Which Bible version is the most “literal”? (updated)

“Literal” is really not a technically precise term, because some people take it to mean “more faithful”, and this is simply not the case. The KJV is fairly literal, the NASB more so. The NIV, NJB, and others are more in the “dynamic equivalent” camp. Some people who opt for “literal” translations disdain these Bibles because supposedly they paraphrase the text and in so doing introduce their own interpretations. Nevertheless, one fact that all translators know, whether Bible translators or others, is that there is no such thing as a pure translation; all translation is to some extent interpretation.

Take a look at James 1:5, just to pull one example out of the air. If one were to translate word for word, giving one English word for each Greek one, and preserving the syntax of the sentence, it would come out gibberish:

 If and anyone is lacked wisdom, let him ask from the giving God to all simply and not reproaching and it will be given to him.

This is not a translation, since it does not make sense in the “receptor language”, in this case, English. There are verses in Hebrews, for example, that if translated word-for-word would come out looking like someone had reached into a bag and pulled out English dictionary words at random.

The NASB of James 1:5 is, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” In other words, it too is only relatively a “literal” rendering, and has to change the word order in order to have it make sense in English. The KJV and NKJV are also fairly literal, but still make sense: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (NKJV)

The main change I would suggest to the KJV, NKJV or NASB is to translate the two uses of “him” differently. The original does not denote a male person, but any person. When the pronouns are singular, it’s difficult to render into English; “him or her” would be completely accurate and literal, but it is awkward. The New Living Translation opts for a 2nd person, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.” While some will object that this is a paraphrase, it must be countered that the NASB’s “him” is not absolutely on the money either, since it doesn’t faithfully represent what the Greek says.

There are serious scholars who prefer a more “literal” translation and some who believe that a “dynamic equivalent” is better. There exist good arguments for both sides. Precept’s opts for the NASB, which is fine. I sincerely appreciate Precept’s dedication to careful Bible study; my main concerns are when people claim that only a “literal” translation can give the meaning of the text; and when people claim an insider’s knowledge of the Greek text, without having studied it.

Which Bible version is the most “literal”? by Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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