The Word Made Fresh

Dave Brunn, who worked for twenty years translating the Bible for the Lamogai people of Papua New Guinea, describes what the process taught him about supposed “literal” renderings of scripture:

When I first went to Papua New Guinea, I was committed to translating God’s Word as faithfully and as accurately as possible. I thought I had a good idea of what that meant, but I quickly realized that I had oversimplified the actual task of Bible translation. I heard people articulate proposed standards for faithfulness and accuracy. But I found that many of those standards are based on English grammatical features that do not exist in Lamogai or many other languages. So, if those standards are really God’s universal standards, then Lamogai would automatically be disqualified from having a faithful and accurate translation.

A lot of people don’t realize that since English and Koine Greek are both Indo-European languages, the degree of accuracy that we have in our English New Testaments is largely due to the fact that the translators were working with languages that are part of the same family, albeit as distant cousins. Translation into English is not easy, but there are many more difficulties faced by those translating into unrelated languages—difficulties that those translating into English would never imagine.

Why every translation involves the interpretation of the translator:

As I approached a passage to translate into Lamogai, I looked at the original, and then I would compare as many English versions as I could. I thought I understood what “literal” translations were in English. But I found that every literal version frequently breaks its own rules of literalness and word-for-word translation—and not only when the grammar or other specific constraints force them to. Often it’s just a judgment call for the translators. It really surprised me to find out that the supposedly “literal” versions are often not literal in places where they could have been. There is also a surprising number of places where the intentionally nonliteral versions actually end up closer to a word-for word rendering.