Literal Translation? Part I

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been seriously reconsidering what the word “literal” means when applied to translation.

The NASB is described as a literal translation and the NLT2 is described as a dynamic equivalence translation.

I suppose that technically the terms are “Formal” and “Functional” Equivalence. But so often we here people say things like, “Well, in Greek, it literally means…”

Now one must ask what makes a word mean anything literally. Perhaps this is not the case in other people’s minds, but in my mind, literal translation seeks as close to one-to-one correspondence as possible. Indeed, that is why the NASB tends to have such awkward and wooded phrasings. This is where I begin to have a problem.

For people who know very little or nothing about translation, such language suggests that literal means awkward.

A good Greek example would be that of the phrase εἰς τὸ εἰδέναι in Ephesians 1.18. The verse “literally” reads:

…having the eyes of your heart enlightened toward knowing what is the hope of his calling.

“Toward knowing” is not exactly an English idiom…but it does make sense. Toward has a figuratively spatial sense…”toward [the goal of] knowing.”

Literal in form, preposition + infinitive, this is a very accurate translation.

No translation translates the phrase like this. They all take a meaning based approach even though it is “less literal.” Even the “Most Literal” NASB is no more literal here than any other translation in a formal sense.

But all the translations do well to accurately translate the meaning which indicates purpose or result: “so that you might know the hope of his calling.”

Everyone has translated the clause base on meaning not form.

Nextː Literal Translation? Part II