Better Bible Study Tip #33: Learn Some Basics About Translation Philosophies

The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The problem is, most of us don’t know how to read those languages. The simplest solution to this problem is to pick a good translation of the Bible. Most people will simply pick the translation they are most familiar with, or they will pick out a translation because they find it easy to read. Although familiar translations may be easier to memorize, and readability is certainly important, for better Bible study, it is good to learn some basics about translation philosphies.

Translation is not always as simple as picking an English equivalent to words in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. There’s more to understanding what is being communicated than simply being able to look up words in a dictionary.

In order to illustrate this point, imagine you were asked to translate the following sentence into a foreign language: “The running back for the Crimson Tide has really been piling up the yards.” We could translate the sentence word-for-word into another language, but unless the reader had some basic cultural understanding about the game of college football, the sentence would end up sounding like nonsense. The reader would have to do a little bit of homework about SEC football before they could understand our translation. Another solution would be to try to rewrite the phrase so that someone from a different culture could understand the main idea without having to do extra work.

Bible translators run into these kinds of problems all the time. One approach to translating the Bible is to translate it “word for word”. Translators call this “formal equivalence.” This goal of this translation philosophy is to account for every word in the original language with an English word as much as possible. The problem with this style of translation is that the translation can sometimes end up sounding awkward.

Another approach is called “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” This approach tries to determine what the original phrase meant, and then uses whatever words necessary to communicate that meaning to English readers. There is not as much emphasis on accounting for each individual word. The result is usually a more readable translation.

So which translation philosophy is best? On one hand, there’s a lot to be said for readability. The Bible was, after all, written in common, everyday language (see Bible Study Tip #31). But it’s also important to remember that God inspired the original words of Scripture. Details matter. Sometimes individual words can make a big difference (see Bible Study Tip #14).

In order to translate from one language to another, it is necessary to come to some conclusions about what the original words mean and how to best convey that meaning to the audience. This introduces certain degree of human understanding into all translations. One big advantage of formal equivalent translations is that it limits how much the translator’s own ideas can be introduced into the translation. Yes, a formal equivalence translation may sound more clunky at times, but there are plenty of resources available to help us to understand these difficult words and phrases.

Dynamic equivalence translations aren’t bad. They can be good, especially if you’re just wanting to causally read large sections of scripture to get the big picture (Bible Study Tip #13). But when we use them we need to be aware that what we are reading may or may not accurately represent the original text. For deeper studies, it’s important to have a good word-for-word translation.

If you want to know what kind of translation philosophy is being used, read the preface. Although most popular translations use a mixture of the two main philosophies, the King James Version, New King James Version, New American Standard, and English Standard Versions all lean more towards formal equivalence, while the New International Version, and the New Living Translation lean more towards dynamic equivalence. There’s also paraphrases, such as The Living Bible and The Message. Paraphrases aren’t actually translations at all. Paraphrases begin with an English translation, and then reword the translation into the most readable English possible. I don’t usually recommend paraphrases, unless we’re only looking to consult them similar to how we would use a commentary.

Translations are like golf clubs. Different translations are better for different purposes. But for better Bible study, it’s good to be familiar with the translation philosophy being used by your particular translation.