Are "Literal" Bible Translations Necessarily Better Bible Translations? D. A. Carson Answers

One of the points often mentioned in discussions of Bible translations is the principle that a more literal translation philosophy necessarily accords better with the doctrine of verbal inspiration of the Bible. In other words, if we believe the very words of Scripture are inspired, then we should desire a translation that stays as literal as possible while still rendering readable English. It is this principle that often causes people to prefer translations like the ESV, NASB, KJV, or NKJV over less literal translations like the NIV, HCSB, NLT, or NET. D. A. Carson disputes this principle:

In a recent article Iain Murray, editor of The Banner of Truth, defended the King James Version (KJV) against the New International Version (NIV) largely on the ground that the former attempted a more literal translation, and this he alleged, was more in keeping with the doctrine of inspiration. It is a fair assessment, I think, that says the KJV is more literal than the NIV, although, as I have indicated, I doubt very much if that should always be taken as a compliment. But why a literal translation is necessarily more in keeping with the doctrine of verbal inspiration, I am quite at a loss to know. For example, if I may refer again to an illustration I have just used, to translate "Haben Sie niches gefunden?" by "Have you nothing found?" would scarcely be more honoring to the German author than "Haven't you found anything?," even though the latter translation is certainly less literal than the former. The Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture equally inspired the syntax and idioms. Ultimately what we want is a translation that means what the original means, both in denotation and connotation. Even if one objects to Eugene A. Nida's famous expression "dynamic equivalent," because it can lead to all sorts of freedoms with respect to translation, it ought to be obvious that to some extent every translation, from anywhere on the spectrum, is necessarily involved again and again with finding the "dynamic equivalent."

From D. A. Carson's The King James Version Debate, A Plea for Realism (Baker, 1979). He goes on to argue that if that principle were true (that more literal=better translation) then the logical conclusion would be that we ought to all use the NASB, which is very clearly the most literal of the popularly available translations. And very few people who have made this argument to me have been advocating the NASB.

blog comments powered by Disqus