Clarifications on Dynamic and Literal: Capturing the "Real" Meaning

I never meant for this blog to revolve around translations and editions of the Bible. Yet, time and time again, this is something that, when I bring it up, becomes a source of more conversation than any other single topic. In the responses to the previous post (which was really just a redirect to a friend’s blog), I encountered a few issues that I think must be addressed in this conversation about dynamic-equivalent (or functional equivalence) and essentially literal (formal equivalence) translations. [A quick disclaimer: I will hardly ever write the actual Greek or Hebrew words on this blog because most of my readership does not consist of seminary students. When I do feel the need to do this, I will use English/Roman letters instead of Greek or Hebrew so that the reader will at least have an idea of their pronunciation. I do not wish to discourage other bloggers with a more language-savvy readership at all from using more Greek/Hebrew words and alphabet.]

Clarifications:

  • All translations have a theological agenda. One cannot say that by the NASB or ESV being essentially literal translations they escape having a theological agenda. Theology always informs our translation. The way both of these translations render Isaiah 7:14 (“the virgin shall conceive…”) shows that the translators hold to the theological worldview that the New Testament interprets the old. The word translated virgin in this passage does not necessarily mean such in Hebrew. It merely means a young maiden. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by many in the time of Jesus, renders this passage more clearly as the equivalent of virgin, and that is what is cited in the New Testament. However, the Hebrew passage itself never makes this clear. The fact that the word episcopos in the New Testament is rendered “elder” instead of “bishop” (both of which are accurate) is another instance of theological bias. I could list off a few dozen other passages where the translators of the “literal” versions made decisions based on theological bias.
  • There is no such thing as a word-for-word translation, except an interlinear Greek/English or Hebrew/English edition, which has the original language text on top and the closest English equivalent to the corresponding words directly below. These are practically unreadable. Exact word order/syntax and such alone prevents a word-for-word translation from ever occuring. What all translations seek to do is to render the meaning of the original text in clear English.
  • A bit on literal and dynamic translation: Essentially literal translations (NASB, ESV) attempt to do this trying to stick to a closer word order and using most idioms in the original (even the ESV will break from this occasionally, though), whether they make sense in English or not. In essence, be strong in Greek sometimes at the expense of English. Dynamic equivalent translations (NLT, NIV, NCV) seek to explain what the idiom would be in clear, understandable English, while still keeping in essence the form and feel of the original. These prioritize keeping the meaning of the Greek, but prioritizing the fact that it is good English. Often, these capture the feel of the original much better than literal versions because of the quality of English used. In the end, I think because of their nature, the NASB and ESV are very good for word study, make great study bibles, and are also great for expository preaching. The NLT and TNIV are wonderful bibles for reading and using while talking to others about the Gospel because they are true representations of the text in real English. These also can be used well for preaching, and I don’t discourage that. The NLT also is available in a top-notch study Bible. All of the translations I have mentioned here have some of the world’s most top-notch scholars from a variety of backgrounds contributing (see Bryan’s reply to the previous post) and are well worth reading for our edification.
  • Paraphrases like The Message, The Voice, The Living Bible (not to be confused with the NLT), and even the remarkable New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips are summaries of Scripture statements. They are the furthest from the actual words used in the original languages, but try to capture the spirit of the original in contemporary rephrasing. They are mostly interpretation of meaning, much like a sermon or commentary (yet, again, to some degree all translations are a bit). Yet, these are still extremely useful, just as sermons or commentary are. I recommend a good Bible student own at least one of these if not more. I could go on, but I don’t want this to be an unnecessarily long post.