Biblical Languages,  Scripture

Why the Idea of Literal or Dynamic Bible Translations Isn’t Quite Right

I am often asked what makes for a good Bible translation. To many people, the answer is simple—you just need a literal Bible translation (i.e., one that translates word-for-word from Greek or Hebrew into English). However, there is a little more complexity to the issue that needs to be considered.

Literal and Dynamic Bible Translations

Bible translations have traditionally been classified as literal-formal or dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence is normally used to refer to translations which attempt to emphasize the meaning of phrases rather than each individual word (NIV is often used as an example). In these kinds of translations, there is a little more flexibility in how a word or phrase might be translated given the given context. Alternatively, a literal translation (or formal equivalence) is often touted as the best due to its word-for-word approach and its attempt to be more objective or consistent in its translation (KJV and NASB are common examples).

Although Bible versions are often referred to as either dynamic or literal-formal, I think it is too simplistic to refer to translations in an “either/or” kind of way (it is another example of the either-or fallacy). The truth is, there is no such thing as a completely literal-formal translation. Any time you have one language being translated into another, you have idioms, grammatical irregularities, and vocabulary discrepancies that are impossible to translate in a one-for-one correspondence.

For example, in Spanish there is an idiom, buscar el príncipe azul (to search for the blue prince). But what it actually means in English is our idiom, to look for prince Charming. In fact, if we translated that literally it might mean a prince that is dead by asphyxiation (since blue is the color we associate with lack of oxygen).

The simple point is that each language has its own peculiarities with grammar, idioms, etc. In any translation endeavor (whether it be the Bible or any other text/speech), the goal should be to get the correct point across and avoid confusion.

A Biblical Example of the Complexities of Translation

In addition to the above information on grammatical complexity, there are also certain cultural oddities that can be confusing.

One such example of cultural confusion at odds with a literal translation is Genesis 14:15.

“He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus

(Gen 14:15, NASB).

Most Bible translations translate the last phrase as the NASB does, but it is worth noting that the KJV translates the phrase as the Hebrew reads, “which is on the left hand of Damascus.” Just so you know, the Hebrew actually simply says, “which is on the left hand of Damascus.” So, why don’t the majority of other translations just say on the left of Damascus?

The issue is a cultural one. Ask yourself this: where is the left of the city of Damascus? To me (and most who belong to a Western culture), the left signifies West, as a direction. That is because we orient ourselves and our maps so that North faces up (or in front of us). However, for the ancient Israelite, they oriented everything to the East. (As a side note, the Hebrew word for East can mean “in front” and the word for West can mean “behind”). Thus, to the left in Hebrew is actually North. Notice then, that if we simply translate the word as “left,” it can be confusing if someone is not aware of these details. Some people could actually misunderstand God’s Word in such cases.

No Translation Goes Exactly Word for Word

I bring up this example because sometimes people are very hard on some Bible translations such as the NIV, ESV, or CSB because these translations will make concessions to emphasize the author’s intended meaning rather than simply trying to create a word-for-word wooden translation. Yes, it is true that translations like these are not as literal as translations like the KJV, NASB, and LSB. However, the important point we need to understand is that every Bible translation makes concessions to ensure the proper meaning is brought across. It is impossible to have a completely word for word translation. Some translations may do this better than others, but it is not an “either/or” issue.

I think we often miss out on the benefits of reading other translations which have been made by gifted scholars. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can only read the KJV, NASB, and LSB to benefit. These are all amazing translations, and I benefit from each of them greatly! I am even open to the argument that the LSB is the best Bible translation (since some of my friends helped translate it!). But I also benefit from the NIV, ESV, and CSB (each of which has its own unique style and translation method).

There is much benefit in reading multiple translations, and it is fine to have a favorite! One of my mentors, Dr. Barrick, said he and his wife would rotate English Bible translations every year to read through the Bible. I think that’s a great idea! Others enjoy reading one primarily for the purposes of memory and familiarity. Overall, reading the Bible is what is most important!

photo credit: Envato Elements

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

One Comment

  • Brian K Haack

    Great article and I guess it goes with the original intended meaning. I think its also good to note that this in no way is trying to add or take away from the original writings. One verse that popped out in my head as I was reading was Ephesians 4:15 where most if not all Bible translations add a few words to give the meaning in the original Greek that just ends it with Christos. The reason is because I struggled with verses like Deut. 4:2 and Rev. 22:18-19 and etc about not adding or taking away from the word of God.

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