Two Roads Diverged

Unlike Robert Frost’s melancholy traveler, however, we do have the opportunity to travel down both roads of Bible translation theory, examine them, and come back again. And again.

Many of you are probably already familiar with the two primary schools of thought in Bible translation (or any kind of translation for that matter). If so, bear with me. The preface to the New Living Translation does a nice job of explaining these two roads:

There are two general theories or methods of Bible translation. The first has been called “formal equivalence.” According to this theory, the translator attempts to render each word of the original language into the receptor language and seeks to preserve the original word order and sentence structure as much as possible. The second has been called “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” The goal of this translation theory is to produce in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the message expressed by the original-language text—both in meaning and in style. Such a translation attempts to have the same impact on modern readers as the original had on its own audience.

A dynamic-equivalence translation can also be called a thought-for-thought translation, as contrasted with a formal-equivalence or word-for-word translation. Of course, to translate the thought of the original language requires that the text be interpreted accurately and then be rendered in understandable idiom. So the goal of any thought-for-thought translation is to be both reliable and eminently readable.

Translations can thus be viewed somewhere along a spectrum with formal equivalence (more word-for-word, literal) on one side and dynamic equivalence (more thought-for-thought, interpreted) on the other. Here’s a rough illustration with a few popular versions and their (approximate) places along this spectrum (This is not an exact science):

Translation Spectrum

Translation Spectrum

(NASB = New American Standard; NKJV=New King James Version; KJV=King James Version; HCSB=Holman Christian Standard Bible; GNB=Good News Bible; NLT=New Living Translation)

At the extremes of this spectrum you would have an Interlinear (a literal rendering of each word in its original order, but nearly unintelligible in English) on the formal side, and paraphrases (e.g., The Message, the original Living Bible) on the dynamic end.

For example, an interlinear would show that preserving the exact Greek word order of John 3:16 would look something like this: “So for loved the God the world, that the son the only begotten He gave, in order that all who believe in Him not should perish but have life eternal.” Literal, but obviously not good English. And so translators must move down the spectrum at least a little bit in the interpretation direction to make it intelligible.

John 3:16 is pretty straightforward. But how does this play out in more complicated passages? A somewhat more involved example is Philemon 4, 5. First, examine it in the NASB (probably the “standard” when it comes to formal equivalence translations):

I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints. (NASB)

The end of this verse sounds interesting to English ears. Philemon, Paul says, has faith toward the Lord Jesus (no problem there) and all the saints? Why would he commend his faith toward the saints? Well, most likely, he’s not.

Most commentators believe that Paul is using a grammatical construction here known as a chiasm with the four nouns: “love, faith, Lord Jesus, saints.” In a simple chiasm, the inner nouns are linked together, and the outer nouns are linked together. Thus, the NIV 1984 has made an interpretive decision in this verse and translated it this way:

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.

So what have we gained? Better understanding of Paul’s original intent (we assume). What have we lost? We don’t see the original construction of the words in the Greek text. For most people, the original construction in the Greek isn’t that important. What is important is clear understanding.

But, perhaps a little red flag is going off in your head . . . how do we know that Paul intended a chiastic structure here? Well, we don’t for certain, but the experts in the field could produce some fairly weighty evidence for such a judgment call. But, in the end, they are making an interpretation on behalf of the English reader based on reasonable evidence.

For comparison’s sake, a paraphrase of Philemon 4,5 from The Message even shows more interpretive work taking place, even to the point of going quite a bit beyond what Paul actually says in the Greek:

Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers.

While paraphrased versions like The Message have their uses,  they don’t make suitable choices for Bible memorization or serious Bible study as they stray too far from the original texts. For this reason, I personally don’t like paraphrases being referred to as “translations.” They may be useful for thinking about a passage in a different way or hearing things expressed from a different perspective, but they tend to resemble too much the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of the individual “translator.” Most paraphrases, in fact, are works of individuals, whereas faithful translations are generally done by teams of translators from a variety of doctrinal backgrounds to help balance out any personal or denominational biases.

Another interesting comparison is examining how different translations handle idiomatic phrases. An idiomatic phrase is something like “He’s pulling my leg” or “She’s beating a dead horse.” Children often demonstrate a lack of idiomatic understanding when we adults use these phrases and they give us funny looks. The Hebrew (especially) and Greek have a wealth of idioms as with all languages. But of course, idioms are normally different from one language to another. (Interestingly enough, several idioms from the Biblical languages are now part of the English language via the formal equivalence of the King James Version of the Bible. A good example is Job 19:20 where Job refers to “the skin of his teeth” an expression we now use in English.)

But how is the best way to translate idioms? Idioms are often very picturesque. But does a literal translation of an idiom make the most sense? Consider Psalm 119:69-70 in four different versions as we move down the translation spectrum from left (most literal) to right (most interpreted). Note the highlighted phrase:

The arrogant have forged a lie against me; With all my heart I will observe Your precepts. Their heart is covered with fat, But I delight in Your law. (NASB)

The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts; their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law. (ESV)

Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. (NIV)

Arrogant people smear me with lies, but in truth I obey your commandments with all my heart. Their hearts are dull and stupid, but I delight in your instructions. (NLT)

Notice in the NASB the idiom “heart covered with fat” is translated completely literally. For most of us, without further study, we would have no idea what this means. We might come to the conclusion that the arrogant are out of shape and ought to start an exercise regimen. The ESV retains the idiom but adds a clarifying word “unfeeling” to help us understand it with some context. Both the NIV and NLT completely interpret the idiom and render it into an English equivalent without any trace of the original Hebrew expression.  Many would argue that the thought-for-thought translation here is best, because the meaning is fully and easily conveyed to the reader. Others would counter that Hebrew idiom is vivid and, once interpreted, adds a measure of vibrancy to the text that is lacking in a thought-for-thought-translation.

If nothing else, this shows the importance of consulting multiple translations when doing serious Bible study, particularly including at least one translation each from both sides of the spectrum to balance literal construction with fuller understanding.

To summarize this section, formal equivalence models like the NASB and ESV leave more interpretation work for the reader to do, whereas dynamic equivalence models like the NIV and NLT do more of the interpreting for the benefit of the reader. At times, many of these interpretive calls made by the thought-for-thought translators are subject of great controversy. (As an example, punch “assume NIV 2011” into Google and see the debate raging over a single word translated in 1 Tim 2:12.) As a result, many favor the formal equivalence translations so that they can do more of the interpretive work themselves.

When we started this section, our traveler decided he would explore both roads of Bible translation contrary to the famous poem. But as we consider these two pathways in light of Hiding God’s Word through the discipline of Bible memory, we still, like our fellow sojourner, have to choose one of the roads.

So, next, we’ll look at how the NIV 2011 fits into the translation spectrum and discuss some of the differences between it and the NIV 84, and, finally, try to help answer that elusive question: “Which Bible version should I choose for Hiding His Word in my heart?”

You may choose a road less traveled by, and that may make all the difference.


About Neil Burleson

I serve as a missionary in the country of Papua New Guinea.
This entry was posted in Bible Versions, Scripture Memory. Bookmark the permalink.

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