision in translating to vernacular and language of the tongue in which it is being translating. I don't necessarily think one can separate and put "literal" and "accessible" in opposition to one another unless the translator has a bias that is dictating their translation. This is why translations typically are overseen by numerous scholars of various stripes within Christian orthodoxy. Luther was critical of the Latin translation because common folk couldn't read it and he needed to translate it both precisely and accessibly for common vernacular. Both of these ideas need to be held in tension (along with a solid understanding of the Greek/Hebrew). I think the ESV does the best job at this currently and that's why it's my everyday bible.