How Literal is the NASB?

I just started reading One Bible, Many Versions by Dave Brunn. I’ve read a lot of books on Bible translations and books that compare English versions. Brunn’s book is coming at this issue from little different perspective. He says “the book’s primary focus is literalness in translation.” (35) The questions he’s asking are “[h]ow literal should a Bible translation be? Are literal versions the only valid versions.” (20) In his own work as a translator for the Lamogai people in Papua New Guinea he noticed that some English versions which purport to be literal were not always very literal. In particular, he noticed that the NASB which advertises itself as the “most literal” often resorted to a dynamic equivalent translation. He eventually asked himself “Why do literal versions translate thought for thought rather than word for word so often–even in places where they do not have to?” (34) In the first chapter he offers a chart of 93 examples where the NASB offered a dynamic equivalent translation where other “essentially literal” English translations have an acceptable literal translation. Here’s a small sample:

Original Wording Essentially Literal Rendering NASB
Gen 4:1 (Adam) knew (Eve) NKJV Knew ESV Knew Had relations with
2 Chron. 15:7 Do not let your hands drop ESV Do not let your hands be weak NKJV Do not let your hands be weak Do not lose courage
Job 27:7 He who rises against me ESV Him who rises against me NKJV He who rises against me My opponent
Is. 8:10 Speak a word ESV Speak a word NKJV Speak a word State a proposal
Jer. 48:45 Sons of tumult ESV Sons of tumult NKJV Sons of tumult Riotous revelers
Zeph. 2:14 A voice ESV A voice NKJV Their voice Birds
Lk. 10:40 Much service ESV Much serving NKJV Much serving All her preparations
2 Tim. 2:5 Is not crowned HCSB Is not crowned ESV Is not crowned Does not win the prize

Brunn asks a very good question: “How is the average reader of a literal Bible version to know which verses are literal and which ones are not?” (34) I thought the answer is simple; NASB offers the literal translation in their cross references. I checked all the above examples and in only one case (Gen. 4:1) does it offer the “literal” translation in the cross reference. This surprised me. [UPDATE: In a 1977 NASB edition I found a “literal” cross reference for each of the above examples.] Brunn is not saying the NASB is not a literal translation. He writes, “All versions translate thought for thought rather than word for word in many contexts. Some just do it more consistently than others.” (30)

I’m not very far into the book but so far I am really enjoying it. Brunn is quite sensitive to the fact that the Bible translation wars have been a source of division in the church. He appropriately warns that “the Bible makes it clear that every potential source of disunity among Christians can be dangerous (1 Cor 1-4). Unwarranted division harms the church and inevitably reduces its effectiveness in reaching out to a lost world.” (21) Brunn says he wants to “highlight the similarities” between Bible versions and hopes “to bring the philosophical positions closer together.” (17)

In his endorsement D.A. Carson writes,

“This interesting and important book, written by someone who has devoted many years of his life to Bible translation, is particularly fascinating because it avoids jumping from disputed theory to hard examples. Rather, it jumps from thousands of examples to genuine wisdom on translation issues–along with at least some of the bearing of these examples on theory. This book will diffuse some of the polarizations that characterize many of the disputes. It will also encourage us to recognize we are not as far apart as some of us have supposed, and remind us of how difficult good Bible translation is and how grateful we should be for the wonderful and even complementary choices we have in English Bibles.”

One Bible, Many Versions is from IVP Academic. It is a paperback and sells for $16.00.

One Bible, Many Versions


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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8 Responses to How Literal is the NASB?

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Some times I think that there is a misunderstanding as to what “literal” means. Translating literally and interpreting literally are two different acts. The latter uses the grammar, genre, historical, cultural, and immediate, near, book and canonical contexts to interpret and inform while the former is based on the latter. This would mean that translating “literally” would also include recognizing that “euphemisms” are used and should be translated accordingly. This is not DE, but closer to FE.

    Some examples are seen where it is obvious from the immediate context that “knew” refers to “sexual or marital relations.” This in itself is to make more literal or explicit the use of the word “knew” when referring to sexual intercourse between a husband and wife while not being “crude, insensitive, or gross.”

    Some of the others in your examples, e.g., “Sons of Tumult,” etc. would also fit into the category of “euphemisms.”

    If I remember correctly, the original translators of the NASB, although using word-for-word, acknowledged that in some places, a literal translation would not work; even the KJV used this. One of the reasons the KJV has lasted so long is the fact that the translators also wanted the translation to be “aurally” sound. They knew that the Bible would be read to the congregation from the pulpit. It is well-known that when reading out loud, in contrast to passive reading in which the majority of Christians do (when they do read), the ear will pick-up nuances in the text that passive reading would not pick-up. That is why certain passages in the KJV are still read out loud in weddings, funerals, other special occasions, etc. that are still understood by the congregants even when they are using more modern translations.

    Furthermore, Revelation 1:3, “Blessed (Happy) is the one who reads…” is referring to the practice of “reading out loud.” The Greek word behind the word “reads” is referring to this practice of reading out loud. Thus, I emphasize, by extension, that the person who is reading the Bible, even in devotions, is to read out loud the text.


    • Clay Knick says:

      I’d be happy if people actually read their Bibles. The many questions I’ve been getting about the new miniseries on the Bible tells me that even people who’ve been in the church for their entire lives don’t know the stories.

      I’ve noticed I hear things in scripture when it is read out loud. That’s why I’m learning to listen to the text I’m going to preach on. It took me a number of years to figure this out, by the way.


  2. Clay Knick says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time with this book over the last four or five days since it arrived. I think he’s put to rest the marketing done by publishers that declare their translation is most literal and therefore most accurate. They aren’t even literal all the time. The way the advocates of “literal” or formal equivalent translations have criticized other translations or even demonized them is rather humorous given the evidence in Brunn’s book. People have been told that certain translations should be avoided since the translators used any degree of functional or dynamic equivalence. Now the truth is out: all translations use it, some more, some less. And it’s impossible not to do so since they are translating from one language to another.


  3. I’ll say it again, in reading God’s Word (GW) translation, for the first time it doesn’t feel like I’m reading a translation. I’m just reading the Bible in English. Of course, there are a couple of things I’d change, but it’s as close as it gets for me. I don’t understand why convoluted grammar and archaic vocabulary is seen as more “accurate”. I’ve always kind of liked the NASB though as far as archaic type stuff goes.


  4. Pingback: Around the Web - Christian Blogs | Scripture Zealot blog

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