Literally Translating the Divine

In their essays in Translating Truth, The Case for Essentially Literal Biblical Translation, the authors, C. John Collins, Wayne Gruden, Verb Sheridan Poythress, Leland Ryken, and Bruce Winter make a number of good arguments for a “word-for-word” translation of the Bible into English.   I will not repeat their arguments and evidence here, but I will make the cast that an even more extreme standard should be used for Jesus's words. We should go beyond a "word-for-word" essentially literal translation, to a "word-by-word" extremely literal translation.

My argument is simple. Christians claim to trust that Jesus was divine. I trust that he knew where he came from and where he was going. This means that he wasn't only speaking for the people of his time, but for all time and that he chose his words that carefully. The words he choose had one meaning for the people of his time, but those exact same words were chosen to reveal newer, deeper meanings over time.

Jesus word are essentially different than all other words in the Bible. Yes, everything in the Bible is the word of God, inspire by the Holy Spirit, but except for the words of Jesus those words are "filtered" through admittedly flawed human beings. If, as Translating Truth argues, preserving each word of all the authors in the Bible in translation is important, then preserving the exact words of Jesus is even more important. Offering a "dynamic translation" that assumes to translate "thought-by-thought" instead of "word-for-word," is near sacrilege. The translators would have to assume that they know the thoughts of God to do such a translation. We have access to the literal words of God, not the Divine thought, which we must admit is beyond our understanding.

Truth Hidden in the Words

Let me start with a simple example of how new meanings can emerge from Jesus's words. In Matthew 10:38 And he who takes not his cross, the people hearing him could not have heard the word "cross" as we hear it today. The context would not have lead them to think that he was talking about Roman execution. The word he used, the word that is translated as "cross" throughout the New Testament is stauros. It means "a stake," light a tent stake, a holding up a building, or the stake in a fence marking a boundary. The phrase words like our phrase "pulling up stakes," which means giving up one place and moving to another. The people that Jesus was speaking to could hear this no other way. 

However, we hear this phrase very differently today because Jesus dies on a "stake." Jesus took up and carried his stake to his execution. This fact, which Jesus knew and his audience did not, changes the meaning of this phrase for those hearing it after his death. Jesus meant for its meaning to change. Jesus's death gave rise to a whole generation of martyrs who literally accepted their death, in many cases by being staked up as Jesus was.

However, in later generations the phase took on a new meaning and more general. The concept became generalized through the study of the Bible so that it was recognized that was all have "our crosses" to bear. The "cross" became the symbol for the universality of human suffering and death. Jesus words changed again to mean that we all must take up our suffering and follow his example in bearing our burdens bravely and nobly.

If we examine Jesus's words closely today, new ideas emerge. Because my background is computers and information science, I am working on a series of articles about how Jesus's teaching foreshadows modern information theory.  This perspective was virtually impossible in early generations because they didn't have computer and communication technology.

The Exactingly Literal Word-By-Word Translation

Since I focus on the study of Jesus's words, I am conscious that I am translating the Divine words. I never presume to know the thoughts of God.  Am I the only person focussing on Jesus's words and seeing them as special and unique, really? We claim to follow Christ, but in the books I read about Biblical translation, I have yet to read one that focuses on the unique aspects of Jesus words.

I have come over the years to believe in a more exacting standard for translation is required for Jesus. My start is not the "essentially literal" word-for-word translation but a word-by-word translation. I try to preserve the original word order as well as each word. Of course, it is this word order that reveal much of Jesus's word play and humor.  

However, an exacting literal translation must go beyond word order. It must also preserve the original word forms. As much as possible it must try to preserve not only what Jesus said, but how he said it. If he used participles instead of active verbs, I use participle. I will try to avoid replacing adjectives with nouns if the English adjective can word like the Greek adjective does as a noun.  Most importantly, I will try to preserve the singulars and plural that Jesus uses. When the word is "skies" in plural, I will translated it that way not as the singular "heaven." 

The Greek definite article is especially difficult but critically important. And it is particularly abused in Biblical translation. The main reason for this is historical. The Bible was first translated into Latin. Latin has not definite article. However, both Greek and Hebrew do. In Hebrew it is part of the word form. In both, it identifies as specific thing among a group of generic things. It works this way in English as well, though the Greek article is stronger, very close in form and use to the Greek demonstrative pronoun, that is, , "this" or "that."  For Biblical translation, Jesus's use of the definite article is often uncomfortable. He did not describe himself as "the son of man" generically, but "this son of the man," where "the man" has a special meaning in Greek as it does in English as "the head man." And all those times that Jesus is translated as talking about "heaven?" He is usually talking about "the skies," with the article and in plural. Not the modern idea of "heaven" at all, which is so unique that it requires no article and isn't ever plural except when referring to "the skies."

I try to avoid adding words except when absolutely necessary. Biblical translations, even those that describe themselves as "essentially literal" do this commonly in their attempt to "explain" what Jesus means. For example, they love to add "Holy" to "Spirit" when Jesus just says "spirit." However, I might describe "spirit" as "breath of life" because that is the literal meaning of pneuma, the word most commonly translated as "spirit." Sometimes Jesus is using this sense of "breath" as part of his word play so leaving it out misses the point.

I try to avoid the mistakes in Biblical translation that commonly translate the same Greek word as many different English words and the use many different Greek words as the same English word. My ideal is to translated each Greek word so consistent that when you see an English word "life" you know that I am translating the Greek word word zoe. There are perhaps a half dozen Greek words that Biblical translators might translate into life, but all have different meanings. We have no shortage of English words to capture the differences among them. Sometime Greek words don't quite work this simply and require translation based on the context, but this is not the case for most Greek words.

If Jesus used uncommon Greek words, I try to use uncommon English words. On the few occasions when he purposefully makes a rhyme, I will violate my rules about adding words in English to make the rhyme work because the rhyme is a more "special" characteristic that should be captured.

Accepting Many Different Possible Meanings

The work I do here is no so I can create one definitive translation of Jesus's words. I do this work so that people can study the Greek and find their own meanings in Jesus's words. This is why I spend time making the range of meaning in the Greek word visible and show their exact forms. I show the errors of popular translations so that people are not shy about making mistakes. We all make mistakes.

Unlike most Biblical translators, my goal is to learn as much as I can from Jesus, and not sell my particular view of his teaching to others. I have largely resisted discussing what I have come to believe simply because it is not necessarily what the Christian mainstream teaches. If I am a "dissenter," I mostly reject the idea that member of the church speak for Jesus. Jesus speaks for himself. Most preachers prefer Paul because his message was much more church-oriented than Jesus's teaching was. Paul was also more serious and took himself more seriously. Jesus didn't have to take himself serioisly. He knew where he came from and where he was going.

While I try to capture some different meanings and especially the humor in my translation, one literal translation does not capture all the possible meanings that Jesus put into his words. More and more often, I find myself offering more than one version in my article on a given verse. However, the only place that I can offer a real range of meaning is in my "fictional" work where the audience can hear Jesus's words in different ways.