Literal translation as tradition, not theory

Translation of λύω in seven English translations. Translation of λύω in seven English translations.

The prevailing method for teaching Greek grammar for New Testament students is built on a model that frames grammar as exegetical categorization. The existence of this approach to grammar is also one of the reasons that “literal” translation continues to have such a strong pull.

Yet “literal” translations have less to do with actual degrees of concordance, formality, or literalness. Instead, the primary driving force behind literal translation is the tradition of glossing that we have built up over the course of centuries. Literalness in English translations is primarily predicated on the maintenance of those glossing traditions, rather than a sense of word-for-word-ness in the Greek or Hebrew.

Consider the pedagogically famous verb λύω. ‘Loose’ is a bad rendering. It is also the rendering that dominates nearly our entire tradition of introductory grammars. Here it is in Mounce (2019: 148).

   form  translation  connecting vowel  personal ending  
1 sg  λύω  I am loosing  ο  ——  
2 sg  λύεις  You are loosing  ε  ς  
3 sg  λύει  He/she/it is loosing  ε  ι  
1 pl  λύομεν  We are loosing  ο  μεν  
2 pl  λύετε  You are loosing  ε  τε  
3 pl  λύουσι(ν)  They are loosing  ο  νσι  

Thankfully, the majority of the translation tradition has recognized just how bad this gloss is, as I discuss in detail in The Divergent Senses of λύω. English Bible translations, generally, are doing a much better job at translating this word than our grammars are teaching this same word.

Translations of λύω across the New Testament in seven common English versions.

But you can still see the pull of ‘loose’ from the KJV in the more recent traditionally “literal” versions such as the ESV in Luke 13:16 and Acts 2:24.

  1. SBLGNT: ταύτην δὲ θυγατέρα Ἀβραὰμ οὖσαν, ἣν ἔδησεν ὁ Σατανᾶς ἰδοὺ δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ ἔτη, οὐκ ἔδει λυθῆναι ἀπὸ τοῦ δεσμοῦ τούτου τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου;
    ESV: And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?
  2. SBLGNT: ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπʼ αὐτοῦ·
    ESV: God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

Yet even though translations have changed, λύω is still in our teaching grammars as ‘loose’ for some mysterious reason. The basic sense is ‘untie’, a gloss that I am sure all students would find much more useful in their classes.

The verb, λύω, is a fascinating example of how a glossing tradition functions to define what is or is not considered literal in a language’s Bible translation tradition: Literalness is a product of the glossing tradition and not merely a sense of what is formal or word-for-word. What a given target language community conceives of as word-for-word relative to the source text is decided and determined by the existing tradition or it is created from scratch. Everyone learns λύω as ‘loose’ and in turn that’s what it literally means in the heads every student. That first learned meaning has a determinative function for the construal of literalness. And this extends to syntactic constructions as well: how we learn infinitives, ἵνα clauses, and so forth. All these evoke “literal meanings” (=traditional glosses) in the minds of everyone who has learned the language (and the resources we consult). Changing that sense of literalness can be extremely difficult without substantial effort.

One final implication: For minority languages without a history of Bible translation, the concept of “literalness” is even less meaningful as a descriptive term for the actual work. Without that glossing tradition established, the only thing for translators to do is do their best to communicate the meaning as best they can while balancing that goal with maintaining key concepts and terms across the narrative of scripture.