Principles of Bible Translation

by Charles L. Winkler

The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the things happening in the world of Bible translation today. Without doubt, the work of Bible translation goes farther back (it began in the third century before Christ), involves more languages, more cultures and addresses a greater variety of literary styles than any other piece of literature in the history of mankind. For centuries the basic principle was to translate the text of the original as accurately and as closely as possible in the target language. More recently a new concept, dynamic equivalence, has been introduced in a systematic way for Bible translation.

Although it has been sparsely used over the centuries, it has become quite accepted in recent years and is being introduced more and more worldwide. Dynamic equivalence, it is claimed, should be a great improvement over the so-called formal equivalence, narrow, word for word translation, where the translator tries to stay as close as possible to the text of the source language. Those who promote dynamic equivalence will insist that formal equivalence translations can be difficult to understand and in some cases may even cause confusion by staying too close to the original language. However, such criticism often makes use of extreme cases which give the impression that all attempts to faithfully and accurately translate the message of the original is doomed to failure unless the translator takes great “dynamic equivalence” liberty in his translation.

I will attempt to show that quite to the contrary, it is the principle of dynamic equivalence which all too often leads to looseness in translation. In many cases, it ends up being a dangerous form of tampering with the word of God, all this for the purpose of making the message easy to understand to the reader.

The whole question of what Bible translation is all about became very real to me in a practical way when I came to the United States and started worshipping in a church where the Authorized Version was being used. Its beautiful but archaic language was rather difficult to understand for a foreigner and at times I was wondering whether I was reading the same Bible I had been reading in French. Buying a Revised Standard Bible did not make things much easier, since now I had to struggle with two very different translations, one of which was supposed to be faithful, but difficult to understand, the other closer to the spoken language of the time, yet under suspicion of error. I was looking for a better translation, which would be faithful to the word of God. A few years later, when the NIV came out in 1978, I was thrilled to use it both for personal devotions and for preaching from the pulpit, where I had been using the KJV up to that time. However I soon became aware of some serious weaknesses in the NIV and felt obligated to point them out whenever they were found in the text on which I was preaching. At first I did not realize that the NIV had been translated using the principle of “dynamic equivalence.” I simply assumed that the translators had missed the mark on occasion in a well meaning attempt to resolve some difficulty in the translation itself.

It seemed strange though that such inaccuracies should have slipped by the careful proofreading of over 100 scholars of the Bible, all skilled in the original languages. But then I realized that these inaccuracies were not accidental but were the result of the systematic use of the dynamic equivalence principle. This became even more clear to me when the Living Bible came out and quickly gained a very wide acceptance. Not only did the translators take liberty with the text of the word of God, but people were eager to read a simplified, paraphrased, translation because it gave them the impression that they did now understand what they were not able to understand in the older, formal equivalence translations. Today dynamic equivalence has a very wide acceptance, but it seems that it has now peaked and is on its way down while formal equivalence translations may be regaining some ground.

The Principle of Dynamic Equivalence

Although the principle of dynamic equivalence has been in existence for a long time and has been used on rare occasions in older translations, it was first given that name and formulated as a systematic translation principle in the seventies by Eugene Nida. His purpose was to attempt to establish a “science of translation” based on linguistic structures, semantic analysis and information theory. At the same time he had to concede in the preface of the book that translation is far more than a science, since it is also a skill and that, in the final analysis, fully satisfactory translation is always an art.

At the outset, he makes a distinction between what he calls the “older focus” and the “new focus” in Bible translation:

The older focus in translating was the form of the message, and translators took particular delight in being able to reproduce stylistic specialties, e.g., rhythms, rhymes, plays on words, chiasmus, parallelism and unusual grammatical structures. The new focus, however, has shifted from the form of the message to the response of the receptor. Therefore what one must determine is the response of the receptor to the translated message. This response must then be compared with the way in which the original receptors presumably reacted to the message when it was given in its original setting.

The “old” question of the correctness of the translation becomes a relative question, since correctness now will depend on the receptor himself. For the dynamic equivalence principle, correctness of the translation must be determined by the extent to which the average reader for which the translation is intended will be likely to understand it correctly.

Moreover, we are not concerned merely with the possibility of his understanding correctly, but with the overwhelming likelihood of it. In other words, we are not content merely to translate so that the average receptor is likely to understand the message; rather we aim to make certain that such a person is very unlikely to misunderstand it.

The important feature of dynamic equivalence is that the original message, its text and its content, should no longer be the primary concern of the translator, but that the primary concern should rather be the response of the receptor (reader) to the translation itself. The primary concern of the translator is then first to ascertain what the response of the original receptor (the reader of the original text) was supposed to be and then to attempt to elicit the same response, by means of a dynamic equivalent translation, in the receptor (reader of the translation). This new focus implies that there will possibly be more than one “correct” translation, depending on the receptor’s own level of understanding. Since the receptor’s response determines the quality of the translation, a translation which a high percentage of people misunderstands is not regarded as a legitimate translation. Faithfulness to the original message no longer is the primary criterion for the quality of the translation:

If we look at translation in terms of the receptors, rather than in terms of their respective forms, then we introduce another point of view; the intelligibility of the translation. Such intelligibility is not, however, to be measured merely in terms of whether the words are understandable and the sentences grammatically constructed, but in terms of the total impact the message has on the one who receives it.

Nida quotes many examples of Bible translations which have become obsolete and which are therefore no longer “legitimate” today because people no longer understand them. He also makes the claim that translations based on the dynamic equivalence principle clearly translate the original in spite of the fact that they take liberty to paraphrase the message they are supposed to carefully preserve through the translation. The book is highly technical and goes into great details about translation techniques which we cannot go into here. Our interest however is in the principle which underlies his whole undertaking. It is quite obvious that translating from one language to another poses many problems: some words simply do not have any direct equivalent in the receptor language, some expressions are idiomatic and cannot be translated literally, some verb tenses simply cannot be translated as such, etc. Nida gives pointed examples of such situations in another one of his books: For example, for the Gbeapo people of Liberia, the word prophet, instead of being translated by “diviner” or “soothsayer” was translated instead as “God’s town-crier” a person the people were well familiar with in their own villages because he is the man who goes through the village ever morning and evening to deliver the orders of the chief and announce important coming events. In another example he mentions that for the Karré people of French equatorial Africa, the best way to translate “comforter” (paraclete) was to use the expression “the one who falls down besides us” because in their country, when a porter carrying a heavy load would collapse on his way and be in danger of being eaten by wild beasts, the person who would fall down beside the exhausted traveler to encourage him to go on, was a “comforter.”

These examples, and many others could be mentioned, clearly show that there are deep differences between languages. However all human languages have common thoughts, common concepts which can be expressed by precise words and sentences. No matter how great the difference, we are still communicating with fellow men, created in the image of God, who communicate with each other by means of words and sentences. Thoughts and propositions expressed in one language can be expressed in another to a high degree of accuracy. The real question before us is: how is this accuracy achieved? It is true that a narrowly literal translation will be obscure because it will deform the text in the receptor language. In this case translation has not been truly achieved. On the other hand a translation which makes systematic use of dynamic equivalence, even if it is well received and appears to be easy to understand by the receptor, may in reality distort and even mutilate the message itself. In such a case the old Italian proverb applies: “traduttore, traditore” (literally translated: translator, traitor). After evaluating the dynamic equivalence principle as a principle, I will try to formulate some (old) principles which when rediscovered, will lead to truer, more faithful translations of the word of God.

Evaluation of the Dynamic Equivalence Principle

That languages are deeply different in the way they are structured and how they communicate the same thoughts is an undeniable fact. In no way is it possible to systematically translate the Bible or any text for that purpose in some direct, literal way. Nor is it our contention that translation should be done in a literal way. In many ways Nida’s analysis and appraisal of the formal equivalence translation is exaggerated and unrealistic. He is somehow setting up a straw man in order to tear it down and justify his own claims for dynamic equivalence. The following definition of formal equivalence, given in his book first mentioned, is more a caricature than a true definition:

Formal equivalence: quality of a translation in which the features of the form of the source text have been mechanically reproduced in the receptor language. Typically, formal correspondence distorts the message, so as to cause the receptor to misunderstand or to labor unduly hard; opposed to dynamic equivalence.

The great translations of the past, such as the Geneva Bible, KJV and ASV, which were not translated on the basis of dynamic equivalence, were nevertheless accurate to a high degree and fully comprehensible to the people who read them at the time, granting that these readers took time, effort and pain to learn God’s word and to understand it. In no way can the translators of these versions be accused of mechanically reproducing the source text in the receptor language. Not only did they not distort the receptor language, in many cases they rather contributed to shape it and to enrich it with expressions which have become an integral part of it. For example, the KJV can truly be considered, by itself, as one of the greatest pieces of literature in the English language, which has helped shape the English language itself. The same can be said of Luther’s translation into German and of many others. Such a definition of formal equivalence is slanted and incorrect. We do need to update our Bible translations when the language evolves, words change meaning, usage is modified by changes in the culture itself. However, this does not justify the systematic use of dynamic equivalence.

It appears that the great demand for paraphrased translations does not come just because archaic translations of the Bible need to be updated or because Bible translators are being faced with difficult problems in the field. It appears rather that a new presupposition has crept into the field of Bible translation. This new presupposition is that the translator is responsible for the way people respond to the message of Scripture. At first it seems quite a legitimate thing to be concerned about the response of the receptor, since an obscure translation may discourage potential readers from reading the word of God. Yet this can be and has been carried too far.

Today the popular consensus demands that nothing should ever cause one to have to seek, to search, to struggle, let alone to pray for understanding, when reading the word of God. Everything, including reading one’s Bible, should come easily, without effort and without pain. Such an emphasis on the human response subtly displaces the emphasis on the word of God itself and its demands on man. By putting the concern for the response of the reader first, the translator subtly excuses himself from treating the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God. Instead of starting with what the word of God says, and how this word must needs be translated as accurately as possible into the receptor language, the translator starts with man and his supposed response to, his assumed understanding of, the word of God. If this response is not adequate, then the message itself is adapted to the end that the reader’s response become acceptable, that he have no struggle, no difficulty to understand what he is reading.

This is not to say that translators who use dynamic equivalence deliberately seek to neglect the word of God, but rather that they have a built in excuse for taking liberty with it. When they are accused of inaccuracy, they can respond by claiming that, at least, the response of the receptor will be the same as what they think the original text elicited from the original reader. However, there is no way to establish what such response historically was from a linguistic viewpoint. We are here in the realm of human speculation and anyone’s guess will be as good as anyone else’s. Furthermore, since the translation’s correctness depends on the people who read it, it will always be possible to claim that the people who find fault with the translation simply are not the right people for whom it was intended. In other words we have a subjective element which is no longer decided on the basis of the original text of the word of God alone. There is an arbitrariness about the process which subtly does away with the authority and uniqueness of the word of God, as given in the original language. The word of God is “squeezed” into a cultural mold which in turn distorts the divine message to suit the reader. After all, if words such as sin, repentance, propitiation, redemption, etc. are no longer part of the current vocabulary then they are to be avoided and dynamic equivalents used to suit the reader.

What happens as a result then, is that the reader will no longer be confronted with what God has authoritatively spoken once for all in his word. The only thing the reader will find in his “equivalent” Bible translation will be what the translator has decided he can respond to within his own frame of mind and cultural horizon. Beyond that his Bible will be of no help to him to go back to the word of God. He does not have a true translation before him but only dynamic equivalencies which, in the mind of the translator, are supposed to elicit some desired responses on his part. For example, when Jesus addresses his mother, at the wedding in Cana (John 2:4) or from the cross (John 19:26), he never says to her “mother” but rather “woman.” Because this may sound harsh to some in our culture today, some translators have chosen to use dynamic equivalence: the NIV uses “dear woman” while the Living Bible simply drops the word altogether. The NIV has added to the word of God, while the Living Bible has taken away from it, in order to accommodate the response of the reader. In the original we have the infallible word of God (and of Christ) and in the translation we have a man made emendation under the pretense that it sounds too harsh for a reader, today, to hear his Lord and Savior say “woman” to his mother! The NKJV simply follows the KJV and translates “woman.”

Another example can be found in 1 Timothy 4:8, where the original text says that “physical training is of little [oligos] value.” The Living Bible uses the dynamic equivalent “bodily exercise is all right” which does not even come close to the meaning of oligos, whereas the NIV translates “physical training is of some value.” Oligos always means “little, small, few, short” etc. but it never means “some.” Could it be that this dynamic equivalence was introduced in this case to cause a desired response in a culture where physical training and sports are highly esteemed if not venerated?

The Greek word sarx has been consistently translated flesh in older translations. The NIV translates it by flesh (33), sinful nature (23), body (20) and by a variety of other words. The use of “sinful nature” for sarx as a dynamic equivalent is highly questionable. After all if the apostle Paul wanted to say sinful nature, in Romans 8 for example, he could have used “physis hamartolos.” Jesus, for example, used “genea hamartolo” to speak of this “sinful generation” (Mk. 8:38). However, Paul chose, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not to use the expression “physis hamartolos.” The dynamic equivalence obscures the fact that the same word sarx was used of the incarnation of Christ, who came in the flesh, in which case the word definitely does not mean the sinful nature.

Dynamic equivalence, also sometimes called “thought for thought” translation, seems to imply that the Holy Spirit has inspired the thoughts of Scripture rather than the words themselves. Such a view of inspiration comes closer to the neo-orthodox view of Scripture, which says that the word of God is contained in Scripture rather than the reformed view which says that the Scripture is the word of God. This would explain why the primary emphasis, in dynamic equivalence translation, has now shifted from the word of God to the response of the reader, since the important thing is the “encounter” the reader has with the thoughts of God rather than his hearing of the word of God. This is not to deny that the reader of Scripture needs to come into the presence of his God and of his Lord through faith in his word. However he needs to have the word of God in order to encounter his God through it. If the word has been approximated or adulterated through a faulty translation, he has no way to hear the word of God, which is sharper than any double-edged sword which penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. (Hebrews 4:12). The sharp double-edged sword has been turned into a wooden sword or even worse, a plastic knife, which is just good enough to spread some butter on a piece of toast.

In all fairness to the translators of the NIV, it must be noted that they have somewhat moved away from dynamic equivalence in the 1984 edition. For example, in the 1978 original edition, Psalm 2:7 read “today I have become your Father” without any footnote comment. In the 1984 edition, the translation “I have begotten you” is offered in a footnote. The two translations are not equivalent, since it is possible to become a father through adoption, without begetting the offspring. Also in the 1984 edition, the word sarx in Romans 8 is translated as “flesh” in a footnote at every occurrence of “sinful nature.” Even better, where the 1978 edition used the first person singular in Ps. 103:1-5 “He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases”, the 1984 revision now reads “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” to stay in line with the original Hebrew.

In many instances the translators of the NIV have been careful to stay away from paraphrase for the sake of paraphrase, which brings the NIV closer to a translation than to a paraphrase. However, it still relies too heavily on dynamic equivalence and this should be pointed out where appropriate, in preaching for example. Furthermore, for serious Bible study, it would be better to use some other translations beside the NIV to have a clearer picture of the original text.

Basic Principles of Bible Translation

Why do we need different Bible translations in the first place? In the beginning of creation, man was speaking only one language, therefore there was no need for translation at all. As men attempted to make a name for themselves and build one world religion around the tower of Babel, God deliberately confused the languages of men to thwart their purpose (Ge. 11:5-7). Once the languages were confused, there was need for translation from one language to another. God chose to make a covenant with and to give his word to his people Israel. At that time Scripture was given to them mostly in Hebrew, with a few portions in Aramaic. God fearers from among the other nations had to come to Jerusalem to worship the true and living God, where the worship was done in the Hebrew language at the national temple. The Old Testament was translated into Greek at the instigation of an Egyptian monarch for the sake of the Jews living abroad.

The commission to translate God’s word into all the languages of the world came at Pentecost, when Christ’s disciples were miraculously empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak the word of God in all the languages spoken by those who were present at Jerusalem at the time. Christ gave the command to make disciples of all nations, which implies that all these nations should have the word of God translated in their own languages. It is important to note that the gift of tongues, on the day of Pentecost, enabled the disciples to speak “other tongues” and to present God’s word in these very tongues. Another gift of the Holy Spirit is the interpretation of tongues, which is the equivalent of what we mean today by “translating” from one language to another. This is our warrant for translating the word of God into all the languages of the world and, at the same time, God gives us the means to do so. God has both mandated and empowered the church for translating his word. So, before we look at “principles” of Bible translation we need to take note that for someone to properly translate Scripture from one language to another, he needs to have the gift of interpretation from the Holy Spirit.

Interpretation of Tongues, the Gift of the Holy Spirit

The gift of interpretation of tongues is to be sought and found out by the church, in the same way the gift of preaching is found out. The one who has the gift must show proficiency in both the original languages and in the receptor language. A “translator” who, in recent years, paraphrased the Bible into French was boasting that it was a great advantage for him not to know any Greek or Hebrew, since in this way he was not likely to introduce Semitisms and Hellenisms in his paraphrase! In my opinion, his paraphrase is more an interpolation from existing translations rather than a translation proper. The translator needs to be a believer himself and to show clear understanding of God’s word. He must also have a full respect for the inerrancy and the inspiration of Scripture. Finally he must exhibit the God given ability to translate clearly and accurately the text of the original into the receptor language. It is a good thing for a translator to seek out the help of someone whose native language is the target language, but even then he must take full responsibility for the translation itself. Bible translation work is hard work and time consuming. In no way am I implying that if the translator has the gift of interpretation, all he now has to do is let his pen run effortlessly on the paper.

Principles of Translation

a) Primary consideration must be given to the fact that it is God’s word which is being translated (interpreted) into the receptor language.

b) The text of the original must be transferred as accurately and as faithfully as possible into the receptor language.

c) No violence should be done to the receptor language, its vocabulary, syntax and grammar must be fully respected, even at the cost of great labor.

d) The translator must not take it upon himself to elucidate the difficulties present in the original text through his translation. He may use footnotes to help the reader, but he should in no case incorporate his comments into the translation itself.

It must be understood that application of these principles will not guarantee, in and of itself, that the translation will be good. These principles are of no value if the translator does not have the gift of the Spirit to translate God’s word and if he is not believer himself, fully committed to the doctrine of inerrancy and inspiration of the word of God in the original manuscripts. His absolute starting point must be right there: His translation of the word of God must not in any way take away from it nor add to it (Rev. 22:18-19). His task is to accurately and faithfully render the meaning of the very words of the original in the receptor language. In no way am I implying that the translation should be literal at all cost, word for word at every point, mechanical in its procedure. Idioms may need to be translated into equivalent idioms, but only in the last resort, and with great care. In other words, dynamic equivalence should in no case be the working norm, but rather the exception.

The real problem I have with the principle of dynamic equivalency, as a principle, is that it has been erected to radically oppose a mere caricature of formal equivalence translation. This is a false dichotomy which puts a false choice before us. It does not belong to the translator to seek to elucidate obscure points or other difficulties by means of his translation. God’s word is difficult for everyone. Any attempt to make it easy and understandable at the expense of faithfulness to the original amounts to treason of the word of God (traduttore, traditore). After all, even those who are fully cognizant of the original languages still have difficulties to understand. At least let them struggle with the difficulties presented by the word of God and not by a faulty translation.

Even what may appear to be a very small deviation in the translation can have far reaching consequences at the doctrinal level. When Jehovah Witnesses translate John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was a god...” a grammatically untenable translation used to support their Arian view of Christ, their small change has devastating consequences. The same can be said of the way they translate Colossians 1:16 “For by him all other things were created...” Through this very tiny change, by addition to the word of God, they obscure the clear teaching of Scripture about the eternal, uncreated existence of the Son of God. Once you have their translation as your Bible, you are left defenseless against their attacks on the deity of Christ. The application of dynamic equivalence may have far-reaching consequences for the future, which are unforeseen today. Once the changes have been read over and over, memorized and have become part of the mind set of the reader, he will have no way to return to the truth for protection and conquest in the name of Christ. He has been betrayed by his very translation of the Bible.

Such a betrayal is not always a deliberate and calculated attempt on the part of the translator to mislead the reader, but it is rather the destructive fruit of a faulty translation principle put into practice. It is the consequence of a wrong priority in the translation process itself. I am persuaded that it is time to uphold true principles of translation and labor toward a change in the world of Bible translation, so that we may once again have reliable, true, accurate and faithful translations of the word of God.