Learn Something about Philosophies of Bible Translation
Bible translation is both an art and a science. It’s not just a matter of knowing English equivalents to words in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. If you are bilingual or have a friend who speaks another language, you know there’s more to understanding what is communicated in any language than using a dictionary.
The difficulty is easy to illustrate in English. Understanding what is meant by phrases liked “She copped a plea” or “He’s piling up yards” requires cultural knowledge—in these cases, the slang of crime dramas and the nuances of football. We could translate those phrases word-for-word into another language but without the appropriate cultural intuition, they’d be meaningless.
Bible translators struggle with these sorts of problems frequently. There are also issues unique to the Bible that present difficulties. The doctrine of inspiration is one such complication. Since inspiration can be defined as “verbal,” where each word of the original compositions is ultimately the result of a process guided by Providence, should translation of those compositions take the form of a “word-for-word” rendering? If not, are words of God being lost?
This “word-for-word” approach to translation is called “formal equivalence” by translators. The goal of this translation philosophy is to account for each word in the original language with an English word wherever that is possible. The result is typically a rigidly literal rendering that may sound awkward. But each word must be accounted for. Some Bible translations definitely lean this direction.
Another approach is called “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” This approach looks at the material to be translated and assesses what the original material meant to its original audience. Once that is discerned, the meaning is put into English using whatever words are best suited toward that end. There is no emphasis on accounting for each word of the original since meaning is the focus. Again, certain translations favor this approach.
Some translations fall in between. Still others are actually paraphrases. Paraphrases start with an English translation and then reword the English. No actual translation work occurs.
I like to say the best Bible translation is the one you’ll read. It’s good to know the philosophy behind your translation. Using several translations that take different approaches is actually useful for Bible study.
Michael S. Heiser, Brief Insights on Mastering Bible Study: 80 Expert Insights, Explained in a Single Minute, The 60 Second Scholar (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 85–86.