Formal and Dynamic Equivalence in Translation
An Introductory Essay and Discussion
Every translation is an imperfection, and it is hard to imagine that there is a single scholar who is entirely satisfied with his version, whether the work was collaborative or his alone. Every decision made leaves something on the table, something not captured by the rendition into the target language, as any polyglot can testify. The translation philosophy adhered to determines, to a great extent, what is captured and what is not, and the trend is in favor of dynamic equivalence over formal equivalence. For the limited scope of this essay, addressing the issues rather abstractly, terms will be left undefined and used imprecisely; no attempt will be made to classify any translations. Paraphrastic and literal are used as shorthand for tending toward dynamic equivalence and tending toward formal equivalence respectively. Though this essay means to argue against paraphrastic versions, there is no doubt that they are all valuable and each one should be considered a significant contribution to the Christian faith.
The Issue of Interpretation
It is impossible to translate without interpreting first. The source text has to be understood before it is translated, and the theology of the translator will influence his or her own personal reading. Using translation and oversight committees controls against theological bias, and wide ecumenical representation can check denominational bias more broadly. Even then it could be said that the product is representative of orthodoxy (a fortiori, the orthodoxy of a particular culture and time), leaving out other legitimate viewpoints.
It cannot be denied, though, that further control is imposed by a philosophy of formal equivalence. This forces the translator to narrow his scope to the lexis and syntax immediately in his purview. This doesn’t mean that the translator’s understanding of the near context, or even the Bible as a whole, does not influence his work, but it does not allow as much room for theological bias.
Consider an example from John 8.24, 28 according to the New Living Translation. In both verses, ego eimi is rendered “I AM,” anticipating John 8.58. In the latter case, it is easy to see how the strained language and immediate reaction of the Judeans would lead translators to take the phrase as an allusion to Exodus 3.14, “I AM WHO I AM,” though this is not the only way to read it. But that confluence of syntax and context does not exist in John 8.24, 28, and it is hard to see why the New Living Translation would not recognize the implied predicate. It is utterly conjectural.
This is not to say that this interpretation could not appear in a literal translation since it is not strictly a function of dynamic equivalence. But it does illustrate the macro approach of ‘conveying the thought’: the translators are inclined by their christology to interpret this dialogue as Jesus’ assertion of deity, and so render it accordingly. They are not checked by a ‘word-for-word’ restriction. It would be interesting to survey versions to see where on the translation spectrum this rendition appears most often. My guess would be that more literal versions, even those done by evangelical scholars, who generally have a proclivity to dominical apotheosis, tread more cautiously. As the product of considered reflection seeing an allusion to Exodus 3.14 here is not in itself illegitimate, though I do not think it is especially good exegesis. But because it is a tenuous conclusion it should be, at most, an alternate version in a footnote. Interestingly, this “I AM” is a change from the previous edition of the NLT, which does not typographically mark ego eimi in this way.
Again, any translation is someone’s interpretation—this is simply unavoidable. But the latitude given by a paraphrastic translation philosophy naturally allows greater opportunity for theology to influence linguistic judgment.
The Issue of Literacy
The basic idea behind the paraphrastic approach to translation is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, the closer one stays to the source text, the less accurate the rendering may be. This is absolutely valid and can easily be tested by reading an interlinear, where the translation is done exactly word-for-word and the result is usually unintelligible. Since it is sentences and paragraphs that carry the meaning, and not individual words, a thought-for-thought translation can, indeed, yield greater accuracy in the sense of making things more understandable. So, there is the fundamental purpose of paraphrastic translations: to make the Bible more clear and readable.
For many, including children, those reading a second language, or anyone with a limited education, a paraphrastic translation may be their only direct access to the Bible, and, indeed, a number have been made for such specific readers. But modern versions are not just marketed for them, but for a far wider audience. Many point out that the general lack of basic Bible knowledge makes such translations necessary because they place the gospel within the grasp of exactly those who need it, biblical neophytes searching for and just beginning to respond to the Bible’s message.
The issue, then, is not just reading ability, but one’s biblical or theological literacy, and it is here that the rationale presents some difficulty. It seems that the goal is to make the text entirely lucid on the first reading, and while this is admirable it is impossible to do while remaining true to the text. Some of the language simply is difficult, and ‘fixing’ it is doing violence to it; clarity is imposed on an opaque source text. The Bible cannot be made entirely self-explanatory.
A strong argument could also be made that even a new reader would be better served by a more literal translation. Although his apprehension of the material would take longer, through repeated exposure and careful reading he would pick up the culture and locution of the Scriptures. A literal translation would then allow the reader himself to come to conclusions that a more paraphrastic translation makes for him. It is true that some things would, for this hypothetical reader, remain forever hidden behind the veil of language and culture if the text is not brought up to date. But could not this modernization, this dynamic equivalence, be presented in a footnoted alternate rendering? The study Bible or reference Bible format provides an excellent opportunity for the ancient culture to be modernized for the reader, and in a footnote this can be done without forcing an anachronism on the text. Perhaps this is more cumbersome, but the sheer number of different study Bibles must indicate something about their utility and popularity.
All of this presupposes that the Bible is all that a new believer has, and it is therefore necessary to give the reader, within the text, as much as possible to understand it. But hardly anyone comes to Christianity alone, through his single Bible. As an experiment I would be rather interested in this, as I have my own ideas about what dogma and praxis one would come to if left entirely un-indoctrinated. But this simply does not happen. There is no unmediated reading of the Bible. Whether or not a reader becomes a member of a particular church, everyone who learns the gospel does so through a community, and is shaped by one or more traditions, even if that community is simply the latest wares in Christian bookstores. Therefore, there is no need to eliminate all ambiguity and smooth over all troublesome idioms. The reader will not come to the text without any help. His development will not happen in a vacuum, but in a community of believers and in a context of worship. Many, in fact, learn the vernacular of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament through liturgy, long before they wrestle with the concepts themselves in situ.