Formal Equivalence Translation Theory: Bill Mounce

Bible translation is the arduous work that undergirds all faithful Bible-based ministry.  Without our translations of the Bible, access to God’s word would be restricted to an elite class of people who possess the necessary educations to read the original languages.  Yet, God has preserved his word and provided us access to Scripture through the translations that we rely on everyday.

For this reason, it is important to have some understanding about the nature, principles, and processes that produce our Bible translations.  Some familiarity with these concepts will aid our use of these different translations and facilitate deeper study of God’s word as we learn how to penetrate deeper and deeper into the originally intended meaning.

Formal Equivalent Translation Theory

by Bill Mounce

Formal equivalent translations try to reflect the formal structures of the original text, making the translation “transparent” to the original. This means translating indicative verbs as indicative, participles as participles, and trying to use the same English word for the same Greek word if possible (“concordance”). When it makes no sense to translate word-for-word, the translators ask what the verse means, and then how can they convey the same meaning while adhering as closely as possible to the formal Greek structures? The ESV, NASB, and KJV fall into this camp.

The problem is that this admission — that meaning is primary to form when the words have no meaning in and of themselves — is itself a refutation of the basic tenet of formal equivalence. If the meaning of the sentence is the ultimate criterion, then meaning becomes the ultimate goal of translation. It may give some people comfort to think that their translation reflects the underlying Greek and Hebrew structures, but if they don’t know Greek and Hebrew then they can’t know when the translations in fact do reflect that structure. In every single verse, there will be differences between the Greek and the English. All translations are interpretive.

The fact of the matter is that there is not a single verse in the Bible that goes word-for-word. The differences in vocabulary and grammar simply do not allow this. No one translates ho theos as “the God.” Rather, they all drop out the article ho, add in a preposition “of,” and then have to decide whether to write “God” or “god” for theos. No translation translates every initial conjunction in a sentence. No translation always indicates the expected answer of a question prefaced with ou or . No Bible translation goes word-for-word.

Concordance

By staying as close as possible to the Hebrew and Greek words, formal equivalent translations carefully honor the dividing line between translation and commentary. This is commendable, as is the attempt to provide concordance to the English reader.

But concordance can be tricky. One of the most difficult passages to translate is 1 Timothy 2:17 because we no longer have the word to translate anthrōpos, often translated as “man” or “mankind,” which Paul is using to tie the passage together. Paul’s basic argument is that the Ephesians should pray for all “men” (v 2) because God wishes all “men” to be saved (v 4), and there is only one mediator between God and “men,” the “man” Christ Jesus (v 5). Only the NASB keeps the concordance, but thereby suggests to some modern readers that v 2 says the Ephesians should pray for all males. Even the ESV, which has a strong commitment to concordance, translates πάντων ἀνθρώπων as “all people” (v 2) with a footnote on verse 5. But God wants all people to be saved, not just all men, and the point is not that Christ Jesus is a male but that he is part of humanity.

Another issue with concordance is that it can place too much weight on one gloss of a word and can thereby mislead. The NASB translates polis every time as “city.” This is helpful for the informed English reader watching for concordance, but the “city” of Nazareth was no more than a wide spot in the road inhabited by 600 people and hence the practice misinforms. Nazareth was a “town,” not a “city.”

Teachers know that sarx occurs 147 times in the Greek Testament and is translated 24 different ways in the ESV (excluding plurals). We know that logos occurs 334 times and is translated 36 different ways by the NASB. These examples demonstrate that concordance may be an ideal for which to strive, but it is frequently impossible to achieve.

It is often said that translations should honor the syntax of the Greek, or what is called “syntactic correspondence.” If God inspired the author to use a participle, then we should use a participle. If God inspired a prepositional phrase, we should not turn it into a relative clause. The problem of course is that in reality not a single translation does this. Every single one abandons syntactic correspondence when necessary to convey meaning.

We see this for example when syntax is changed to complete an anacoluthon such as 1 Tim 1:3. Both the NASB and the ESV change the participle προσμεῖναι to an imperative. “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus.”

I favor syntactic correspondence when it accurately conveys meaning. I especially want to know when a verbal form is dependent or independent. But the point of translation is meaning, and sometimes meaning is best conveyed with different parts of speech and different grammatical constructions.

Inspiration

Some claim that formal equivalent translations have a higher view of inspiration, recognizing each word as a word from God and hence worthy of translation.

When modern translators do not know for sure what a word or phrase means, I agree that there is value in simply translating the words and leaving interpretation up to the reader. We do not know what “Selah” means in the Psalms, but most translations still include it.

However, an insistence on translating every Greek and Hebrew word shows a defective view of language and how it conveys meaning. My view of “verbal plenary inspiration” means that the meaning conveyed by every word is from God and should be reflected in the translation; however, if inspiration applied only to the words, then none of us would or should be reading English Bibles since those inspired words are in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Consider the story of the prodigal son. When the father saw his prodigal son returning, he ran and “fell on his neck” (KJV, Luke 15:20). While that is a word-for-word translation, it certainly is not what the text means. Even the NASB, the most formal equivalent translation in English, says that the father “embraced” him, with the footnote, “Lit fell on his neck.” If that is what it literally means, then why not translate it as such? The NET’s footnote is much better: “Grk ‘he fell on his neck.’” The idiom means the father “embraced” (ESV, NLT) or hugged his son (NET). The NIV is clever in preserving the idiom in an understandable way; “threw his arms around his neck” (also CSB).

A translation should make sense, written in the vernacular of the receptor language. Meaning can be conveyed by a word, but usually it is conveyed by a group of words. Insisting that formal equivalent translations have a higher view of inspiration reflects a defective view of how language conveys meaning.

For my fuller paper on this topic, click here.

BillMounce-200Bill Mounce is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), served on the translation committee for the ESV, and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He also served as a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Language Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and a professor at Azusa Pacific University.

 

MY CONCLUDING NOTES

Note: My conclusions are solely my own and do not represent the opinions of Bill Mounce

Formal equivalent translations try to reflect the formal structures of the original text, making the translation “transparent” to the original… translating indicative verbs as indicative, participles as participles, and trying to use the same English word for the same Greek word if possible (“concordance”)…

The formal equivalence philosophy recognizes that language communicates meaning on several different levels.  This approach tries to preserve the meaning that is conveyed through grammar and syntactic correspondence as much as possible.  This means that these translations excel at giving informed readers a “peek under the hood” of the text.  These translations also convey important literary markers that help readers trace the various arguments and propositions of the text.  Likewise, they do a better job of ensuring transparency about the underlying word being translated by seeking to translate “the same Greek word with the same English word” wherever possible.

However, as Dr. Mounce points out, there are no English translations that actually achieve one-to-one correspondence, which means that some knowledge about the underlying Greek and Hebrew is useful when reading these translations in order to get the most out of them.

The NASB remains my primary translation for exegetical study precisely for these reasons; so much of the underlying form gets buried in other translations, but the NASB allows me to quickly locate and investigate key aspects of the underlying text that are vital to exegetical study.

Unfortunately, these advantages are lost for those who can’t study Greek or Hebrew because all translations regularly deviate from the original form of the text and some knowledge of the underlying languages is necessary to check these deviations.  This is why translations like the NASB and ESV are favorites for seminary students studying Greek or Hebrew.

All translations are interpretive.

The significance of this statement escaped me for many years and created a vulnerability in my character to become arrogant in my pride towards other brothers and sisters who used “inferior” translations. Since I’ve come to recognize the merit of this point, I’ve seen other brothers and sisters act towards their brethren the way that I once did; I’ve seen fights and heated quarrels between God’s children based on whose translation is “more literal”.

Every translation includes some degree of interpretation.  We see the degree of each translation’s interpretations in different ways – some of which are more obvious than others – but every translation makes substantial interpretations in every verse of the Bible.

Formal translations use the fewest words possible to carry the meaning into the host language.

By staying as close as possible to the Hebrew and Greek words, formal equivalent translations carefully honor the dividing line between translation and commentary.

One of the strengths of formal translations is that they do a great job in guarding against translator commentary.  Indeed, there are many commentaries on the Bible masquerading as “translations”; they employ such a high degree of interpretation and contextualization that they cease to qualify as true “translations” and begin to carry extra meaning that is altogether foreign to the original text.

Formal translations do not commit this error as much because their translation philosophy places a high premium on “concordance”.  In fact, I would argue that formal translations seem more prone to cutting out too much meaning than they are to adding new meaning into the text.

Another issue with concordance is that it can place too much weight on one gloss of a word and can thereby mislead.

The “gloss” of a word refers to the center of its meaning used in defining or interpreting its meaning during translation.

While the ideal of translating the same Greek word with the same English word is important because it allows the English reader to discover important trends and parallels in Biblical thought, reducing words in translation to their gloss meaning can be misleading because the gloss cannot take into account things like the authors “sense of the word” or its function in complex contexts.  This is why translators cannot (and do not) always use a word’s gloss when translating the text.

In other words, the strength of formal translations is also their weakness.  While I still use the NASB as my base translation because I know it always strives to use the same English word to translate the same Greek word wherever possible, I also use versions like the CSB, NET, and NIV because I know they will shed light on the complex and nuanced functions of a word within any given context.

It is often said that translations should honor the syntax of the Greek, or what is called “syntactic correspondence.” If God inspired the author to use a participle, then we should use a participle. If God inspired a prepositional phrase, we should not turn it into a relative clause. The problem of course is that in reality not a single translation does this… The point of translation is meaning, and sometimes meaning is best conveyed with different parts of speech and different grammatical constructions.

The views we hold about Biblical “translation” and “inspiration” have such profound impacts on one another that they are quite difficult to separate from each other.  The formal equivalence philosophy of translation says that when God inspired the Biblical author to use a participle, we should translate the text with a participle.

This view is represented in Jesus’ sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17,

In fact, many people use formal translations because of their convictions about Biblical inspiration.  For example, where Jesus assures his audience that “not even a jot or a tittle” would be done away with from the Law until all things were fulfilled.  This verse goes a long way in informing our view about the divine origins of Scripture; God presided over every aspect of Scriptures meaning!  From the grand themes of Scripture all the way down to the smallest details of grammar and punctuation, God carefully guarded the revelation of his word to humanity.

However, we must overlook one very important point: this text does not inform our understanding about Bible translation.  Jesus was not addressing how the Law should be translated, he used the means by which Scripture was inspired to speak about the means by which itwoul d be fulfilled.  Unfortunately, many people assume that Bible translation must happen in the same way that Bible inspiration happened.  But the problem with this kind of thinking is that this would require that God also inspire our Bible translators!

There is no translation on earth that directly translates every individual word, sense, mood, tense, number, gender, case, (and so on) contained in the text because the result of such an endeavor would produce a Bible that was utter nonsense to the English reader.  In fact, such an endeavor would be doomed from the start because Greek has grammatical functions and tenses that English does not possess.

Some claim that formal equivalent translations have a higher view of inspiration, recognizing each word as a word from God and hence worthy of translation.

Formal translation hold the word of God in high esteem and attempt to be faithful to God’s word in even the smallest detail, but this should not give us the impression that translations produced by other translation philosophies do not have such high esteem for God’s word.

When studying how God inspired his word and the various translation philosophies by which God’s word is carried into “every tongue, tribe, and nation” on earth, it is necessary that we guard against the kind of “knowledge [that] puffs up”; our goal in studying the nature of God’s word is not to become less like the humble Son of God, but more like him!

Once we form faulty constructs in our mind about the relationships between Biblical inspiration and translation, we will begin to act upon those faulty constructs.  I have heard people slander, accuse, and malign the Bible translators behind versions like the NIV based solely on their supposedly “leaving out” a participle.  And I have seen bitter divisions within the body be justified based on this theory that “literal translations” don’t “leave anything out” and “dynamic translations” sin by “adding and taking away from God’s word”.

My view of “verbal plenary inspiration” means that the meaning conveyed by every word is from God and should be reflected in the translation; however, if inspiration applied only to the words, then none of us would or should be reading English Bibles since those inspired words are in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

One of the most remarkable and awesome things about the nature of God’s word is that it has been divinely fashioned in such a way that it can truly reach “every tongue, tribe, and nation” on earth.  Even languages that cannot support abstract verbs like those that appear in 1st Corinthians 13:4-8 (i.e. each proposition defines “love” with a “verb”); the beauty and glory of God’s word is still able to enter such languages and transform their understanding of “love” into the beauty of Christ’s holiness!

The means of divine inspiration enabled the divine preservation and promulgation of God’s word throughout history and across the whole world.

What a marvelous thing!

A translation should make sense, written in the vernacular of the receptor language. Meaning can be conveyed by a word, but usually it is conveyed by a group of words. Insisting that formal equivalent translations have a higher view of inspiration reflects a defective view of how language conveys meaning.

My primary translation of the Bible was the NASB for almost the first four years of my ministry until I switched to the NKJV and read from it for another three years; my faith was shaped by formal translations, and I have never found these translations to be too “wooden” or nonsensical.  For me, reading these translations is like a second nature.  There is a certain beauty and majesty conveyed by these translations that others often times lack.  But translations must make sense to their reader if they are going to successfully carry the original meaning, and there are many people for whom these formal translations do not make sense.  Their renderings sound foreign and strange to their ears, and where I hear glory and majesty, they hear chaos and confusion.

Take for example the Wycliffe Bible, the group of Bibles translated under the direction of John Wycliffe that laid the foundation of the Reformation, which radically changed the world in ways that are still felt today.

Wycliffe’s work mightily conveyed the inspired word of God in his day in ways that shook the very foundations of the Catholic Church, yet the impact of the Wycliffe translation is mitigated today by the very fact that it doesn’t make sense to us:

1 Corinthians 13:1-8 (Wycliffe Bible) 13 If I speak with tongues of men and of angels, and I have not charity, I am made as brass sounding, or a cymbal tinkling. 2 And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries, and all knowing, and if I have all faith, so that I move hills from their place, and I have not charity, I am nought. 3 And if I part all my goods into the meats of poor men, and if I betake my body, so that I burn, and if I have not charity, it profiteth to me nothing. 4 Charity is patient, it is benign; charity envieth not, it doeth not wickedly, it is not blown, 5 it is not covetous, it seeketh not those things that be his own, it is not stirred to wrath, it thinketh not evil, 6 it joyeth not on wickedness, but it joyeth together to truth; 7 it suffereth all things, it believeth all things, it hopeth all things, it sustaineth all things. 8 Charity falleth never down, whether prophecies shall be voided, either languages shall cease, either science shall be destroyed.

Unless someone had significant exposure to literature from this era, or perhaps already knew the content of these texts from modern translations, it would be very difficult to make out what Paul is saying in this discourse on “charity”.

Even though this translation once conveyed the inspired word of God to those who read it, the inspired word of God that has the power to renew and transform our understanding of love in the beauty of Christ’s holiness is lost in this translation to our modern ears because it is nonsensical.

Translations must make sense to those who read them, otherwise they do not carry the message by which people can be saved.

2 Replies to “Formal Equivalence Translation Theory: Bill Mounce”

  1. Thank you! As you point out, God one of the means by which God has preserved his word is the multitude of witnesses who review and examine Scripture under the conviction that the original must be faithfully preserved and transferred. Our translations (especially taken together) represent the inerrant and infallible word of life given to us by God.

    What a privilege to read the living words of God our Creator!

    Like

  2. Thats a wonderful bit of work. Well done. I trust the many translators because while I believe people have bias, I think enough who can have gone over this sort of thing and are satisfied the work is pretty well done, enough that a guy like me can preach from it.
    Some might think I have a brain injury because of my lack of talent in this area, but Each has their own gifts and talents. I find those who hate on the poor or gossip about others in the church as those who have the brain injury, but who knows they might know geek. I mean Greek.
    I want to thank you for your talents and If you had my skills you would be my equal. LoL, said intentional, we all have talents and as an equal in my field, I thank you for your excellence.

    Liked by 1 person

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