Are literal translations more accurate?
When Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was first published, I walked into our local Christian bookstore and asked the sales person, "Do you have the new TNIV?" A wary look came into his eyes and he said, "Why do you ask?" Puzzled, I replied, "Because I would like to purchase a copy." Relieved he showed me where the books were being kept. He also explained the source of his angst: some people were coming into the store and rebuking them for carrying such a "heretical" translation.
Recently I heard a sermon in which the speaker criticized certain "meaning-based" Bible versions and promoted "literal" translations as "more the word of God." He encouraged people to consider the common language versions, which were easier to understand, as less worthy to be considered God’s word than the more "word for word" translations.
If some translations are heretical, then we should avoid them. If meaning-based translations are truly less God’s word than literal translations, then we would do well to read versions that are more accurate. But are such claims true, or do they arise from a misunderstanding of the nature of language and the translation process?
Translations are like theologies: Human attempts to express the Divine Word
Since Babel there have always been both "word for word" and "thought for thought" translations between languages. "Dynamic equivalence," "thought for thought" or "meaning-based" are new terminology to describe a translation style which has always existed. "Literal," "Word for word" or "formal" describes a separate translation style which also has always existed. For example, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), which was often quoted by New Testament writers, has instances of both literal and meaning-based translations. As one example among many, the Hebrew word rosh has a nuance of a literal, physical "head" as well as a more metaphorical usage of "chief authority." The LXX sometimes uses the Greek word for "head," kephale, to translate rosh, and sometimes uses other words to describe the concept of "chief authority" in non-metaphorical terms.1
Outside of Bible translation, in the modern secular world of written translation, the meaning-based style tends to be the norm for translation, rather than "word for word." The assumption is that rather than the structures and words of the original language, it is the meaning that is of interest to the reader. The role of the translator is to express the meaning of the original manuscript so that the receptor audience can engage the meaning according to the accepted usage of the receptor language. The goal is the communication of the message. However, Bible translation deals with manuscripts which are considered by those of us who are evangelicals as verbally inspired by God. The sacredness of the original writings is reflected in the desire of the translators of literal translations to reflect, as close as possible, the linguistic structures and individual words of the original.
Is the ordinary method of meaning-based translation suitable for the biblical texts, or does their nature as "God-breathed" require a different, more literal, style? In our human attempts to express the divine word, how should we proceed?