I’ve written before about the difference between formal and functional (or dynamic, or equivalence) translation:
Now there are two ways you can translate from one language to another. You can choose a formal translation, which tries for a word-to-word translation, as literal as possible, so as to translate what the original text said. Or you can choose a functional translation, which tries to translate not only the words but the idioms and diction into the target enculturated language, so as to translate what the original hearers heard. To give you a feel for this, a functional translation of the Spanish phrase “De nada” is “You’re welcome”; a formal translation is “It’s nothing” (or even more literally, “of nothing”).
Rev. Bosco Peters, in his plea to leave the Bible alone, doesn’t use these terms, but seems to be strongly advocating that only formal translation should ever be used in Biblical translations. He correctly and eloquently observes that
The Bible is a complex collection of ancient documents from across a period of over a thousand years written in contexts and languages that are immensely alien.
and argues that Bible translations should make that clear.
I tend to disagree, and believe there’s a place for both. I’ve been taught that one should rely only on formal translations for serious exegetical work, of course, and I consult them first. But I find that a functional translation can also reveal nuances or emphases that supplements my reading of the text, providing information that I would otherwise miss because I can’t read the original languages.
I don’t read the Bible only as a scholar, of course, but also devotionally, and for this purpose I turn to functional translations first. My marked-up New American Bible (formal translation) lives with all my theology books; but my New Jerusalem Bible (functional translation) is in the living room, with a slightly tatty, “well-loved” dust jacket.
To be fair to Rev. Bosco, he does acknowledge that “such a [functional(?) – but see Bosco’s clarification below] translation may be safe, useful, and effective in the hands of someone with good training and formation”, and I figure I’m in that category. But, he goes on say,
generally it reinforces the colossal mistake that we can pick up the Bible and accept what it says at face value in the same manner that we would a contemporary reliable history book.
This is a good point, and a reasonable concern, especially for someone in ministry whose primary concern is obviously going to be pastoral.
It’s the “history” in that mistaken impression that bothers me more than the “contemporary” does, and I wonder if the explicitly narrative approach taken by the publishers of the soon-to-be-available The Voice Bible: Step into the Story of Scripture” would allay some of Rev. Bosco’s concerns.
I’m really excited about this translation, actually, and am looking forward to adding it to my Bible collection, because along with biblical scholars, the translation team included “pastors, writers, musicians, poets, and artists.” It promises to provide background information that the original readers would have known intuitively, clearly identified by italicized text. And the decision to use a “screenplay format” is fascinating as a device to tacitly encourage a narrative approach to scripture, as the subtitle encourages explicitly, and ought to subtly steer readers away from approaching the Bible as a history book.
I believe a narrative approach to scripture is very productive, both theologically and devotionally or pastorally. A Bible that encourages this, and in Rev. Bosco’s words, provides additional help for people to “find their way into this magnificent collection,” sounds like good news to me.