Bible Translations: Formal or Functional?

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.

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7 Responses to Bible Translations: Formal or Functional?

  1. Bosco Peters says:

    Thanks for picking up my concerns here.

    Just a point of clarification. I have no issue with the principles of dynamic equivalence in a translation like the Jerusalem Bible. Especially with the involvement of people like Tolkein, and with some of the best notes any study bible has, this is a worthy translation of its period. In fact I made no mention of dynamic equivalence.

    Sharply distinguishing formal and dynamic equivalence misunderstands the process of translation, especially for those who are not multi-lingual. It gives the impression that word-for-word translation is possible. Generally, it is not. Formal equivalence mostly has an element of dynamic equivalence.

    What I was actually saying, where you have inserted “functional” into my quote was:

    “I am forever being bombarded by the next translation of the Bible that makes it read like a contemporary story. It isn’t! Such a translation may be safe, useful, and effective in the hands of someone with good training and formation – but 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.”

    I cannot judge whether the Voice is such a translation. I received an email from them which said it included a link to the New Testament. I cannot see the link. I have tried to contact them via email and twitter – but still do not have the link.

    I am generally wary of yet another English-language translation.

    Blessings

    Bosco

    • In fact I made no mention of dynamic equivalence.

      Indeed you did not, and I initially began to post a comment asking about how the formal/functional distinction mapped onto the point you were making, before the comment grew into a post of its own.

      Thank you for stopping by to clarify, and I apologize for unintentionally excerpting your quote in a misleading way. I’ve updated my bracketed interpolation accordingly.

      Sharply distinguishing formal and dynamic equivalence misunderstands the process of translation, especially for those who are not multi-lingual. It gives the impression that word-for-word translation is possible. Generally, it is not. Formal equivalence mostly has an element of dynamic equivalence.

      Hm, that is a good point, thank you. I don’t tend to think of “formal” as meaning literal word-for-word, but I’ve had significant exposure to a few other languages, even though I’m not fluent in any of them.

      I can see a preview of (the Kindle edition of) a portion of The Voice New Testament through the Amazon “look inside” feature – it pops up one of those floating windows, and if I scroll down about halfway I get the first chapter of Matthew.

      It’s sometimes hard to tell what’s text and what’s commentary in this preview, though, presumably because the Kindle edition is quite limited in layout options.

  2. Andrew says:

    I find issues of translation fascinating. Even the simplest passages encode so much information about a culture, that a formal translation risks missing the point, and a functional one risks changing the point (is “It was no trouble,” “No problem!, or “No worries, mate” a better functional translation of “de nada”?). As I’ve mentioned to you, Isaac Asimov wrote a wonderful essay about the stories of Ruth and the Good Samaritan (called “Lost in Non-Translation”) in which he argued that by not translating the term “Moabite” in Ruth’s story, and by the radical change in the connotations of the word “Samaritan” modern folks can’t help but miss the points of those stories. Likewise, the interpretation of Genesis will radically change depending on whether “ADM” is translated as “Adam” (a word understood as a first name in modern society) or as “humankind.”

    Douglas Hofstadter wrote a whole book about the philosophy of translation (called “Le Ton beau de Marot”)

    Thanks for talking about the upcoming “The Voice Bible” – it sounds like it could be very illuminating.

    • I agree, Andy – language is so much more than just the words we speak or write! It was radio televangelists from whom I had my first exposure to any cultural background about how Samaritans (or Ninevites) functioned for the original hearers of those stories, in “spit on the floor when you mention their names” terms.

      And I must credit Amy-Jill Levine for the most powerful retelling of the Good Samaritan story I’ve ever heard. First she explained to us that “A Kohen (priest), a Levite (scribe), and an Israelite” was the common way to divide the people of Israel into three categories, and was a common and expected idiom of the time: so that Jesus’ original hearers would have been startled when this expectation was not fulfilled. Then she retold the parable, setting it in modern day Jerusalem, with

      First, a member of the Likud party… and passed by on the other side.
      Then, a soldier from the Israeli military… and passed by on the other side.
      Finally, a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization…

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