Essentially Literal

This is a follow up to All things are lawful 2. I had been trying to think of how to define “essentially literal”. Does it mean being faithful to the grammatical structure versus the semantic structure? In other words, does it mean to defer to word order or word count instead of word choice? Does it mean representing the morphology faithfully, ie, if Elohim is plural then the English word for God should be plural, if the spirit is neuter, use “it” instead of “he” for the Holy Spirit?

Let’s look at an awkward examples. Here is 1 Cor. 14:20,

    Αδελφοι, μη παιδια γινεσθε ταις φρεσιν, αλλα τη κακια νηπιαζετε, ταις δε φρεσιν τελειοι γινεσθε

    Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. ESV

What is this word φρην? According to the lexicon it means the diaphragm. From this it can also mean “the seat of passions, the heart, mind, understanding and reason,” take your pick. In this verse, one cannot preserve morphological number, ie the plural, or semantic reference either.

But semantics, on the one hand, and morphology and syntax, on the other are often in conflict. In translation one might be able to preserve one at the expense of the other. But, preserving both. Hmm. This is difficult.

However, just recently, the ESV site provided an explanation of their term ‘essentially literal’ in this post which is interesting for other reasons as well.

    At the same time, in accord with its “essentially literal” translation philosophy, the ESV has retained consistency and concordance in the translation of Christos (“Christ”) throughout the New Testament.


    we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original (ESV Preface)

Let’s look at the ESV and see how it abides by its intention of maintaining concordance. I thought I would choose the word εξουσια and the English word authority for example.

Here is εξουσια and its various translations into English. And then I will present those same English words with their various Greek equivalents.

I English equivalents for εξουσια in the ESV

Matt. 7:29 authority (and many other places)

Acts 8:19 power (and many other places)

1 Cor. 8:9 right

1 Cor. 11:10 symbol of authority (only this once)

Rev. 13:17 strength

II Now let’s go in the other direction.

a) authority

In most places -εξουσια

1 Tim. 2:13 – αυθεντειν (a one off)

b) power

Luke 22:69 – δυναμις

Acts 8:19 – εξουσια

c) right

John 18:23 – καλως

Acts 2:33 – δεξια

Acts 4:19 – δικαιον

Acts 6:2 – αρεστον

Acts 10:35 – δικαιοσυνην

1 Cοr. 8:9 – εξουσια

1 Cor. 9:15 (no Greek found for ‘right’ in this verse)

d) symbol of authority

1 Cor. 11:10 – εξουσια (found only this once – strange how men have ‘rights’ and women have a ‘symbol of authority’ – and then they call this constancy and concordance!)

e) strength

Mark 5:4 – ισχυεν

Luke 1:51 – κρατος

Acts 9:22 – ενεδυναμουτο

Acts 14:22 – επιστηριζοντες

2 Cor. 1:8 – δυναμιν

Okay, this is what I think. The ESV only occasionally wanders right off course in its translation. However, if the ESV blog identifies ‘essentially literal’ with concordance, then it needs to reconsider. I have asked the editor about this, does he really think the ESV provides concordance, and he said “That is what we set out to do.”

The problem is that when I complete a study like this I remember that the ESV translators have these notions about men and women,

    God gave men, in general, a disposition that is better suited to teaching and governing in the church, a disposition that inclines more to the rational, logical analysis of doctrine and a desire to protect the doctrinal purity of the church, and God gave women, in general, a disposition that inclines more toward a relational, nurturing emphasis that places a higher value on unity and community in the church

so they won’t actually consider a study like mine as having validity. The ESV translators will persist in their belief that they have produced concordance. Or maybe they simply mean that authority is not an important concept. I can handle that.

14 thoughts on “Essentially Literal

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    Suzanne, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a definition of what essentially literal means. But I have read how Dr. Grudem has explained word-for-word translation which I think is synonymous with “essentially literal”, or at least very close to it. Dr. Grudem recognizes, along with most people who have ever worked on translating the Bible to English where they try to get the English to make some sense, that a word-for-word interlinear doesn’t work for general Bible reading. So what Dr. Grudem says distinguishes word-for-word translation from non-word-for-word translation is that every word in the original biblical texts is accounted for in the translation. No original words are to be left out in the translation. Of course, I’m sure that Dr. Grudem would recognize also that even that principle must sometimes not be followed. For instance, in John 1:1 most English versions, including the ESV which he worked on, do not translate the accusative ton theon as “the god,” making sure that ton is literally translated by an overt English definite article.

    So, as far as I can tell, “essentially literal” means the same as word-for-word translation. Original words are translated concordantly to English, except for when they should not be. Idioms and metaphors are translated literally to English, except for when they create serious distortions on meaning. Word order is adjusted to align more with English word order, but not necessarily to the most natural word order.

    There are many exceptions to strictly literal translation. That’s probably why it is called “essentially” literal translation. As to who or what principles are used to determine when one must depart from strictly literal (word-for-word interlinear??), I don’t know that anyone has the answer for that. I think it’s largely subjective. There is an area (not a point) on the continuum from literal to free translation in which various “essentially literal” translations, such as the KJV, RSV, ESV, HCSB, and (maybe) NASB would vary some from each other, but many people would consider that, overall, each version is essentially literal.

    Personally, I would also include the NRSV, NIV, TNIV, and NET Bibles within the essentially literal category. They have a high percentage of literalisms. But many who evaluate English Bible versions would disagree with me for this last group.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    IMO concordant is a technical term meaning the same English word for a single Greek word wherever possible. I don’t know why the ESV wants to make this claim but they do.

  3. Kenny says:

    My suspicion would be that the ESV doesn’t consider exousia an “important recurring word.” I’m willing to bet that they are concordant with respect to dike and it’s derivatives or, the ESV proponents’ favorite, hilasmos. I would tend to think that exousia was a quite important word, but we should probably call this a translation policy decision rather than a mistake.

    As far as a real difference between “literal” and “dynamic” translations, here are a few things I would say translations do that move them in a more “literal” direction:

    (1) attempting, when possible, to preserve the original syntactic structure
    (2) making explicit what is explicit in the original text, and leaving implicit what is implicit
    (3) preserving metaphors (sometimes even dead metaphors!) and other figurative language
    (4) trying, when possible, to maintain a correspondance between English word groups and Greek word groups consistently, and trying to make these groups as small as possible (only one word, where possible)

    There are, I’m sure, other relevant traits besides these, but these are the ones that come to mind.

    By the way, on the topic of literal translation, in the context of the quote from Augustine I recently posted there is a discussion (2.48) of whether or not the genitive case should be preserved in Latin translations of 1 Corinthians 1, despite the fact that Latin doesn’t have a comparative genitive. Unsurprisingly, Augustine thinks this is a bad idea. Just thought you might be amused…

  4. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Hi Kenny,

    Um, isn’t there sometimes a conflict between maintaining the same synatactic structure and the semantic structure.

    I would agree that the other characteristcs you mention are often possible and ssometimes successful in the ESV, but I really believe that considering the total inconsistency of the translations for υιος, ανθρωπος, ανηρ, etc. the ESV is really practising deceit by calling their translation ‘transparent to the Greek’?

    ιλασμος and cognates are consistent but of course, some older translations prefered mercy seat as more literal.

    I think this is a complex issue and people make too much of treating it as a quantitative trait, ie more or less literal. It is obvious that the ESV is not at all literal for 1. Junia, 2. for sign of authority on the head, 3. having authority – authentein. They just pick and choose and I wouldn’t care but so many people are taken in by it and then quote the ESV as gospel truth.

  5. Kenny says:

    There certainly is sometimes (usually, in fact) a conflict between maintaining semantic and syntactic structure (which is Augustine’s point – the use of the genitive in Latin would actually make the phrase mean something entirely different than it means in Greek), which is why it is silly to suppose that more literal is automatically better.

    As to the consistency of the ESV and the verses you point out, it is true that all of these cases mark a departure from literalness, but I think it is unfair to say they “pick and choose.” The ESV translators presumably think that a literal translation of these verses would be misleading as to the correct sense of the text. To this degree, every translation must “pick and choose.” I know that you disagree with their interpretations on a regular basis, but that is a different issue. It is also not the case that it is “not at all literal” in these instances, but simply that it is less literal than the ESV is in most places – they’ve done more of the work of interpretation than they ordinarily do, and you happen to disagree with the interpretation they’ve made.

    I don’t use the ESV – in fact I don’t even own a copy of it. The version doesn’t have a footnote on either Romans 16:7 or 1 Corinthians 11:10, but crosswalk only includes the footnotes for some versions. If the ESV is to be consistent in its practice, it certainly ought to at least mark this departure from its normal degree of literalness with a footnote giving a more literal translation.

    On the subject of ilasmos, I don’t think (but please show some references if I’m wrong) that that was ever “mercy seat,” but the cognate ilasterion certainly may mean that, and some scholars/translators still prefer that as the correct reading.

    There are also two more points that I think we can take away here: (1) literalness is not the only dimension along which Bible translations can be compared, and (2) no one ought to take any one particular translation uncritically “as gospel truth.” People who don’t read the original languages (and also people who do!) need to consult more than one translation, and commentaries, etc., by competent scholars.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    We are generally in agreement here I think, especially your last paragraph.

    But I think that the ESV does not footnote the verses that I mention. It is not only I that disagree on these verses, but also the JKV I should add. However, we regularly see that many people don’t really know what is in the KJV.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    What I mean to say is that some people don’t respect the fact that I am standing up for old traditions in translation.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Here it is.

    7Greet Andronicus and Junia,[a] my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles,[b] and they were in Christ before me.


    Romans 16:7 Or Junias
    Romans 16:7 Or messengers

    So the ESV puts in footnotes for ‘Junias’, for which there is no textual support, and then suggests that apostles can be ‘messengers’, but they don’t footnote the reading “notable among the apostles.” The ESV translators do indeed slant things in the direction of their view of gospel truth.

    I would be happy with the ambiguous KJV.

    The ESV representation is simply not honest. This is not about my personal viewpoint about women, strong though that is, but a certain view about what one can and cannot do with a translation. The fact is that the ESV is inconsistent. It appears to be literal elsewhere, so readers will assume it is literal in these contentious verses about women. I find this inconsistency to be the worst fault of the ESV, misleading the reader.

    So these men, who put men forward as leaders of women, produce something that is misleading. Women are better off doing their own biblical scholarship. They should not trust male scholarship without some reservation.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Women are better off doing their own biblical scholarship. They should not trust male scholarship without some reservation.

    I suggest that we should not trust *any* scholarship without some reservation.

    Caveat emptor!

  10. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    I suggest that we should not trust *any* scholarship without some reservation.

    For sure, Wayne. Not mine either, although I wouldn’t call it scholarship.

  11. haracles says:

    in my opinion if it takes a whole sentence of English to covey the true meaning of an ancient Greek word ,then so be it . if the Bible is 100 pages longer but more accurate because of this ,then surely ,it has to be for the better.for then no mistakes can be made as to the meaning of any passage or word and nothing therefore can be “left open to interpretation”or “ambiguous” but definite and without misunderstanding,and that can only be a good thing surely,because then no one or group can put their own spin or meaning on any passage or word they want to,to sell their own slant on christianity as being the one and only “true interpretation” of the “word of god “or “christ”,there will be only one slant only one interpretation only one way of looking at the scriptures,and therefore only one truth.

  12. Van says:

    Interesting discussion, thanks. I agree that Bible translation versions claim to use concordance, but it is only lip service. If you look at an Exhaustive concordance, you see most Greek words are translated into numerous English words, with about 2/3 of the variations being unnecessary. Then, as you did Suzanne, if you look at the English words, you will see they are used to translate numerous Greek words. The result is that concordance is essentially non existent.

    You asked why they would make the claim? Because if you actually translate the same Greek word meaning (for Greek words have a range of meaning, and so a few English words are needed to cover the whole range) with the same word or as few alternates as possible, you bring the actual message from God into focus.

    Why do all modern formal equivalence versions (NASB, ESV, NKJV) fail to provide even a reasonable level of concordance? Because they follow the previous versions which were prepared before computer search and sort tools were available to make the goal of concordance possible.

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