Bible Translations, VI: Literal Versions and Paraphrases
The Bible was written between 1,900 and 3,500 years ago in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; in America today we speak and read in modern English. The Bible, therefore, reflects a different time and in many ways a different world than our own. Every Bible translator is confronted with a large task: how to render the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts in such a way as to faithfully represent what was written yet in a way which can be readily understood by the modern English reader. Most translators and revisers have attempted to strike a balance between faithfulness and comprehension; some will tend to favor a bit more faithfulness over comprehension (as in formal equivalence, or “word for word” translations), and others more recently have also begun to favor comprehension a bit over faithfulness (dynamic equivalence, or “thought for thought” translations). Some translators, however, have produced translations and versions which completely privilege one over the other: those who favor faithfulness fully over comprehension have produced literal versions, and those who favor comprehension over faithfulness have produced paraphrases.
The goal of literal versions is to render the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English with the least amount of alteration as possible, so that the reader might get a feel for the original. The American Standard Version at times functions as a literal version; literal versions have been produced by Robert Young (1862), John Darby (1890), and Jay Green (Literal Translation of the Bible, or LITV; 1985). Recently the Modern Literal Version (MLV) has also been completed. All of these editions rely on the Textus Receptus or Majority Text for the New Testament and the Masoretic Text (MT) for the Old Testament; in the latter the literal format does not lend itself well to variants derived from the translations.
Literal translations have a heritage in much of the Greek Septuagint (LXX), infamous for maintaining Hebrew sentence structure and even idiomatic phraseology in much of the text. Yet it can be argued that Greek translators of the Hebrew text were primarily translating for fellow Israelites who would have maintained some familiarity with Hebrew or Aramaic.
Many literal translations do accomplish their purpose: they often render the text in barely translated English. For students of ancient languages these versions can help them work through translation issues; those not familiar with ancient languages can quickly see the types of challenges which translators face.
Nevertheless literal translations are a bit of a misnomer, for most literal translations are not 100% literal. Many idiomatic phrases or grammatical constructions are fully translated and not left as is. Many times a truly “literal” translation would be so incoherent in English as to be barely comprehensible; the translators have been forced to flesh out the text’s meaning to make at least some sense in English. One can use Bible software to compare how the different “literal” versions will render a given verse or passage and can see many differences which exist.
On the other end of the spectrum, the goal of paraphrases is to capture the meaning of the Biblical text into English with less concern regarding the constraints of the wording derived from the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. The most popular paraphrase of today is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Many of the “dynamic equivalence” translations reach paraphrase level, like the Bible in Basic English (BBE), Common English Bible (CEB), Today’s English Version (TEV), The Living Bible, and The Voice.
Many cast aspersions on paraphrases and the motivations behind them; any such work of translation, especially done by one author, will manifest certain biases. Nevertheless, paraphrases themselves have a heritage in the medieval world, let alone in the ways that the Word of God is preached and proclaimed to people for their understanding throughout history.
On the whole, paraphrases do accomplish their purpose: the primary meaning of the text is front and center and easily understood by the modern English reader, but anyone who is hearing a paraphrase read while themselves reading a formal equivalence version might wonder at times if a different book is being read! The reader might get a clear understanding of the primary meaning of a passage from a paraphrase, but he or she cannot confidently draw any conclusions or inferences based on how the paraphrase renders the text.
Both literal versions and paraphrases have their place. Literal versions can help a reader piece together information about how the text is constructed in the original; paraphrases can help a reader understand the basic message of a text and can challenge a Bible student’s comfortable framework of looking at certain words, phrases, or passages. One need not always come to agreement with the translator of a paraphrase in order to appreciate the paradigm challenge.
Nevertheless, both literal versions and paraphrases suffer from the same challenge: Bible versions which overemphasize faithfulness over meaning, or meaning over faithfulness, prove unbalanced. Literal versions and paraphrases both distort in their own unique ways: literal versions distort by not providing the reader with enough information to come to a full understanding of the text, and paraphrases by entirely masking the phrasing and words used in the original texts. For good reason most translators have sought to balance the two imperatives. Those who suggest that literal versions are by necessity the most accurate are deceived, confusing their philosophy of translation for the work of translation itself. Those who suggest that meaning is all-important are also deceived, for God has communicated in specific words, and has often taught and made arguments based on precise phrasing (e.g. Matthew 21:31-32, Hebrews 4:1-11).
Literal versions and paraphrases of the Bible, therefore, can certainly enhance the Bible student’s understanding of what God has made known in Scripture, and to that end are useful additions to their repertoire. Yet literal versions and paraphrases should not be one’s primary text or used in preaching and teaching; the work of communicating God’s purposes to mankind requires a balance of faithfulness and meaning, found better in many formal equivalence versions (e.g. ESV, NASB, N/RSV). May we come to a mature understanding of what God has made known in Christ in Scripture and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry