A Bible translation project requires at least three vital ingredients: the text, the technique, and the translator. We dealt briefly with the issue of the text in our article, “The Bible of the Martyrs” (Fall 2012 issue). For the New Testament, it is our conviction that the traditional (received) text is superior to the critical text. A skilled translator using the best technique while using the wrong text will at best produce a well-translated, corrupt Bible. The majority of Bible translations done around the world today (and for more than a half century) are done, in our opinion, using both the wrong text and the wrong technique. This wrong technique is commonly called “dynamic equivalence.” Other terms used for it are “meaning-based translation,” “cultural equivalence,” “functional equivalence,” and “thought for thought translation.”
The dynamic equivalence (DE) method was developed by the late Eugene Nida (1914-2011), missionary/translator and former president of the American Bible Society. Before his time, all Bible translation was done using a formal, word-for-word method. We believe this method, known as “formal equivalence” (FE), to be the proper technique. (A synonymous term used by some in recent days is “essentially literal translation.”) We do not question Mr. Nida’s love for the Word of God nor his sincere desire to see people read and understand the Bible. Neither do we doubt the dedication of his followers today, who are making great personal sacrifices to translate the Bible into the heart languages of the world. This is also our objective. Our disagreement concerns the text and the technique.
By formal equivalence, we do not mean that a translation should follow the exact form (verb for verb, noun for noun, exact word order, etc.) as the original. One language may express an event as a verb, whereas another language may express that same event in noun form. We define translation as moving words from one language into another. By “formal,” we mean the correct, proper or appropriate way of moving words from one language to another.
Our view of Bible inspiration and preservation determines our view of Bible translation. If God inspired words (and we believe He did) and if He preserved words (and we believe He did) then what should we translate? Words! The DE translator attempts to discover what God meant by His words, or the message God intended for the original reader. Then he uses whatever words he thinks will deliver that same thought or message. This may sound noble and good, but upon closer examination, we find some very serious flaws in this method.
The reader of the DE Bible may assume he is reading what God said, but in reality he is only reading what the translator thinks that God meant by what He said. What if the interpretation of the translator is wrong? What if there are various possible interpretations? To see this problem illustrated in English, read 1 Thessalonians 4:4. The translators of the Authorized Version, using the FE method, accurately translated the Greek word skeuos as “vessel,” so that the verse reads, “That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour.” “Vessel” is obviously a metaphor. It might be interpreted to refer to the body or maybe even a wife (The wife is called “the weaker vessel” in 1 Peter 3:7.) But it can never be legitimately translated as wife or body. The Contemporary English Version says, “Respect and honor your wife.” Goodspeed’s translation reads, “…that each of you learn to take a wife for himself…” The NIV says, “that each of you should learn to control his own body…” The New Century Version says, “He wants each of you to learn to control your own body.” (Interestingly, in 1960 the revisers of the Spanish Bible, under the leadership of Nida, departed from the Reina Valera Bible and the FE technique and used the DE interpretation “wife” – esposa.) The reader of the DE Bible is going to assume that God said “wife” or “body.” The DE translator has forced his opinion on the reader and claimed that God said something that He did not say. The FE translator believes that he should give people God’s words, and they can then discern (perhaps with the help of teachers and commentators) the proper meaning of those words.
The DE translator wants his translation to be immediately and easily understood by the reader, even the unsaved one, so he puts Bible symbolisms, figurative speech, or poetic language into easy to understand, colloquial speech. But we believe that the Bible can be translated in an understandable way and still retain its beautiful, elevated, and dignified language.
The people of a Bibleless language need the Scriptures. Do we only give them the sense or general meaning of what God said, or do we give them the equivalent words that God originally gave by inspiration? When we hand the people a printed copy of our work, do we say, “This is the message of God”? Or do we say, “These are the words of God”?