Should I be more “literal” or more “readable” when translating the Bible?
This series features “real questions” from students and emails, lightly edited to protect the innocent. Welcome to “episode 2.”
I had a quick question (I hope) about our exegetical assignments. They ask us to “provide a literal yet understandable English translation.” I know this may be a nonsensical question, but would it be better to err on the side of literalism, or being understandable?
In real life (that is, not in Greek class) that decision really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. I’m a fan of “idiosyncratic” and clunky translations for personal use, but I’m not a fan of them for public use. I also don’t have a problem with “highly interpretative” translations, as long as you are aware of their limits. I’ve written about that here: Why the NLT is Good, actually – Sign and Shadow.
In general, though, I would try to aim at greater readability. The word “literal” is a tricky one. In the context of Greek class, it means something like “non-paraphrastic.” Because this is a seminary class we want to see the Greek “behind” the English. The NASB does that well–I can read the NASB and usually guess what’s going on in the Greek, making the NASB more “literal.” But notice that this is only useful to the one who knows Greek. Your average reader can’t use this feature of the NASB, and the result is that they are left with questions that they can’t really answer. A “literal” translation is most useful for those who already know Greek; it’s not as useful for a general audience.
To put it another way, since all translations are interpretive, and since there’s really no such thing as a “literal” translation, the question is really a matter of “how many exegetical decisions am I going to answer in my translation.” The more questions you leave ambiguous, the more burden you put on the reader–they now have to answer all those questions. The more exegetical questions you answer, the less burden you put on the reader (but the cost of this is that the reader no longer knows there’s a question, since you’ve already embedded your answer into the translation).
As an exegete, I think you should push yourself to answer more, rather than less, questions. It’s a win win win. It’s a good exercise for you personally (win), and it hones not only your skills in Greek, but in English and general communication as well (win), and it usually provides your reader a better experience (win). The cost is that you “lose” access to the original, but that loss isn’t really a loss because, after all, you know Greek!