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Functional Equivalence in Translation

I was reading the Powerpoint presentation of Mark Taylor, Mark Strauss, and Sean Harrison called So Many Bible Translations. How Do I Choose One? I believe these men worked on either the NLT and/or TNIV in some capacity. Many of the biblioblogs posted it for reading. These men make excellent points, a few of which I would like to bring to readers’ minds. Before I begin, for full disclosure, I would like to say that I enjoy the ESV now, grew up on the NKJV, and studied from the NASB while in college. So I am not writing these points with any bias toward functional equivalence.

The goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of a text as accurately as possible in another language. I think this point is greatly overlooked by most who criticize Bible translations. Anyone who has taken any foreign language for any amount of time realizes that the goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of the text. I took three years of Spanish in high school. When first beginning in the Spanish language, we would be given English sentences that needed to be translated in Spanish. We would also get Spanish words that needed to be translated to English. I got my Spanish-English dictionary out and began translating my homework. Guess what? I got most of the sentences wrong. Others in the class who attempted to do the homework the same way also got those sentences wrong. It is not possible to do “word-for-word,” literal translation and come out with the correct meaning. At best you will have a sentence with words in the wrong order. At worst, you will have a sentence that means something completely different in English than it did in the original language. There is a reason that we do not use interlinears as our standard Bible text. Reading an interlinear is confusing at best and leads to misunderstanding at worst.

Words have a range of meanings. This is another important point from this presentation that we easily forget. “Bear” does not have just one meaning. “Bear” could be an animal. “Bear” could mean to carry something. “Bear” could mean to put up with someone or something. “Bear” could be a stuffed toy. Words do not have just one meaning, so skill is required in translating words. More than one word is often necessary to communicate the true meaning of any given word. Using more words or less words to translate a text does not indicate the accuracy of the translation. Accuracy is the goal, not using as few words as possible.

Languages are idiomatic. We also forget that languages have sayings that are difficult to translate. If you tell me something surprising and I respond, “Get out of here!” I am not literally asking you to leave. I am expressing great surprise and perhaps even a degree of disbelief. A translation needs to accurately represent the surprise in my response, not communicate that I was asking the messenger to leave. Translators must work to capture the meaning.

Therefore, it is not evil for translations to attempt to capture the meaning of the original language in the scriptures. All translations attempt to do this. Even translations that claim to be “word-for-word” translations are not because they understand that some sayings translated literally will cause misunderstanding or will be misleading. So I have never been against functional equivalence or considered that the NLT, NIV, TNIV, and others are flawed because they attempt to capture the meaning of the original text. These are translations and are not paraphrases, and there is a difference. We want the meaning of the scriptures translated to English, not the scriptures put in the author’s own words (paraphrase). The Message is a paraphrase, not a translation. When reading The Message one can quickly see the difference between translation and paraphrase.

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