Response to the Literal Approach Onlyist View in Biblical Translation

Paul Helm, a Professor of History and Religion, makes a statement:

I take it that a literal translation has the best chance of preserving truth. I shall say no more in defence of this here.

Good – there is no real defense for that statement. His idea of translation smacks of elitism, hierarchical power and controlling what the Scriptures say. It is no more defensible than the King James Version Only doctrine which also relies on ministers to, and I’ll make no bones about it, control the ‘truth.’

He writes,

Of course all translation involves compromise. But since the Christian revelation presents itself as the truth of God, the preservation of truth, cognitive equivalence, literal accuracy, should be the translator’s goal, even at the expense of immediate intelligibility. If the result of translation which aims at keeping to the original as faithfully as can be results in some puzzlement and ignorance when the text is read, so be it. It is the task of the Christian ministry to explain the Scriptures, as Philip explained them to the Ethiopian eunuch.

First, Philip explained Christ, the Hebrew Messiah, to an Ethiopian, holding a Greek translation of the Scriptures. Why was the explanation necessary? Because the Ethiopian did not know Christ but felt something about the passage. What exactly was Philip doing? He was preaching Christ. What the good professor seeks to keep, is a job a for the ministers. What would then have been the point of writing the Gospels if ‘immediate intelligibility’ was expendable to the communities which received them? The idea that understandability should be willingly sacrificed to remain literally word for word is one which destroys the point of the Scriptures.

Back to the first statement, the only chance at preserving the ‘true’ understanding is to take someone, teach them Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and then transport them some 2,000 years into the distant past, placing them along side the Gospel writers. Or, you can take learned men and women who have a heart for God, let them work diligently on a translation which is meant to reach people, knowing that no matter how ‘good’ a translation is, it must be the Spirit which opens the eyes of the reader (Romans 10.14; 1st Corinthians 12.3). You can have the most woodenly literal translation, or one which spells everything out for the reader – but in the end, it is up to the Spirit of God to enlighten those who read such things, and to call their hearts to repentance.

He refuses to comment on paraphrasing over translation – perhaps because it is a tricky thing, considering that when you take a language such as Hebrew and Greek, and turn it into a rude one such as English, by necessity, paraphrasing will take place – regardless of the literal methods used.

Moving through his arguments – some which I agree with, some I do not – I want to end with his statement here:

But the speakers of those languages have also to be prepared to re-situate themselves in the world of biblical concepts and biblical claims. ‘I want to know what the Bible means, and I want to know NOW’ is no way to carry on.

Why not? This claim is as bad as the KJVO mindset which believes that regardless of native tongue, the reader should learn 16th century English in order to read the bible. So, why should a reader have to learn theological words to read the bible? Is it the words or the concepts which matter? Do you have to know the richness of ‘atonement’ – invented by Tyndale for his New Testament – in order to know that Christ died on the Cross as a sacrifice for our sins? Or do they have to learn ‘justified’ and the use of it by the Reformers instead of understanding ‘on the fly’ that it is a position with God, that we are ‘set right’ with God?

While I am in favor of any translation which brings the word of God to the people, I am not in favor of arguments which promote elitism. While I am sure that Professor Helm in no way means that a person cannot learn the bible unless someone who stands in a position of authority relates to them the deep and rich theological insights, it sure sounds like it.

Finally, let me finish by noting that with the whole host of English bible translations, he mentions 3 – the Message on one end and the ESV and the KJV on the other. There are sufficient middle grounds in biblical translation, such as the T/NIV, NLT, and NRSV. But in the end, it is the Spirit of God which calls people to the Christian life, which entails study, service, education, and the ministry.

There must be efforts to secure honest and sincere translations – but also maintain that the goal of translation is to bring the Scriptures to the average person.

Oh, and a quote of the day,

Arguing over translations without reconstructing the full context of scripture is like arguing over which note-pluck sounds better without putting the strings on an actual instrument.

This is not a slight against those who use literal translations.


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17 Replies to “Response to the Literal Approach Onlyist View in Biblical Translation”

  1. Joel: I really don’t take to kindly any form of Onlyism in Bible translation. I think the whole thing is divisive and nonsensical, esp. from those who champion this “literal translation” stuff. I hope I’m not too worked up.

  2. I think it is most interesting that the so-called “dynamic equivalence” is not really that old a method of translation. Check out the 1901 American Standard Version, still used by biblical translators even today. As the English version of the same, the RV, 1884-85. Even the RSV was a literal method, 1946. No, it is only a rather new method, i.e. “dynanic equivalence.” Myself, I will go with the “cognitive equivalence” or literal approach, much older method (KJV and even before the Bishops Bible). This was the method of the 19th century scholars, in the RV (English) and the American version, 1901. Note, this is not an attack on the so-called “dynamic equivalence” just a preference based upon this history, etc.
    Fr. R.

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