A word on translation theory

I tend to lean toward Dynamic Equivalence. However, I also think a reader is wise to read a Formal Equivalence translation, too. I really like our church’s use of NLT because it seems to speak to so many of our people who didn’t even enjoy the NIV too much. I think they do well to read the NLT and then the NIV, ESV or NASB to see if there are any differences. This discussion about translation theory is from someone who is far more knowledgable than I and I would not question anything he says (at least in this blog). I like it when most in my study group has the same translation, because it is easier to follow, but when they don’t it is interesting to have them compare how verses are translated.


I’ve been reading Dave Brunn’s stimulating book One Bible, Many Versions—a work discussing the translation philosophy of various English Bible versions. This is a fine book in many ways. It engages an old controversy with an irenic tone. But if the book does anything, it shows that there is some confusion among evangelicals about what Formal Equivalence (FE) translators are aiming to do in their work. Brunn’s book shows that alltranslations—including FE translations like the NASB and the ESV—resort to Dynamic Equivalence (DE). His point is that not even FE translations practice their theory consistently, and he illustrates this fact with voluminous examples.

I question, however, whether Brunn has always accurately described the aims of Formal Equivalence translation. At times he’s very nuanced in his description. At other times, he seems to be implying that FE translators believe “increased literalness” always leads to “increased faithfulness and accuracy” (e.g., 49, 50). Yet I don’t know a single formal equivalence translator who would say that’s always the case. Everyone would agree that it’s not. He also seems to say that FE translators are inconsistent because they don’t take FE to its “logical end” (43)—that is, that formalways trumps meaning. But that’s not the logical end of FE. Nor do FE translators claim that it is.

Readers might be tempted to think that Brunn has uncovered a discrediting inconsistency with Formal Equivalence translation — that Formal Equivalence translations claim to be “word for word” but that they don’t really carry it out consistently in practice (191). But here’s the rub. No Formal Equivalence translator worth his salt would ever make such a claim. To wit, both the ESV and the NASB prefaces say that word for word translation is preferable when doing so makes good sense in English. When it doesn’t, a less literal rendering is preferred.

ESV preface: “Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between ‘formal equivalence’ in expression and ‘functional equivalence’ in communication, and the ESV is no exception. Within this framework we have sought to be ‘as literal as possible’ while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence. Therefore, to the extent that English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original…”

NASB preface: “The attempt has been made to render the grammar and terminology in contemporary English. When it was felt that the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom. In the instances where this has been done, the more literal rendering has been indicated in the notes.”

In short, neither of the two major formal equivalence translations claims to be elevating form over meaning in every case or always looking for word for word correspondence. Both translations are taking a more common sense approach. As the prefaces to the ESV and NASB make clear, Formal Equivalence describes a preferenceor a tendency towards more literal renderings, not an unbending commitment to form over function.

The heart of the debate on translation theory is whether the FE preference/tendency is justified. Those of us who advocate Formal Equivalence argue that the preference is justified for a number of reasons. Just to name one: Formal Equivalence helps readers to see intra-canonical allusions and intertextuality—both of which are a part of the author’s meaning and which are connected to the underlying forms that the author selected. A Formal Equivalence translation looks for English forms that make those connections clear. A Dynamic Equivalence often does not (e.g., the NIV’s renderings of Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6). We can all agree that no FE translation is perfect in upholding this principle. But certainly the preference for this principle in translation is a good one.

And here is where I would have a disagreement with Brunn. Brunn observes that all translations sometimes include renderings that are not “word for word.” He therefore concludes,

The discussion cannot be about how often these practices are used by any particular version. These practices are either acceptable or unacceptable. If we make an issue out of the fact that some versions use them more often, that could be like saying, “I robbed only one bank, but that other guy robbed ten banks, so he’s guilty and I’m innocent” (191).

Brunn’s logic seems to go like this: If Dynamic Equivalence is sometimes unjustified, then it must always be unjustified. But this is a non sequitur. This has never been such an all or nothing debate (again, see the prefaces to ESV and NASB). The question is whether the preference for literal renderings is justified. Thus the question of whenand “how often” Dynamic renderings are used is precisely the point of the debate.

Even though I disagree with Brunn on this point, I heartily agree with his desire for less acrimony in this debate and for more unity among Christians. I believe there are godly people on both sides of this issue, and I do not want to make it a litmus test for Christian fellowship. Brothers ought to be able to disagree agreeably over translation theory. My hope and prayer is that as each side tries to persuade the other, ultimately the truth will out and that we’ll all be the better for it.


Any comments? Go to: http://www.dennyburk.com/a-word-on-translation-theory/

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