That’s the goal of Bible translation. If you speak more than one language, then you can easily think of more examples like the ones below.
There is a common perception among many Bible readers that the most accurate Bible translation is a “literal” one. By literal they usually mean one that is “word-for-word,” that is, one that reproduces the form of the original Greek or Hebrew text as closely as possible. Yet anyone who has ever studied a foreign language soon learns that this is mistaken. Take, for example, the Spanish sentence, ¿Como se llama? A literal (word-for-word) translation would be, “How yourself call?” Yet any first-year Spanish student knows that is a poor translation. The sentence means (in good idiomatic English) “What’s your name?” The form must be changed to express the meaning.
Consider another example. The German sentence Ich habe Hunger means, literally, “I have hunger.” Yet no English speaker would say this. They would say, “I’m hungry.” Again, the form has to change to reproduce the meaning. These simple examples (and thousands could be added from any language) illustrate a fundamental principle of translation: The goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of the text, not the form. The reason for this is that no two languages are the same in terms of word meanings, grammatical constructions, or idioms.
What is true for translation in general is true for Bible translation. Trying to reproduce the form of the biblical text frequently results in a distortion of its meaning. The Greek text of Matthew 1:18, translated literally, says that before her marriage to Joseph, Mary was discovered to be “having in belly” (en gastri echousa). This Greek idiom means she was “pregnant.” Translating literally would make a text that was clear and natural to its original readers into one that is strange and obscure to English ears. Psalm 12:2, translated literally from the Hebrew, says that wicked people speak “with a heart and a heart” (or, as some “literal” versions render it, “with a double heart”). This Hebrew idiom means “deceitfully.” Translating literally obscures the meaning for most readers. The form must be changed in order to reproduce the meaning.
Update: The above quotation is not controversial. Both formal and functional equivalent proponents agree here (for the most part). This is merely correcting a common misconception among many lay people (especially those who don’t know more than one language).
- “The Best All-Around Book on Bible Translation”
- “How to Disagree about Bible Translation Philosophy”
- “Thank God for Good Bible Translators and Translations“
Update on 3/31/2017: In my latest attempt to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible, I include a chapter on Bible translation (pp. 50–81).