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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bible Translations: Translation Philosophy Analysis

As UK John pointed out in the previous posts, there are strengths and weaknesses to each of the translation philosophies. These strengths and weaknesses suit each philosophy best for a certain purpose or purposes. Once we examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of each translation philosophy, the application of each becomes nearly self evident.

Formal Equivalence (Word-for-word) – Includes King James Version (KJV), NKJV, New American Standard (NASB), Revised Standard Version (RSV), English Standard Version (ESV), and the Amplified Bible (AMP).

1) Best demonstrates the actual words of the original languages
2) Words accurately convey the meaning of the original words
3) Less interpretation of the original texts, and therefore less reliance upon the translator for an accurate translation
4) Easier to trace the same form of a word used by the Biblical writers
5) More precision by using complex vocabulary and theological terminology
1) Awkward English at times; less readable
2) More ambiguity in the meaning of the English; relies on the reader for more interpretation
3) May lead readers to reach wrong interpretive conclusions in casual reading

Dynamic Equivalence (Thought-for-thought) – Includes TLB, CEV, New Living Translation (NLT), New Century Version (NCV), And the Good News Bible (GNT).

1) More readable for casual reading
2) Priority on conveying meaning; less ambiguity in the meaning of the English text
3) More interpretation of the original text
1) More interpretation of the original text!
2) Impossible to trace the same form of the word used by Biblical writers
3) Often more expansive by using a phrase or sentence to explain a technical term

Optimal Equivalence – Includes HCSB, New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), New American Bible (NAB), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Optimal equivalence translations are a combination of both formal and dynamic translations. They seek to maximize the strengths of both while minimizing the weaknesses. Ideally, they apply each method to translate the meaning of the original with optimal accuracy. When word-for-word rendering is clearly understandable, a literal translation is used. When it is unclear in modern English, a dynamic translation is used.

The Paraphrase type (The Message, the Living Bible) accentuate the strengths and weaknesses of the Dynamic equivalence type. Thus, it can be grouped with Thought-for-thought translations when discussing application.

Applications – each type of translation philosophy suits it best for certain uses. Here are some examples:

1) Best for in-depth bible study
2) Best for doctrinal questions
3) Best for determining connections between passages based upon vocabulary

1) Good for casual reading
2) Best for reading and comprehension by non-Christians or new Christians

Optimal Equivalence
1) Good for using as supporting information in other written works
2) Good for supporting study of a word-for-word translation

In summary, word-for-word translations are best for serious study and serious research. They are the best for answering questions between believers. Also, the sometimes choppy language of the word-for-word translations make them best suited for memorization, as the human mind remembers best not the trivial or mundane, but the out-of-the-ordinary. Thought-for-thought translations are best for those who are not familiar with the Bible, those with less education and those not interested in answering doctrinal questions.

The weaknesses of the dynamic equivalence translations and dynamic equivalence portions of optimal translations are best engaged by three questions:
1) Can a modern translation be certain of the original author’s intent?
2) Can a modern person ever know the impact of the original text upon its readers?
3) Why not insure accuracy of meaning by using words that are as close to the original as possible?

When encountering a word that may have several close meanings, the word-for-word translators will err to the vague, while the thought-for-thought translators will make the decision for you based upon their theology. On its surface, this may seem better for the readers (and in the situations suggested above, it is), the problems arise not because the words are interpreted, but what they are based upon. This will be examined further in the later posts.

The next section will be a discussion of the differing textual philosophies that underlie different translations – in essence, which text did they translate?


  • Wonderful post! Thanks so much!

    What about a Zondervan Toddlers Bible? Ha ha! I just got done reading to my younger children, and it seems that the messages there are pretty well laid out!

    Perhaps many Americans would do well to start there because of ease of understanding.

    By Blogger Rightthinker, at 5/24/2006 12:16:00 PM  

  • I should have left this comment several posts back, so forgive me for hijacking this in some way.

    I just bought Peterson's The Message a few weeks ago for fun. I was surprised that the team of translation consultants had several representatives of what I would consider to be very theologically conservative institutions (Gordon-Conwell, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Moody Bible Institute).

    I realize that you can probably speak most appropriately for Southern Baptist institutions of which none of those are, but any idea why such theologically conservative individuals would commit to a paraphrase project?

    By Blogger Mary Beth, at 5/24/2006 03:55:00 PM  

  • Mary Beth,
    Good to see you again! I think this post is as appropriate as any for such a question. I actually was going to mention some facts about translations and doctrinal influences in the "Theological Influences" post, which is still two posts away - so for some of what I have to share, we'll have to wait!

    However, I think you identify a good subject, and one not originally in my outline. Are there connections between translation philosophy and orthodoxy? That is, are liberals more likely to produce dynamic equivalence versions and conservatives more like to produce formal equivalence versions? The answer is a resounding "No."

    While there are theological influences in the doctrines espoused in the versions, it is not necessary to have a dynamic equivalence translation to deny orthodoxy (although the radical KJV-Only types would disagree). The use of textual criticism and using different meanings of the words of the orignal languages can suit one just fine. Onthe other hand, I will admit that it is much easier to jam liberal philosophy into a dynamic equivalent than a formal equivalent!

    If a paraphrase project is conducted with the purpose of getting people to read the Bible that might never do so otherwise (the best use of a paraphrase), I can see no reason why a conservative would not serve as a translation consultant.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 5/25/2006 08:42:00 AM  

  • Thanks for your reply, Hammer. As a theological "moderate to liberal" there are some passages in this translation that even I have to gag on. Of course, I was a fundamentalist for the majority of my life, so I tend to be protective of all of those verses and passages that I had to memorize as a kid.

    Every time I read about KJV-only types, I have to laugh. One of my best friends from high school/college (who graduated from SBTS) used to say "You know about those Southern Baptists and the King James Bible. If it was good enough for the disciples, it's good enough for us!"

    Just to self-identify: I'm a NRSV gal myself. The New Oxford Annotated, to be specific. In fact, mine's so worn out it's missing the front cover through page iv. I may need a new one soon.

    By Blogger Mary Beth, at 5/25/2006 10:11:00 AM  

  • Found your post while searching google...I'm working on a master's thesis dealing with translation issues and was looking for some resources detailing formal equivalency. Do you have any good sources you would recommend? Great site. Glad I found you!

    By Blogger Beef, at 9/25/2006 03:15:00 PM  

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