Bible Translation Philosophies
All translations are interpretations. This is for two reasons. First is that English grammar is different than Greek or Hebrew grammar. A truly literal word for word translation would prove extraordinarily difficult to read. Secondly, in Greek and Hebrew, as with English, words often carry a variety of meanings depending on the context in which they are used.
Translators must make the decision as to what English words best represent the original text and they must write the grammar in such a way that the translation reflects the grammatical emphasis of the original. In doing so, it is impossible to translate without being influenced by your religious biases. The other challenge that you face in translation is in how you express a first century idea in twenty-first century language. This depends on how well you understand not only both cultures but also in understanding the context that surrounds the text.
And, you must also have an understanding of the Bible as a whole. God planned out history in intimate detail, and he wrote his scriptures and preserved them for his people. Thus, how we interpret scripture ought to reflect God’s decisive hand in its creation but also the consistency and inerrancy that belongs to his written word. That being said, there are Three general philosophies behind Bible translation: Formal Equivalence, Dynamic Equivalence, and Paraphrasing.
Formal Equivalence: This is as close to a literal translation as you will find. The philosophy is to translate the original text on a word for word basis into contemporary language. The main advantage of this approach is that it gives you a more accurate word for word correspondence with the original text. This makes word studies, where you trace a particular word’s usage through the Bible, more straightforward. The drawback is that the language can often become fairly wooden and awkward to read.
There is another issue regarding formal equivalence translations that is hotly debated as to whether it is a strength or a weakness. Because the English language is often vague and sometimes less precise than the Greek and Hebrew languages, sometimes a literal translation on a word for word basis leaves important theological concepts open to the reader’s interpretation. These concepts are usually clear in the original text, but become less clear when translated on a word for word basis into the English. Formal equivalence tries to minimize the translator’s interpretation of the text.
Dynamic Equivalence: The response to the problem of ambiguity within formal equivalence translations is dynamic equivalence. Rather than translating on a word for word basis, dynamic equivalence translates on a thought for thought or a concept for concept basis. This does involve more interpretation of the original text, but often can deliver a reading that is closer to the original intent. This translation often provides a more fluid reading of the text, but it does sacrifice a degree of precision when it comes to word studies.
Paraphrase: Sometimes called “free translation,” this mode of Bible translation is hotly debated. A paraphrase is the converting of the original text, or for most paraphrases, as translation, into your own words. Oftentimes this kind of translation can be very approachable for pleasure reading, but is not precise enough to do serious Bible study. Also, this kind of translation involves a great degree of interpretation, and depending on the translator’s biases, biblical doctrines may be obscured or given undue weight.
Obviously, these are very broad categories and they allow a great deal of overlapping. It is probably most accurate to picture these definitions on a chart with formal equivalence on one end and paraphrasing on the other, with dynamic equivalence being a middle ground. Each translation, then would fall somewhere on the chart, leaning toward one of the definitions, but being influenced by the others.
Regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, all three have their value. Formal equivalence translations are often best for serious Bible study, but dynamic equivalence is better for more casual reading and public reading of scripture. It is far more accessible both to younger people and to new Christians. While paraphrases are not my particular cup of tea, many find that they are quite good for pleasure reading. It just must be cautioned that a more technical translation of the Bible should be accessible for worship and study.
Regardless of your translation philosophy, the end goal is the same. We want the word of God to be read and understood by the people of God. People have different educational backgrounds and are at different levels of faith when they go to pick up this wonderful book. As Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God to salvation.” If the word of God is to be brought to bear on the lives of God’s people, it must be understood. Different translations for different seasons in different people’s lives is the reason that we have so many versions to choose from when we go the Bible book store.