Kept in translation – a case against dynamic equivalence

Few contemporary Bible translators translate word-for-word.  They instead often operate on the theory of “dynamic equivalence,” summed up by one of its advocates as the effort to find “in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent to the message of the source language, first in meaning and secondly in style.”

The theory is a bold expression of modern hubris.  Most obvious is the assumption that we know the “message of the source language” accurately enough to reproduce that message in the receptor language.  Armed with the tools of modern research, we can stitch together tatters of texts, bones and buildings into a three-dimensional model of the ancient world.

The subtler hubris is the more dangerous.  Older translators settled for word-for-word translations, often mangling the style and syntax of the receptor language to reproduce the source language (cf. the doubled Hebraisms – “dying you shall die” – of the Authorized Version) because they believed they were handling mysteries beyond their understanding.  As Stephen Prickett has pointed out, they rendered the “original in all its starkness and oddity” because they knew they didn’t have mastery of the text.

- Peter J. Leithart (in Touchstone)

Awhile back I posted about my experience of reading through an eight-version parallel New Testament.  I still like the NLT and some other dynamic equivalent versions for their readability, but I think Leithart’s argument for word-for-word translation has merit.  I’ll stick with a combination of the two.

6 Responses to “Kept in translation – a case against dynamic equivalence”

  1. Marc says:

    He does have a point, and I’d better be careful about arguing with someone with a PhD, but it seems to me that there is no such thing as a “word for word” English translation. Such a translation would be unreadable. You can have translations that are *closer to* word-for-word than other translations, but not a readable word-for-word translation.

    I have the feeling that rendering the original “in all its starkness and oddity” is not something more pure or accurate than dynamic equivalence translations, because the originals weren’t stark and odd to contemporary readers. That argument seems to be projecting something on the original text from the 21st century perspective–something that wasn’t there when the original was written.

    Understanding the original message enough to translate it accurately is a fair point, but we are attempting to do that as soon as we translate the text, whether it’s for a dynamic equivalence text or a “word-for-word” text. I’m not sure that a “word for word” translation has a great deal more objectivity in this respect than others. There is always interpretation in translation.

    I guess what frustrates me about this question/discussion these days is that the layperson–like you and I–won’t know without research which translations are (arguably) more word-for-word. And even then, who can tell? As I understand it, the ESV claims to be a “word-for-word” translation (link) and yet it is for the most part no different than the NRSV and not much different than the NIV/TNIV, all three of which fall (as I understand it) under the “dynamic equivalence” category.

    (Sorry for the essay.)

  2. Marc says:

    Sorry also if I sound like a complete smartass. That was unintentional.

    Also, I read Leithart’s “Against Christianity” not too long ago and enjoyed it.

  3. Thanks for this… being in Cambodia, I’ve been asking about the two translations of the Bible… one was translated by Missionaries in the 1920-30s using the English KJV with the help of a buddhist monk… now there is a more current translation… yet I’m not sure if either is from the original languages. I’ll keep asking questions.

  4. Phil L says:

    Marc, you always sound smart, but not like an ass, so no probs. True, there are probably no pure word-for-word translations, but I see value in reading at least one translation that gets as close to word-for-word as possible. I’m not throwing out my NLT, but I’m not going to use it alone.

    Suzanne, I hope your experience in Cambodia will be a fulfilling one. I’m sure it must have its challenges as well as blessings. Have you learned to read/speak the language?

  5. Toni says:

    Phil – I think it’s worth having a good Greek-English interlinear for doing what you suggested with the NT (although even then it fails, because Greek cannot be translated directly).

    I’d suggest that the author you quoted has been working in regulatory affairs too long! Some parts of the bible were written with careful, well educated construction and some were colloquial. I’m reasonably sure it was never intended to be full of starkness and oddity, so much as a living word.

    As always, it’s good to approach the things of God with reverence and respect, but to suggest they should be treated as mysteries beyond understanding is to fail to know God for Himself. Throughout the bible God talks about showing things to His friends, making mysteries known, writing His word on our hearts. As Marc picked up, the author is barely a breath away (in this out of context quote) of saying that the word of God is too high for you to understand, and you should go and do as you’re told (by someone like him). Cue priesthood, cue church slipping back 1200 years.

    Why do I respond like this? Because I’m starting to understand that it’s all about relationship, all about knowing God for Himself. Lock the bible up, and that adds a layer of difficulty, particularly for newer Christians.

  6. Phil L says:

    Probably a better term than “word-for-word” would be “formal equivalence”, since it’s true that there is no pure “word-for-word” translation.

    I’ll say again that I think it’s best to use more than one version, from across the spectrum of formal equivalence to dynamic equivalence. I also think that if I were forced to use only one version I would choose one that I thought was closest to the original, even if it weren’t as readable.