Source:Nibley:CW06:Ch14:3:There is no such thing as a "word-for-word" translation

No such thing as a "word-for-word" translation

There is no such thing as a "word-for-word" translation

Hugh Nibley observed, in conjunction with one who claimed that the Dead Sea Scrolls could not be translated:

In studying the Dead Sea Scrolls there is first of all the little problem of translation. Recently Dr. Zeitlin has stated flatly that the scrolls cannot be translated:
Even the best scholar of the Hebrew medieval period could not do justice in translating these scrolls because most of them are untranslatable. It is indeed folly to attempt to translate these scrolls into any modern language. It would be a waste of time.
Then he quite undermines his own position with the following dictum: "In rendering an ancient text into a modern language the translator must not add words to or subtract words from the text."25 That is a meaningless statement if there ever was one, for "so completely does any one-to-one relationship vanish between the vocabularies of languages that reflect widely different cultures that it may be necessary to translate one line of a text by a whole page or a page by a single line!"26 If one insists, with Dr. Zeitlin, on a literal word-for-word translation, one might as well insist on a letter-for-letter translation. The only alternative is Willamowitz' definition of a translation as "a statement in the translator's own words of what he thinks the author had in mind." There is no such thing as a text that can be read but not translated; whoever can read a foreign language so that it means something to him can certainly express that meaning in his own words—and such an expression is no more nor less than a translation. If one cannot express it in one's own words, one has not understood it. Zeitlin is wrong on both points. Any text that can be read can be translated, but no text can ever be translated literally.[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 14, references silently removed—consult original for citations.