Bible translation (and any other kind of translation) is both an art and a science. There is no one-to-one correspondence of words between languages that results in a coherent translation. Even in the examples of “literal, word-for-word” translations, provided below, the translator is still making a decision about which English word conveys the original meaning the most accurately.
A good Bible translation seeks to communicate the meaning of the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic in a way that is also readable in the modern receptor language. What may be communicated with one word in the original language may take three words in the receptor language, or vice versa. In addition to different grammatical structures, there will also be differences in the social, cultural, and historical contexts. Not all language is to be understood “literally” because people use similes, metaphors, and idioms that cannot be understood literally and may be misunderstood in different languages without further explanation.
For instance, a headline might declare, “Angels Destroy Pirates.” Most people in the U.S. would understand that this is not reporting some cosmic war between Good and Evil. The Angels and the Pirates are two baseball teams, not literal pirates or angels. Furthermore, the native reader would understand that destroy in this context means “to win the game by a decisive margin.” No one was killed in the contest.
In this example, a formal equivalence translation would simply translate the headline with words in the receptor language that match as closely as possible, even though the readers might not understand the meaning behind it. Since “Angels” and “Pirates” are proper nouns, a formally equivalent translation might not even translate those words but simply leave them in the original language. The translators would rely on the reader to research or a teacher or commentator to explain the background and thus bring out the full meaning. The translator might also add an explanatory footnote, but the text would not include any extra information not found in the original.
The alternative would be what is called a “dynamic equivalence” translation, which would attempt to preserve the original meaning but add additional details to help make the meaning more clear. The headline in our example might read something like “A baseball team called ‘the Angels’ soundly defeated another baseball team called ‘the Pirates.’” If the readers would not know what baseball was, the translation might add even more details.
There is always a difficult balance between preserving the meaning and preserving the wording. The example above is relatively straightforward—but what about when complex or controversial theological terms and ideas are involved? The formal equivalence philosophy of translation seeks to insert as little change to the text as possible (minimizing human explanation), while still communicating the meaning, even if it means the reader may have to do some research. In the world of English Bible translations, the KJV, NASB, and ESV all follow the formal equivalence philosophy of translation.
Some verse comparisons between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence translations might help. Jesus told the parable about a king who forgave his servant a great amount of money. However, in Matthew 18:28, the servant did not extend the same grace to a fellow servant:
Literal, word-for-word translation:
“Having gone out however the servant same found one the fellow servants of him who was owing him a hundred denarii and having seized him he was choking saying pay if any you owe.”
(This, of course, is difficult to read and make sense of, so a smoother translation is necessary.)
The Message (dynamic equivalence):
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’”
(The relatively small sum is compared to “a hundred thousand dollars” in verse 24.)
The New Living Translation (dynamic equivalence):
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.”
(The thousand-dollar sum is compared to the “millions of dollars” the servant owed the king in verse 24.)
English Standard Version (formal equivalence):
“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’”
(A footnote explains that a denarius was a day’s wages for a laborer. This sum is compared to 10,000 talents that the servant owed the king, and a footnote explains that a talent was about 20 years’ wages.)
New American Standard Bible (formal equivalence):
“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’”
(A footnote explains what a denarius is. The NASB translates the money term the same as the ESV, but a footnote explains that 10,000 talents would be the equivalent 60,000,000 days’ salary. Also, two of the words are in italics, indicating that there is no equivalent word in the Greek; the English words have been added to give clarity.)
In this instance, the formally equivalent translations sound more obscure; however, the reader, by doing a little research, will find that the debt that the servant owed the king was far greater than “a hundred thousand dollars” (The Message) or even the “millions of dollars” (NLT). The debt was the amount that a worker would earn in 200,000 years—in other words, it was an absolutely impossible amount to repay. Likewise, the amount that the second servant owed was about a hundred days’ wages—much more than the $10 of The Message and probably more than the “few thousand dollars” of the NLT.
In the above examples, the differences are mainly stylistic. But sometimes there are more difficult passages where a formal equivalence translation preserves the wording so that the student can come to independent conclusions about the meaning. We’ll take 1 Corinthians 11:11–12 as an example:
Literal, word-for-word translation:
However neither woman separate from man nor man separate from woman in the Lord. Just as for the woman of the man so also the man by the woman the however all things of God.
(Again, such a “literal” translation is of little help.)
“Neither man nor woman can go it alone or claim priority. Man was created first, as a beautiful shining reflection of God—that is true. But the head on a woman’s body clearly outshines in beauty the head of her ‘head,’ her husband. The first woman came from man, true—but ever since then, every man comes from a woman! And since virtually everything comes from God anyway, let’s quit going through these ‘who’s first’ routines.”
(Here the translator has taken some concepts from verses 7 and 8 and worked them into verses 11–12 because he thinks this provides a good explanation. He has also added an application that he thinks is implied.)
New Living Translation:
“But among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women. For although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God.”
(This dynamic translation is much closer to formal equivalence than The Message, but the prepositional phrase among the Lord’s people is the translators’ explanation of the formally equivalent in the Lord.)
English Standard Version:
“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”
New American Standard Bible:
However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.
(The NASB and ESV are very similar here with only slight variations.)
Every translation is to some extent an interpretation, but a formal equivalence translation attempts to minimize the interpretation/explanation in the text. The goal of formal equivalence is to preserve the original wording and grammatical forms to the greatest extent possible, while still providing a translation that is intelligible and readable.