for a Literal Translation
Frank Neil Pohorlak, D.D. Litt.D.
(OSWALD T. ALLIS AND OTHERS)
SEVERE STRICTURES are levelled against both the slavishly literal and the servilely idiomatic. Special severity is reserved for any who seek to combine the two.
Is the translator obligated to reproduce the style of the writer, his sentence order and length, his terseness, his leapings and dartings in thought, his syntactical inconsistencies, his sentence structures? Shall his vigorous vocabulary and word pictures be reduced to a bland diet of monotone and monochrome? Shall we by a difference indicate where he has a distinction? Or shall we by lassitude and loungitude rob the reader of the Original’s pristine purity and power and preciousness?
Marvin H. Pope, in the Anchor Bible series, attempts to preserve these qualities in his work on Job: INTRODUCTION, TRANSLATION, AND NOTES.
 4aHe has endeavored “to achieve brevity and terseness commensurate with the original…In general, the translation is rather literal and often follows even the word order of the original where this makes reasonably acceptable English, although there is no rigorous effort to be consistent on this score.”
Another writer, Oswald T. Allis, levels much criticism against the Revised Standard Version in his book, REVISION OR NEW TRANSLATION?, with the subhead “ ‘The Revised Standard Version of 1946,’ A Comparative Study.”
 5a Let us look at what he has to say in his chapter, “The ‘Enduring Diction’ of the AV.”
A long paragraph devoted to “terseness of expression,” ends with Allis asking these pertinent questions: “Should the translator try to reproduce Paul’s form of expression accurately? Or, should he change it to make it conform with a more or less arbitrary standard of his own as to the requirements of an ‘idiomatic’ rendering?” His opinion is, “We believe the translator should aim to reproduce his author’s style as accurately as possible” (p. 133).
Let us break up this lengthy paragraph into manageable parts, each dealing with an example of Paul’s style and the RSV treatment of it, compared to that of the literal CV.
As we quote the literal CV, count the occurrences of the preposition “in,” which preserves what Paul wrote. (Since Oswald Allis in footnote 1 on page 1 mentions the “Concordant” among the various translations and revisions, we feel it permits us to compare it with the others mentioned).
“We are giving no one cause to stumble in anything, lest flaws be found with the service, but in everything we are commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in blows, in jails, in turbulences, in toil, in vigils, in fasts, in pureness, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in holy spirit, in love unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God…”
If you counted the occurrences of “in” in these verses, you found the twenty which Paul used, faithfully brought over into English, thus approximating Paul’s style of writing.
…In the long list of hardships given elsewhere in this epistle (1:26-27), the first 10 follow one another without any connective; the tenth is joined to the eleventh by ‘and’; then follows 4 expressions all of which are connected by ‘in’ (cf 2 Tim. 8:2-5). Here RSV follows the Greek much more closely.... (p. 183).
Following is the literal rendering of Paul’s terse style in the Memorial Edition of the Concordant Literal New Testament. The “in” is in lightface in the first nine occurrences, to show that it has been added as a concession to English idiom. In this quotation we have put these nine in parentheses. To test the terseness of Paul’s style, read and omit them.
“…(in) journeys often, (in) dangers of rivers, (in) dangers of robbers, (in) dangers of my race, (in) dangers of the nations, (in) dangers in the city, (in) dangers in the wilderness, (in) dangers in the sea, (in) dangers among false brethren; in toil and labor, in vigils often, in famine and thirst, in fasts often, in cold and nakedness…” Thus again, Paul’s terseness in writing is approximated.
…In Col. 3, Paul uses three styles. In vs.5 he strings together 5 vices which are to be shunned, and joins the last 2 by ‘and’; in vs.12 he strings together 5 virtues which are to be cultivated, and does not join the last 2 by ‘and’ (cf 2 Tim. 2:22); in vs.11 he begins with 2 antithetic couplets, ‘Greek and Jew,’ ‘circumcision and uncircumcision,’ and then adds 4 unconnected words, ‘barbarian, Scythian, bond, free.’ In these verses RSV follows the Greek closely, except that it inserts an ‘and’ between the last 2 virtues in vs.12 (p.183).
Let us see how the Concordant Literal New Testament handles this passage in Colossians 3:5,12,11 (following the above order).
“Deaden, then, your members that are on earth: prostitution, uncleanness, passion, evil desire and greed, which is idolatry“ (vs.5). “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, pitiful compassions, kindness, humility, meekness, patience” (vs.12). “Wherein there is no Greek and Jew, Circumcision and Uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but all and in all is Christ” (vs.11). Again, you can be sure if it’s Concordant.
Again, the CV vindicates its method and reproduces the thought of Paul in his style and terseness, as far as English idiom allows.
“Let no one be despising your youth, but become a model for the believers, in word, in behavior, in love, in faith, in purity.”
Allis closes out the paragraph with these additional illustrations, before he asked and answered the questions we quoted earlier.
Let us see how these three passages are translated in the Concordant Literal New Testament.
“…in whom there is no Jew nor yet Greek, there is no slave nor yet free, there is no male and female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). “Or are you not aware that the unjust shall not be enjoying the ‘allotment of God’s kingdom? Be not deceived. Neither paramours, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards; no revilers, no extortioners shall be enjoying the allotment of God’s kingdom” ( 1 Cor. 6:9 ). “All scripture is inspired by God, and is beneficial for teaching, for exposure, for correction, for discipline in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped, fitted out for every good act” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Dean Weigle, a member of the staff which produced the Revised Standard Version, said that the English Revised Version of 1881 and especially the American Standard Version of 1901 were to be censured, for “They are mechanically exact, literal, word-for-word translations, which follow the order of the Greek words, so far as this is possible, rather than the order which is natural to English” (Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, page 11).
On the other hand, Oswald T. Allis
 6awrites that “first in importance in estimating the value of any translation is the question of accuracy” (page 15). “Accuracy is the first requirement of a version. What the reader wants to know is what the author actually said, not what the translator thinks he should have said, or how he thinks he should have said it; and since an author’s style necessarily colors everything he writes, he wants the translation to be as nearly as possible in the way the author said it” (page 21).
Allis goes on to say that “this tendency toward the introduction of unnecessary variations and differences in rendering, which often seems to represent a deliberate and studied effort on the part of the translator or reviser to achieve novelty in rendering, is especially regrettable because the average reader for whom these new versions are primarily intended, is not in a position to test the correctness of the claim which are so confidently made in their favor” (page 7).
The ideal is accuracy and felicity of rendering. Obviously this ideal is high, yet every effort should be made to achieve it. Again Allis says, “But we reject the notion that it is the function of the translator to rewrite the original, or to improve on it in respect of intelligibility or beauty. Accuracy comes first” (page 24).
Allis admits that “It is a difficult question to decide just how far a translator should go in the attempt to make the sense of the passage he is translating perfectly clear to the reader. When the meaning is reasonably clear, an interpretive rendering which would be helpful to one reader might not be needed by another, who might even regard it as an impertinence, a suggestion that he did not have sufficient intelligence or culture to understand what the author meant from the author’s own words. On the other hand, if the meaning is at all obscure or uncertain, the translator necessarily becomes an interpreter, and interpretations may differ and often do so. No hard and fast rule can be laid down. But this much may at least be affirmed, that a distinction of some kind should be drawn, and drawn carefully, between the words of the author and the interpretive additions or explanations of the translator” (pages 25,26).
The AV employed italics, the CV employs lightface type for words not in the Greek. Since the RSV does neither, Allis’s criticism is leveled at this failure to set out what the text says and what the translators added to aid the reader.
If mechanical problems with the linotype had not intruded, even the punctuation, quotation marks and the like would have been set out in lightface type in the CV. Allis, in a chapter titled “The Form of the Translation” (Chapter VI), indicates what harm can be done by punctuation, capitals, paragraphing, quotation marks, etc., all of which can mar the meaning, change the meaning, even obscure the meaning. Indeed, these marks should be used with the utmost caution.
Allis states, “That a literal translation may be inexact and an idiomatic rendering may be accurate, is a truism, which does not need to be stressed. The ideal is a rendering which is both accurate and idiomatic. But it is often very hard to achieve” (page 42).
As we state in the “Explanatory Introduction,” “The concordant method of studying the Scriptures uses a concordance to discover the meaning of a word, not in any version, but in the Original. The aim is to discover the usage and fix its significance by its inspired associations. It is in line with the linguistic law that the meaning of a word is decided by its usage. In this version the efficiency and value of this method has been greatly multiplied by extending it to the elements of which the Greek words are composed and by combining with it the vocabulary method, which deals with each word as a definite province of the realm of thought which must be carefully kept within its own etymological and contextual boundaries.
“Uniformity and consistency is the keynote. This is attained by the use of a standard English expression for every Greek element in the Original, and variants which correspond to the words, and form the basis of the Version. All is uniform when possible, and consistent when uniformity is impracticable” (page 610).
We go on to say, “Not only should each Greek word be translated uniformly when practicable, but, to achieve the best results, each English word should be the constant and exclusive representative of only a single Greek word. There are subtle distinctions and instructive nuances which escape us otherwise, and sometimes these are the vital keys to great and precious truths” (page 627).
A further and important point is made in the section setting forth some of the values of this Version. It is this: “Drawbacks associated with rigid uniformity in translation are largely compensated for by means of occasional idiomatic variants, and signs and superior letters in the text itself.” The Abbreviation Key may be folded out for reference when reading the Version. Here these compensatory signs are alphabetized and explained so that all may, with pleasure and profit, not only read His Word, but see for themselves exactly how it is said in the original language.
A translator of the Scriptures is either helped or hampered by his attitude toward them. A real constraint is imposed on one who views the Scriptures as inspired for he becomes obligated to convey its thoughts with accuracy. On the other hand, in the words of James Moffatt, “Once the translator of the New Testament is freed from the influence of the theory of verbal inspiration, these difficulties cease to be so formidable.”
What this means is simply this: if it is assumed that the New Testament writers did not write accurately, it follows that the translator need not translate accurately. Thus it is that a scholar such as Henry J. Cadbury tries to justify such a role played by the translator of the Scriptures when he tells us, “As they [the New Testament writers] wrote with neither grammatical precision nor absolute verbal consistency, he [the modern translator] is willing to deal somewhat less meticulously with the data of a simple style that was naturally not too particular about modes of expression or conscious of the subtleties which some later interpreters read into it.”
But let us listen to Alexander Tilloch as he refutes these sentiments in the following cogent words: “How do such men generally proceed? They meet with some supposed violation,—they substitute the idea or mode of speech which they conceive to be intended: they read on and presently meet with something which does not harmonize with the imposed sense; and a new violence is then committed, to prevent obscurity. The text again resists this: the Critic, never questioning his own judgment, blunders on, till he has lost the sense entirely: and then, instead of retracing his steps, or even trying what would be the result of allowing the author to speak in his own language, charges him with solecisms and violations of grammar.”
Tilloch’s book is a powerful polemic against those who would charge the writers of the New Testament with “lingual inaccuracies,” “violations of grammar,” or who even go so far as to “impute grammatical improprieties to the amanuensis of the Apocalypse.” He demolishes the critics who contend that John’s Greek is uncouth and ungrammatical. We commend the book highly, although it is rare and difficult to obtain. It will be.well worth the time spent in rummaging through the dusty tomes in a bookstore in the hope of turning up a copy.
John Beekman has an article in THE BIBLE TRANSLATOR for October, 1966, titled “ ‘Literalism’ A Hindrance to Understanding.” In it he castigates the literal translation for its failures to convey the meaning of the Original since “One of the worst faults of most literal translations is the choice of literal equivalents for the words used in the translation” (page 178).
Another stricture leveled against literal translations is that “Grammatical categories are often retained in a literal translation” (page 181). Finally, we are told that still another weakness of a literal version is the usual attempt to follow the word order of the Original too closely: “Another characteristic of literalism is a failure to reorder words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. Following the word order of the original is a common error in literalism. Just as frequent is the failure to make necessary shifts in the order of phrases and sentences. Often the linguistic order confuses the reader until it is changed to correspond to the experiential order” (page 181).
Paul’s inspired order in Philippians 3:10 is as follows: resurrection, sufferings, death. Surely this is wrong since this is not the experiential order, which would be: sufferings, death, resurrection. Shall we change Paul’s order to agree with our disordering of the thought he conveyed? Emphatically, no! Let us instead attempt to understand what lies behind the unchronological, the nonexperiential order. How easily this may be done by one who holds fast to the Word! And to such a one, deep and wondrous truths are revealed through consideration of the unusual order selected by Paul.
If we may reorder words, phrases, clauses, and sentences to agree with our notions of improving on the “haphazard” and non-experiential order, where shall be drawn the line of tampering with the truth? Shall we re-order Paul’s order in 2 Timothy 3:16,17? Here he writes: teaching, exposure, correction, discipline, equipped, fitted out. Shall we expose before we teach? Shall we correct before we expose? Shall we discipline before we correct? Shall we equip and fit out before we teach, expose, correct, and discipline? To what lengths will some men seek to go in re-ordering God’s thoughts to reflect their own “superior” thoughts and this in the face of His words as seen in Isaiah 55:8,9? There God says,
“For not as My devices are your devices,
“And not as your ways are My ways.”
How can any person stoop to impugn the motives of those who seek to give to the saint what the Scriptures literally say, by writing, “One doesn’t really have to know what a passage means if he translates literally. Those who are afraid to take responsibility for the exegesis of a passage hide behind a literal translation” (Beekman’s article, page 189)?
For the time being, we will leave this and other castigating remarks unanswered and will return to Allis’s review of the 1946 RSV. When speaking of the negative in the New Testament Greek and the problem of bringing it over idiomatically, he writes, “It is to be noted in this connection that an ‘idiomatic’ rendering means or should mean, giving in the translation the exact equivalent of what is stated in the original, not the substitution by the translator of forms of expression which seem to him more suitable to express the thought of the writer” (page 45).
Lack of uniformity in the rendering of the same Greek word by the same English word is frequently the cause of confusion. The desire to avoid monotony may be behind this, as indicated in the Preface to the King James Version. Yet what seems to be monotony is transformed to force when it reflects the inspired expression of the Divine Author of the Scriptures. We should not seek to improve on the greatest Grammarian of all, the holy Spirit of God.
The charge that some versions follow the Greek word order too slavishly is a shortsighted one. Much beauty and accuracy, emphasis and exactitude, is sacrificed when the Greek order is cast in the English order. Frequently, to so recast is to miscast the meaning of the Original.
Again we quote Allis who discusses this problem when he writes, “It may be admitted that too close adherence to the Greek order may result in a somewhat unnatural and stilted construction of English. But the countercharge which we would bring against RSV is that it has frequently departed from the Greek order where such departure is quite unnecessary and sometimes where a closer adherence to that order brings out the meaning of the Greek more clearly than what they apparently have regarded as the natural order in English” (page 86).
The remainder of Allis’s book has much more to say that is relevant and pertinent on this subject, which the concerned reader may care to pursue.
Volume 15. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965. [Return to text]
Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948. [Return to text]
REVISION OR NEW TRANSLATION? The Revised Standard Version of 1946 (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948 ) [Return to text]
DISSERTATIONS INTRODUCTORY TO THE RIGHT UNDERSTANDING OF THE LANGUAGE, STRUCTURE, AND CONTENTS OF THE APOCALYPSE (London: 1823), page 149. [Return to text]
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