Translation is Meaning-Based

I was very passionate in seminary about Bible translation. I loved the NASB, which was so wooden and formal, I could feel the foreign grammar bleeding through the page. I remember having debates in classes about how we should translate certain words and passages. My passion was, however, poorly disguised ignorance. I had never really tried to translate the Bible and at that stage would have done a terrible job.

At the time, I tended to talk about words and their meanings in an English-centric way. So, when studying Greek I would say, “The word ανθρωπος means ‘man’.” It made sense for me to talk this way because I was processing Greek and Hebrew through English. However, I think speaking this way belied an incorrect impression that translation is a process of trading one word in a language for another word in a different language. If this were the case, translation would just be like deciphering a code using a replacement strategy. I heard this method described as “literal” translation, or “word-for-word” translation.

Word-for-Word Translation Doesn’t Exist

I saw this idea of word-for-word translation as an ideal, placing a high value on the very words God chose for his Word. And I expected to do word-for-word translation when I ended up on the field. But here’s the thing, word-for-word translation doesn’t exist. No one translates that way. Let me give you an example:

Remember Hebrew is read from right to left, so this would read “word-for-word” as: “Holy thing, she will be to you to Yahweh.” This is part of the verse Exodus 30:37 and if you were to look it up in any translation in English, it will not read this way. Why? Because my word-for-word translation does not make any sense. The idea in this verse is: “This perfume (which is mentioned earlier in the verse) should be considered by you to be holy for the Lord.”

The NASB translates this: “It shall be holy to you for the Lord.”

There are some significant differences even in this little translation of part of a verse. Note the following:

  1. the verb is conjugated for a feminine subject, this is because in Hebrew perfume (which is what this verse is referring to) is feminine, but in English perfume is neuter and the pronoun is “it”,
  2. the exact same preposition is translated “to” referring to “you” and “for” referring to “the Lord,” and
  3. the name of God is translated as “the Lord.”

So, did the NASB do a bad job then? No, of course not. This is a very faithful translation. But Hebrew and English are very different languages. Hebrew has a dramatically different grammatical system, which includes gendered nouns, verbs that tend to come before the subject, and a varied vocabulary in which pretty much none of the words have a 1-to-1 correspondence with English.

Meaning is King

With amazing differences between languages, how then do we translate? The conclusion I have come to is that meaning is king. What I mean by this is that the goal is not to translate the words, but the meaning of those words. The distinction might be difficult to envision, so I am going to give some examples. First, here is a diagram from Mildred Larson, who has written many materials for Bible translators (the actual diagram comes from an article by Brunn linked below):

To make it clear, here is what the process looks like:

  • A translation team must first seek to understand the meaning of the original text.
  • The team will then internalize the meaning of the text, and finally
  • The team will re-express that meaning in the target language.

The translation then is not a translation of the words themselves, but their meanings within their specific contexts. In case you don’t believe me, you might be interested to consider how Hebrew words have been translated into English. In this chart, Dave Brunn traced the different ways the Hebrew word for “kidneys” is translated in the English Bible (article linked below):

Brunn, Dave. “Form and Function in Bible Translation: Where Theory Meets Practice.” p. 11

How is this possible!? How could they have translated the word “kidneys” in so many ways other than “kidneys”? The answer is simple: they were not translating the word, but the meaning. In Hebrew, they use the word for “kidneys” to refer to the “seat of the emotions,” or the “inner being,” or the “mind” of a person. In English “heart” is one way to communicate this meaning, but these translations came up with a few different ways. If this word had been translated in these environments as “kidneys,” the meaning would have been confused because the meaning “mind” is not imparted to the word “kidneys” in English. The ESV and NASB were faithful to the translation because they were faithful to the meaning.

Sometimes word-for-word miscommunicates

With regard to the above issue, translating this Hebrew word as “kidneys” would just cause confusion. For instance, Proverbs 23:16 would not communicate well if we translated it: “My kidneys will exult when your lips speak what is right.” The issue here is that it would leave English speakers scratching their heads, unable to understand the meaning of the original author. This would be bad translation.

But it can be even worse! Sometimes translating in this fashion will actually communicate the wrong or opposite meaning. We have run into this with Kwakum on a number of occasions. One very clear example is the English idiom: “He has a big heart.” In Kwakum, you say that someone has a big heart when they are arrogant and do not think about the good of others.

We sometimes get visitors from America in our village. Stacey or I will operate as their interpreter as try to communicate with our Kwakum neighbors. Often, our neighbors will bring them gifts like food or little crafts. Imagine my friend saying to me, “Dave, tell them that I am so thankful! They have such a big heart!” Would it be wise, or faithful to the original message for me to translate these words “literally”? No, it would not. To be faithful to the message means I have to be faithful to the meaning, not the words. In this case, I would say something like, “You have made them very happy and they show you respect.” This is in the case where someone wants to say “big heart,” and we have words for both “big” and “heart” in Kwakum. However, combined, they mean something different. Imagine how hard it is when there is no word in Kwakum.

Sometimes you don’t have words

The word-for-word idea only even seems plausible when you are looking at related languages with large vocabularies. Greek and English are both Indo-European languages that have a broad lexicon. So, if you take a little bit of Greek, it seems like translation is not that hard. It seems harder with Hebrew, which is quite different from English. But it is even worse when you get to Kwakum. Not only is Kwakum significantly different from the biblical languages, it also has a much smaller lexicon. It is estimated that English has 500,000+ words. Right now we have started a dictionary in Kwakum and we have less than 5,000. We know for sure that Kwakum does not have words for: wheat, chariot, wagon, cupbearer, grapes, love, hope, grace, gift, tabernacle, temple, sheep (as distinct from goats), silver, gold…I could go on. The whole “word-for-word” idea breaks down when you don’t have words.

But this of course begs the question: “If you don’t have words for these things, what do you translate?” The generic answer is: you translate the meaning. The specific answer can be found in another blog post I wrote a while back. But to sum it up, we have a procedure that allows us to find ways of communicating the meaning of a word or phrase in the original text which may compromise the form (for instance using an adjective rather than a verb), but doesn’t compromise the meaning.

If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have disagreed with this post. I would have said that as much as is possible, we should try to keep the same forms as the original biblical text when we translate into a new language. My vision of translation, based primarily off of my Greek studies in seminary, was that of “literal” “word-for-word” translation. My experience, however, is that the only place that you really hear about “word-for-word” translation is in seminary. Translators all around the world, both Bible translators and secular translators, hold to the idea that translation is meaning-based.

At the end of the day, I can no longer fight meaning-based translation. Kwakum is a language so different from the biblical languages, it has shattered my illusion that translation can be word-for-word. This by no means minimizes the value and importance of the original text. The words are vital because it is through those words, in their context (grammatical, textual and historical) that I can understand the meaning. I spend a great amount of my time as a translator analyzing the original words. But we just can’t translate the words, we have to translate the meaning. This isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t dispreferred. I have come to learn that in fact, this is the only way we can be faithful to the original text.

If you are an English-speaking Christian that is not sure how this is relevant, please check out Dave Brunn’s book listed below. He gives some really good advice for how this conversation impacts our choices of English translations. If you are interested in delving deeper, check out Larson’s book below. I would love to think through this more with you as well, so please leave me a comment or shoot me an email.

1) Brunn, Dave. One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Book) – this is a book by Dave Brunn (of Ethnos360). I recommend that all American Christians read this book.
2) Brunn, Dave. “Form and Function in Bible Translation: Where Theory Meets Practice.” (Article) – this is an article form of the same argument from Brunn (so a TL;DR for those with less time to invest).
3) Larson, Mildred. Meaning-Based Translation. (Book) – this is a more technical translation book for those who really want to dive in.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

11 thoughts on “Translation is Meaning-Based

  1. I will study this to see how you are sharing this from our words and what we really mean with especially in today’s culture. I still have ways people use “like”.

  2. Thank you for your blog post. I agree completely that the only thing you can translate is meaning. But then what does Larson mean by “meaning-based” if you can only translate meaning? How does explain her choice of the term? My first thought is that she means “implicit/implied meaning-based”, providing reasons to make more information explicit in the translation?? Or does she mean “basic/common-meaning based”, translating the “message” of the text and not the specific information that a common reader may not be familiar with? I’d love to hear what she said and your understanding of it. Thanks!

    1. I don’t know that I can speak for Larson. I haven’t read her book in over 10 years. I think that if we consider translation to be meaning-based we are not trying to imitate source forms. For instance, the ESV (“essentially literal”) says that they try to keep the word order of the source text whenever possible. I think that if you are seeking to translate meaning, this is not a priority. Like I said on Facebook, I think everyone explicates. Perhaps the main difference between translations is how much, or where they explicate. I think it is fine to have preferences on how much we should or should not explicate.

  3. I thank for your article. I haven’t studied Greek formally in over 50 years but have kept up enough to grasp many of the technical issues. I’ve come to agree with those who say there is no such thing as “literal” translation. In fact the word its self has mislead many regarding the entire subject of translating from one language into another. So I’ve come to appreciate the formal vs the functional debate and have moved from the former to the later.
    I have a theory that some who press so hard on the formal side do so, unintentionally, because if the Scriptures were translated with an emphasis on the meaning, then Pastors wouldn’t be quite as important. It’s their role to explain the bible! But if the bible is translated with the meaning or functional emphasis, the Pastor’s role is dimished.

    1. I have definitely seen this attitude in Cameroon. The idea is that the Bible itself is not meant to be understood by the laity. We need teachers (pastors/priests) to teach us what it says. I believe that the Bible is meant to be understood, but that does not diminish our need for teachers. Teachers are there to help us understand the more difficult parts and especially to apply God’s Word to our daily life. Pastors shouldn’t see good Bible translation as a challenge to their role, but an aid.

  4. Meanimg is good, but I am unhappy when literary markers in the text are translated out. For example when a word is repeated for emphasis but the translater uses several different words an important marker is now hidden.

    1. I understand what you are saying. And I think sometimes one of the coolest aspects of getting to know the biblical languages is finding new connections and word plays in the original text. However, sometimes you just can’t use the same word in two different contexts. For instance, the word “world” in both Greek and Hebrew can mean a lot of things: people, land, and sometimes the sinful bent of our present age. Kwakum does not have one word that can communicate all of those things. So we have to use one word to refer to people, a different word to refer to land, etc. It is not that we have a word that can do that and just don’t use it. We just actually are unable to communicate the various meanings with the same word.

  5. This post has been very thought provoking and keeps coming to mind.

    Happened to come across this today. While not an exact analog, it comes close:

    “The prologue to the Wycliffe Bible offers the translation philosophy that stood behind this monumental work:

    It should be known that the best way of translating out of Latin into English is to translate according to the meaning, and not merely according to the words, so that the meaning might be as plain, or even more plain, in English as in Latin, while not straying any further from the literal translation than is necessary.
    The letter need not always be closely followed in the translation, but by all means let the meaning be completely plain, for the words of a translation should serve to convey the intended meaning, or else the words are useless or false.”

    Thanks for writing this!

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