Bible Translations: Translation Philosophy
Perhaps the most important aspect of an English Bible version that we must consider is its translation philosophy. This may surprise many readers, but every Bible is not a literal translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts used by the translators! There are three basic translation philosophies:
1) Word-for-word (Formal equivalence). This is the translation philosophy that everyone expects their Bible is – a literal translation of the Greek or Hebrew to the English. However, you may also be surprised that even word-for-word translations must make a number of changes and interpretive decisions to render Scripture in intelligible English. Not only are there issues of word order and implied subjects or verbs, but there are also idioms. An English example would be, “son of a gun”. In any other language, a word-for-word translation would imply that the subject was the offspring of a firearm! Thus, idioms must also be translated in a fashion which conveys not necessarily their literal meaning, but their meaning to us. Word-for-word translations attempt to minimize this type of equivalence translation.
2) Thought-for-thought (Dynamic equivalence). Takes the sentences and attempts to convey the thought of the passage in a fashion which best communicates the idea to the readers. Specific words may be changed, added or left out at a far greater rate than with word-for-word.
3) Paraphrase. Similar to thought-for-thought, but extends its generalization to the entire paragraph. This will look wildly different than a word-for-word translation.
4) Optimal Equivalence. A mixture of Word-for-word and thought-for thought. Attempts to bridge the gap between them.
While translation philosophy appears to be made of discrete, separate philosophies, it is really a continuum from one end of the spectrum (word-for-word) to the other (paraphrase). Here is an example of each, from 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
Word-for-word - All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (New King James, NKJV)
Optimal Equivalence - All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (Holman Christian Standard, HCSB)
Thought-for-thought (1) – The Whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives; it straightens us out and helps us do what is right. It is God’s way of making us well prepared at every point, fully equipped to do good to everyone. (The Living Bible, TLB)
Thought-for-thought (2) – Everything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live. The Scriptures train God’s servants to do all kinds of good deeds. (Contemporary English Version, CEV)
Paraphrase – Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another – showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. (The Message).
Not only do the words and presentation change along the continuum from thought-to-thought to paraphrase, but by the end, parts of the Bible have changed from being useful for four purposes to useful for only one of four purposes! It is clear that the translation philosophy of a Bible will affect what it says, sometimes even more drastically than above. Also, we can see that there are more differences between translations the farther they get from word-for-word. The next post will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each translation philosophy, as well as possible applications for them.