The Process of Bible Translation

Tell me what this literally translated phrase means:

Original: A médica da minha esposa lhe passou uma receita.

Translation: “The doctor of my wife passed to her a recipe.”

First, there was no way to show that the doctor was a woman, which the original makes clear. Limitations of English, which has no way of distinguishing gender in nouns like “doctor.”

This is almost a literal translation. (If it were literal, it would read: The doctor of my wife to her passed a recipe.) And a bad translation. The word “passed” is literal, but incorrect, because we do not say in English that someone “passes” a recipe or prescription. The proper translation, is “gave.”

It is also a wrong translation, because it is literal. In this context, “receita” does not mean recipe, but prescription. Literalness has changed the meaning of the verse entirely.

The proper translation of the phrase above is this: “My wife’s doctor gave her a prescription.”

This small example shows that those who claim the necessity for a literal word-for-word translation are, at the least, exaggerating the claim. There is no such thing as a literal translation. And, if there is, it will be, by nature, unintelligible. While the abuses of dynamic equivalence principle must be acknowledged and repudiated, we must see the whole process as more of a sliding scale than an either-or contrast. Most versions, if not all, utilize, to some extent, a thought-for-thought translation.

Here’s another example from the Portuguese language. I make a statement or question, let’s say, I ask you, Do you believe in God?, and you exclaim, “Absolutely!” What did you mean by that? You meant, “Yes, by all means, of course, positive: Absolutely yes!”

Now, let’s say that that I ask someone the same question in Portuguese: “Você acredita em Deus?”, and someone responds: “Absolutamente!” Let’s translate that literally into English:

“[Do] You believe in God?”


Looks fine, doesn’t it? Except that we have just made an atheist into a believer. In Portuguese, the exclamation “Absolutamente!” means “absolutely not!”

So much for literal translation.

This same inversion of meaning also holds when someone offers you something, say, to drink or eat. In English, saying, “Thank you,” means “Yes, I accept with gratitude.” Saying “Obrigado” (thank you) in Portuguese is a refusal, meaning “No thank you, I don’t want any.” Many an American has refused when he meant to accept, because he translated literally from English into Portuguese.

This is not a chance fluke between Portuguese and English, but lies within the very nature of human language and the process of translating meaning from one language to another.

Soon: some examples from Greek to English.

J. Randal Matheny

Be pithy.

2 thoughts on “The Process of Bible Translation

  1. Word order in the Greek does not necessarily follow what we English-speaking folks think: Subject, predicate, direct object. This also makes a “literal” translation difficult. Good thoughts.

What do you think?