Lost in Translation – Part 2

19 Jan

In “Lost in Translation: Part 1” we took a cursory look at how we go about examining the biblical manuscripts that we have. I concluded that the most widely accepted Greek Text we have today is the Nestle-Aland Greek Text 27th Edition. I will not elaborate here why most scholars do not consider the Textus Receptus to be the most accurate Greek text. For those who are interested in examining that further, and all who are interested in this topic should examine it further, please check out the links at the end of this post under the heading “More Info on the TR”. Although we have established the most accepted Greek text in terms of accuracy, choosing an English translations isn’t just as simple as asking what text it is founded upon. There is another question that factors into it: What translation philosophy was used? There are two main classifications of translation philosophy: Formal Equivalent and Dynamic Equivalent. We will define each, discuss which one is better, and then look at some of the popular English translations that employ them.

Formal Equivalent:
When most people think of a faithful translation they tend to imagine a word-for-word translation. In other words, if the original has 8 words in a sentence, they would expect 8 words in the translated sentence. Although this type of exactitude is not possible, the translation philosophy that tries to meet that standard is the “Formal Equivalent” (FE) method. Anyone who has ever studied a second language realizes that there is not a word-for-word equivalent. When it comes to Greek to English translation work, there are tenses that the English language doesn’t even allow for and genders attached to things that English doesn’t attach to them. Greek is far more nuanced and precise than English. For example, in English the text could read, “Jesus told the poor man that he was the only way.” Now, those who are familiar with Christianity would know that Jesus was telling the poor man that he (Jesus) was the only way. But if one is trying to understand this without prior knowledge of Christianity, the pronoun “he” could refer to Jesus or the man, and seeing as “man” is closer to the pronoun “he” one could argue that interpretation. But if this sentence were written in Greek then the pronoun would agree with it’s antecedent in an unmistakable way. This is not to say formal equivalence isn’t good, but that FE is not exact word-for-word translation. What FE does concern itself with is that it is as close to the original word-for-word substitute as possible. An FE translation of Matthew 1:18 would say, “Mary was having it in the belly” as opposed to simply saying she was with child. Although FE is very faithful to form in translating from Greek to English, it’s not always very readable, and in other passages can completely obscure the original meaning that was being communicated.

Dynamic Equivalent:
The other translation method is “dynamic equivalence” (DE). Unlike FE, this method is more concerned with translating the meaning of the text (phrase-for-phrase) as opposed to word-for-word. So when translating Matthew 1:18, this method would simply read something akin to the NIV in stating Mary was “found to be pregnant”. Although this method is much more readable than FE, the danger of DE is that the translators can be too free with the text and add their own interpretation to it. For example, Daniel Wallace notes “The NIV, in
Eph 6:6, tells slaves to ‘Obey (their masters) not only to win their favor. . . ,’ but the word ‘only’ is not in the Greek and I suspect that Paul did not mean to imply it, either.”1

So which one is better?
Actually, both! It is important to have not only a formal translation to better know the phraseology of the text, as well as to have a dynamic equivalent to help us understand what their cultural idioms mean. For instance, multiple times in the Old Testament it says that “God’s nostrils enlarged”, which is a very colorful way of saying “God became angry”. It is good to have both translation methods available. We are students of God’s word. So many times we just want someone else to do all the work and wrap it up in a nice little package for us. But each individual believer is commanded to study to show himself approved unto God. We do not have the luxury of having the original languages as our native tongue. So we must deal with the translation issues, but we don’t have to get lost in translation.

So in answer to “Which English translation is the best?”: I would recommend you have at least one Bible from each translation camp – a Formal and a Dynamic (two dynamic equivalent translation if possible due to the nature of the translation method)– so you will be able to consult them as you study God’s word. It is also best to refrain from translations that are the product of a sect or the work of an individual (not that a translation done by an individual has nothing to offer, but it is more likely that the biases of the individual will skew the fidelity of the translation work).

Below is a list of some popular English translations, their textual basis, and the translation philosophy.

English Translation Textual Basis Translation Philosophy
KJV Textus Receptus, some readings derived from the Vulgate More of a  Formal Equivalent
ESV High Correspondence to Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition* Formal Equivalence
NASB Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition Formal Equivalence
NET Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition Dynamic and Formal Equivalence
NIV Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. Formal and dynamic Equivalence
Good News Bible Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition. Dynamic Equivalent
The New King James Version Textus Receptus Formal Equivalence
Holmon Christian Standard Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition Dynamic and Formal Equivalence
RSV Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition Formal and Dynamic equivalence
ASV Westcott and Hort 1881 and Tregelles 1857 Formal Equivalence

More Info on the TR:

An article by Daniel B. Wallace:

An article by James White:
An Article by Doug Kutilek:

1Daniel B. Wallace Why So Many Versions?

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 19, 2011 in Scripture, Textual Criticism


Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: