Dynamic equivalence is a method of Bible translation that seeks to reproduce the original text of Scripture using modern language and expression to communicate the message of the Bible. In translating a verse, dynamic equivalent translation is less concerned with providing an exact English word for each word of the original text as it is with communicating the basic message of that verse. Considering the original context, culture, figures of speech, and other effects on language, dynamic equivalence seeks for today’s Bible readers to understand the text in the same way (or with the closest similarity in meaning as possible) as those to whom it was first addressed.
Of the myriad Bible translations, most tend to fall into one of two categories: literal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Literal translations are basically word-for-word translations, providing each word of the original with an equivalent English word, as much as possible. Literal translations seek formal equivalence, a philosophy of translation that strives for a rendering of the original text that is as literal as possible. Examples of formal equivalence or literal translations are the English Standard Version (ESV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), New King James Version (NKJV), King James Version (KJV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and Revised Standard Version (RSV).
Unlike literal (word-for-word) translations, a thought-for-thought, meaning-driven method of translation is used to achieve dynamic equivalence. In recent years, the term functional equivalence has also been applied to dynamic or thought-for-thought translations. Rather than aiming for an exact rendering of the text, the dynamic or functional philosophy of translation focuses on communicating the broader meaning of the original text. Because it moves away from a formal, word-for-word method of translation, the dynamic equivalence method is naturally closer to paraphrasing. The goal is to reproduce the same dynamic impact the text had on its original audience. The New International Readers Version (NIrV), Revised English Bible (REB), Good News Translation (GNT), New Living Translation (NLT), and Contemporary English Version (CEV) are dynamic (or functional equivalence) translations.
The goal of most Bible translators is to be as faithful as possible to the original meaning of the text (if not the original words) while using language that is as clearly understood and natural sounding to the modern reader as the original text was to the original readers. Neither method of translation is “better” than the other. The difference boils down to which language receives the deference—either the original language or the language of today’s recipients.
Literal translations make the original language more transparent but can sound awkward to the modern ear and therefore require more clarification and explanation. Dynamic translations tend to be easier for modern readers to understand but may hide or lose some of the ancient elements of the text, such as cultural customs, wordplays, allusions, and figures of speech. While different in their approaches, both philosophies of translation endeavor to be faithful to the original text.
Here are a couple examples of the difference between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence in translation:
Very literal: “For God did so love the world, that His Son—the only begotten—He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.”
Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
Formal equivalence: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
New King James Version (NKJV)
Dynamic equivalence: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
New Living Translation (NLT)
Formal equivalence: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Dynamic equivalence: “The LORD is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”
Good News Translation (GNT)
A pitfall of the dynamic equivalence method of translation is that it leads to interpretive decisions that can sometimes miss the point of the original text and introduce foreign ideas. If the translators take too much liberty with the text, interpretive errors may prevent a faithful communication of God’s Word. Some subjectivity naturally exists within dynamic equivalence, allowing for widely varying versions of the same text. For example, consider the major differences between these two translations of 2 Corinthians 5:8, both using the dynamic equivalence method:
“Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.”
“There is no doubt that we live with a daring passion, but in the end we prefer to be done from this body so that we can be at home with the Lord.”
Idioms and other figures of speech that are unique to the culture provide the most vivid comparisons between dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence in translations. For example, when Moses throws the tree into the bitter waters of Marah in Exodus 15:25, the NASB, a literal translation, says that “the waters became sweet.” On the other hand, the dynamic NIV says that “the water became fit to drink.” What is literally “sweet” in the Hebrew language stays “sweet” in formal equivalence but becomes “fit to drink” in dynamic equivalence. Both translations are accurate in their own way. The water became potable, whether it is called “sweet” water or simply “fit to drink” water.
A third philosophy of Bible translations seeks a combined approach, using word-for-word, literal translation whenever possible and a thought-for-thought, dynamic translation when necessary. This mixed method has also been called “optimal equivalence.” Proponents of this approach believe it produces the best balance of accuracy and readability. The New International Version (NIV) is considered a combined translation, placing an emphasis on dynamic equivalence while at the same time consistently seeking formal equivalence. The New English Translation (NET), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), and New Century Bible (NCV) are all combinations of formal and dynamic equivalence.
A wise approach to Bible study and the reading of Scripture is to use a mix of several different translations including literal, dynamic, and combined translations. By comparing the texts against each other, serious Bible readers will best understand the true and full meaning of God’s Word.