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Don Stewart :: What Are the Major Theories of Bible Translation? (Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence)

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What Are the Major Theories of Bible Translation?
(Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence)

Bible Translations – Question 7

What makes a good translation of Scripture? Is it faithfulness in form to the original, or faithfulness in meaning to the original? There are two major theories today with respect to the translation of Scripture—formal equivalence and functional or dynamic equivalence. It is important to understand the differences between these two competing theories.

Formal Equivalence – (Complete Equivalence)
A More Word-for-Word Translation

Formal equivalence, or complete equivalence, is also known as literal translation, or a word-for-word translation. The idea behind formal equivalence is to render the text in the same form as the original. This can also mean using the same word order as the original language. With formal equivalence each word of the original language is represented by a word in the target or receptor language. Examples of formal equivalence in translations would be the American Standard Version of 1901, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version.

A more literal, or formal, translation is one that can be excellent for Bible study. It allows the person to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Because care is taken to render the text as close as possible to the original, it makes it easier to study the Scripture in a formal translation.

There are problems with a formal translation. To begin with, it is not usually as readable as one that is more thought-for-thought or phrase-for-phrase. Often times the formal translation comes across in very wooden or stilted English.

A formal translation can also be misleading. For example, a literal translation of Philippians 2:6 says that Jesus was in the form of God. The more dynamic translations clarify this phrase—Jesus is God in His very nature, not just in His form. This is the meaning of the text.

No Translation Is Completely Literal

It must also be appreciated that no translation is totally literal all of the time. It is not a simple process of finding one English word for each Greek and Hebrew word. Furthermore, words cannot be translated in isolation. Each language has its own set of idiomatic expressions that do not make sense when translated literally. If the Scripture were to be translated in a literal, or word-for-word, manner in every passage, then the result would often be something that was unreadable or non-understandable. Idioms have to be explained — not translated word-for-word.

For example, often when the New Testament speaks of people who were sick, the literal reading of the Greek text is “having it badly.” Therefore, a literal reading of Matthew 4:24 would be, “And they brought to him all the ones having it badly with various diseases and torments.”

Matthew 1:18 speaks of Mary being pregnant. A literal reading of the text says she was “having [it] in the stomach.” These are but two examples of how idioms need to be translated in such a way as to make their meaning understandable.

These examples demonstrate how idioms need to be paraphrased and not translated word-for-word.

Should We Gird up the Loins of Our Mind?

One of the most famous examples of a biblical idiom is found in 1 Peter 1:13 where it literally says, “Gird [or girding] up the loins of your mind.” This literal translation is meaningless because it contains an idiomatic expression that makes no literal sense—our mind does not have loins! The expression means “pay attention,” or “prepare for action.”

However, a number of translations render this phrase in a literal manner. These include the King James Version, American Standard Version, Young’s Literal Translation, the New American Bible, and the New King James Version. Those who translate literally in this manner believe it is the job for the reader to correctly interpret the meaning of this idiom, they do not believe it is the job for translators. The various possible meanings are put in the margin, not in the text.

Other literal translations do not agree with doing this. The English Standard Version reads as follows:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:13 ESV)

In fact, in their preface they single out this particular verse in explaining what a literal translation should and should not be.

Some translations have revised the way they translate this verse. For example, in 1977, the New American Standard Bible translated the phrase literally, “gird your minds for action.” The 1995 update made the text clearer by paraphrasing it, “prepare your minds for action.” This example points out the impossibility of having a purely literal translation.

Dynamic (Functional) Equivalence
Thought–for–Thought Translation

Dynamic Equivalence is also called functional equivalence. It attempts to render the text in a phrase-for-phrase or thought-for-thought manner. It is not so much concerned about the grammatical form of the original language as it is the thought or meaning of the original language. The dynamic translation wants to bring across the meaning of the original. It does not necessarily concern itself about the grammatical form in which it was written.

While a literal translation is sometimes difficult to read, a dynamic equivalence translation is usually very understandable.

Dynamic equivalence often involves the rewording of expressions and customs that are understood by modern readers. For example in Psalm 23:5 the text literally reads, “anointed my head with oil.” This is replaced in the Good News Bible with, “welcomed me as an honored guest.”

Problems with Dynamic Equivalence

The strength of a dynamic equivalent translation is that it is usually much more readable than a more literal or word-for-word translation. However, there are problems with any dynamic equivalent translation. They include the following:

What If the Translators Misunderstood the Meaning?

If the translators misunderstood what the original text was saying, then they will communicate this same misunderstanding to those who read their translation. The reader then assumes the Bible is saying something that it is not saying. A dynamic equivalent translation may be guilty of either adding to or subtracting from the Word of God. Too often, the task of interpreting the Scripture is taken out of the hands of the reader and placed into the hands of the translator.

What If the Bible Teacher Disagrees with the Interpretation?

There is a practical problem for someone who teaches from a dynamic equivalent translation. The teacher must use the thought-for-thought translation that is given in the text. Since dynamic translations contain a large element of interpretation, there may come a time when the teacher disagrees with the way the passage was interpreted by the translators. What should he do then? Should the Bible teacher then correct the translation for his listeners? The problem is that if he starts doing this too often, his audience may assume the Bible itself is unreliable. This is a real problem for a Bible teacher who uses a translation that is based upon the theory of dynamic equivalence.

Therefore, any dynamic equivalent translation should always be studied alongside one that is more formal or literal.

The Best of Each Method Should Be the Goal

Some translations state that they want to use the best of both of these methods. They are as literal as possible and as free as necessary. Some call this “optimal equivalence.” Whatever it is called; it seems to be the right way of approaching this issue. Bible translation is not easy. Consequently, those who have never attempted to translate the Scripture from the original languages should be slow to criticize those who have.

Summary – Question 7
What Are the Major Theories of Bible Translation? (Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence)

Generally speaking, there are two basic methods by which the Scriptures are translated. They are known as formal equivalence and dynamic or functional equivalence. Formal translations are more word-for-word translations while dynamic equivalent translations are more thought-for-thought. It is important that we understand the differences between these two ways of rendering Scripture.

Formal equivalence attempts to bring out, as much as possible, the same form as is found in the original languages. This includes the word order of the original. Translations which stress formal equivalence are usually well-suited for Bible study because of the attempt to literally translate the text.

The problem with literal translations is that they are sometimes difficult to read. Readability is often sacrificed for accuracy. Furthermore, no translation can be completely literal because Hebrew and Greek, like all languages, have their idiomatic expressions.

Dynamic, or functional equivalence, attempts to bring out what the passage would mean to those who originally read it or heard it. It is not concerned about keeping the same word order or grammar. Rather, it attempts to bring across the same thoughts the original author wanted to convey to his readers.

The problem with a thought-for-thought translation is that the translators have to interpret the meaning of the words of the writer. If the translators misunderstand the meaning, then the reader will also misunderstand. Furthermore, a pastor or Bible teacher using a dynamic translation may disagree with the meaning of the passage as it is rendered. This becomes problematic if the Bible teacher feels the need to correct the translation to his students.

The best answer is to use a combination of both methods. Many translations attempt to do this. While the final result is never perfect, the message of God’s Word comes through loud and clear.

Again we stress that Bible translation is difficult. There are many factors to be considered. Consequently, one should not be too quick to criticize those who have honestly struggled with these issues.

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