When it comes to Bible translations, the formal vs Dynamic equivalence debate is important to understand. These two different approaches are one of the key factors in picking the right translation(s) for you.
In English, we are fortunate to have a multitude of different Bible translations to choose from. At the same time, this wealth of options can feel overwhelming due to the paradox of choice. And if you’ve ever been in a Bible study you’ve probably had the experience where someone started reading and you could have thought they were reading a different passage.
After today’s video and post, you should have a far better idea over whether you generally prefer a formal vs dynamic equivalence translation and why it can sometimes feel like someone is reading a different Bible.
What is a Formal Equivalence Translation?
Formal equivalence seeks to keep the literal details of text. That means it wasn’t to translate word for word and match the grammar of the text as far as possible. In this approach, each word in an expression would be translated to match the word (while retaining grammatical sense) and the ordering of the passage would be kept as close to the original as possible.
What is Dynamic (or Functional) Equivalence in Translations
Dynamic equivalence (sometimes called Functional Equivalence) is an approach that seeks to translate “sense for sense” where word choice and grammar may be changed in the goal of producing the same result in the reader.
In this approach, a translator would look for idioms and expressions in the target language rather than translating each word. They might also do things like break up a section of direct speech as writers tend to do in modern English writing.
Which is Better? Formal vs Dynamic equivalence.
“Better” really depends on the intent of the reader and the purpose of the translator. If you are an academic analyzing a text, a preaching preaching a passage or a new christian reading the Bible for the first time, you may need a different translation. Similarly, the pastor may want a different translation for personal study and reflection compared with their preaching preparation.
The difficulty with formal translations
If we want to try and express an idea and show cultural connections, it can be very difficult to do so with a formal translations such as the NASB.
Reading a strange expression or a reference to a cultural item might be completely missed by the modern reader and they might come to a completely inaccurate impression of the passage.
A personal example I can give is watching the Simpsons as a kid. I’m British and didn’t know a lot about American culture. Over time I learned more and then when I saw clips and old episodes later, I appreciated references that had passed me by before.
In addition, “formal” equivalence may be unattainable. Words and ideas may not be present in the target language, or there may be a great deal of baggage that is associated with a term.
One example I often come across is with food. There are certain Polish food item that I sometimes hear people translate into English equivalents, the problem is that these are often unknown to most English people, where as the local name is more well known. So is it better to keep the word in Polish or use an unknown local term? (I say the former).
The difficulties with dynamic translations
On the other hand, when we read a more dynamic translation (like the NLT), we have to be aware of the perspective that the translator is adding to a passage. This is particularly important when it comes to Bible translations due to the range of theological beliefs.
We can also encounter new cultural translation difficulties. As a British person, who has an interest in American culture, I recognize some cultural references but there are still expressions and ideas that are foreign to me. In the attempt to make a text more accessible to some communities, it may make it less accessible to others.
Finally, we can miss references, word plays and ideas that the original writer was expressing when we follow a more dynamic approach. If we focus on translating each word based on its context, we can hide the references between passages.
The middle ground?
My personal approach is to study using a more formal translation but using extra resources including commentaries and study notes to highlight these references and cultural ideas that might be hidden. At the same time, I enjoy going to dynamic translations to get a “fresh perspective” from time to time and sometime discover something fresh that is in the original language.
What translation do you like?
What Bible translation(s) do you usually use and why?