I have always been an avid reader. Maybe it was the result of being an only child—reading is usually a solitary activity—or maybe I just love stories. By the time I was in school and able to check out books from the library, I couldn’t get enough of Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish. The title character had a habit of taking every word literally and out-of-context:
“Amelia Bedelia, the sun will fade the furniture. I asked you to draw the drapes,” said Mrs. Rogers.
“I did! I did! See,” said Amelia Bedelia. She held up her picture.*
That particular blunder by Amelia—sketching a picture instead of closing the curtains—especially bothered me as a kid. My mother had taught me that furniture is an investment: couches are for sitting, not dining. The idea of faded or stained fabric worried little me to no end!
Amelia Bedelia came back to haunt me when we bought our late-nineteenth-century American Foursquare. It still has the original wavy-glass windows. They are gorgeous; but they are energy inefficient, let in all sorts of road noise, and without that modern low-E coating new windows have, my upholstery started fading. Fast. Now big me is reliving the worry; I literally draw—as in, close—the drapes wherever the sun streams in the afternoons.
Is it partially Amelia Bedelia’s fault that the word literally has become a too-common almost-meaningless adverb we all drop into sentences whether or not we actually mean what we are saying literally? I used that word a lot in my new book about how to read the Bible, and each time I checked myself: Do I really mean literally? Or am I describing something figuratively? The misuse of the word has become one of my adult pet peeves. Too often people end stories by saying, “That literally blew my mind!” No, no it didn’t, or you wouldn’t be sitting there. Amelia Bedelia and every second grader in America know better.
One place where the word literally gets above-average use is the church. It has become fashionable for some Christians to brag that they take every word of their chosen Bible translation “literally,” as would Amelia Bedelia. She was always well-intentioned but consistently struggled to understand the difference between what people said and what they meant. We shouldn’t want to emulate Amelia in this way, especially in our relationships with Scripture.
As I was writing about biblical translation techniques for Blue Eye Shadow, I ran across a social media post claiming that only the King James Version of the Bible has literally preserved God’s Word. I was shocked by what I read. The anger that so many of the 100+ respondents hold toward other Bible versions and the people who translated them or prefer them leaves no room for grace and love of others.
As I got deeper into the post, I realized how ill-informed they were about language. Many argued for sola KJV with half-facts or complete ignorance of Scripture’s historical development and translation process.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the KJV. I particularly prefer its use of “charity” rather than “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 because Paul is not discussing romantic love in that letter, as modern readers tend to assume when the chapter is read out of its context. That chapter wouldn’t be so commonly misused in weddings if Bible translation had stopped in 1611.
Many Christian literalists, even those brazen enough to study the NKJV, claim their Bibles contain word-for-word literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. But that is literally impossible. One word in Hebrew often requires an entire sentence in English, as a two-word sentence in French—je t’aime—requires three words in English: “I love you.” Such a translation is called by some “phrase-by-phrase,” acknowledging the grammatical differences between languages, and it is no better or worse than word-for-word. In fact, both are necessary in good translations.
But language should not be flattened into definitions and grammar. When it is, we are left wondering if a curtain should be drawn with a pencil or drawn closed by a hand. Both meanings of drawn are literally correct, but the contexts of culture and situation inform the meaning of the word.
All languages are filled with figurative phrases in their prose and poetry that are easily lost in translation when translators and readers are unfamiliar with foreign cultures. “Love” is represented by a heart in English, but ancient Israelites might have used a lotus instead. Likewise, King James’s seventeenth-century British subjects declared love with spoons, whereas spooning has a totally different meaning to Westerners today.
Insisting that every word of Scripture must have a literal meaning that is the same in all languages at all times limits the power of words and ideas. The Bible’s literature is simply too deep and too creative to have its range of meanings diminished to fit into our narrow minds. To better understand and appreciate God’s Word, we must study not only the words of a Bible translation but also the cultures that recorded them yesterday and that hear them today. God’s truth never changes, but languages do.
Just ask Amelia Bedelia.
*Peggy Parish, Amelia Bedelia (1963; New York: HarperFestival, 1999), 48.