Bible Translation: Dynamic Equivalence and Natural Language – Dr. Mounce

Bible translation is the 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 the individuals who possess the necessary educations to read the original languages. Yet, God has preserved his word and provided access to his eternal word through the translations that we rely on everyday.

For this reason it is important that we understand 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.

This series is based off Dr. Bill Mounce’s blog series on Bible translations.

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.

 

We will look at Dr. Mounce’s blog post series and then provide additional commentary to explore the various concepts of Bible translation presented herein.

Functional (or Dynamic) Equivalence and Natural Language, by Bill Mounce

People often lump functional equivalent translations like the NIV with natural language translations like the NLT, and then critique the former based on the latter. But these are two distinctly different translation theories and should be kept separate, although obviously they share much in common.

Functional equivalent translations argue that the purpose of translation is to convey the meaning of the original text into the target language. This may mean that a participle is translated as an indicative verb, or that a few Greek words are passed over (such as conjunctions) or translated with punctuation marks in order to produce proper English style. This also introduces an additional amount of interpretation, which can be problematic. However, it also produces a more understandable translation, which is after all the purpose of translation. However, these versions can still be somewhat idiomatic, not speaking totally natural English but adhering somewhat to the underlying Greek and Hebrew structures. The NIV, and at times the CSB and NET, fit into this camp.

These translations are more willing to add words when they are needed to convey meaning, something even formal equivalent translations regularly do. Consider Matthew 10:29. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (NRSV, also NASB, ESV, KJV). “Apart from your Father” what? While this is word-for-word, it doesn’t mean anything, and so some translations add words based on the context of the verse: “your Father’s care” (NIV); “your Father’s consent” (CSB); “your Father’s will” (NET); “your Father knowing it” (NLT).

Greek often uses a pronoun where English needs the antecedent. This will often happen when a long Greek sentences is divided into shorter English sentences. In Ephesians 1:7, the ESV supplies, “In him” where the Greek says “In whom.” “In him (ἐν ᾧ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” This is acceptable translation method.

Many who adhere to the functional view of translation see little meaning in the grammatical structures of the original text. I take issue with this, especially in reference to dependent and independent constructions. Not always, but certainly many times, the flow of the author’s thought is most clearly seen in the main sentence (the independent construction), and the dependent constructions are secondary, modifying thoughts.

The best example is the Great Commission. Despite the many sermons you and I have heard from missionaries, the Great Commission is not, “Go!” There actually is only one imperative: “Make disciples.” In order for us to do this, Jesus supplies three modifying thoughts (dependent participial phrases) to tell us that this involves going (necessary to reach all people groups), baptizing (i.e., evangelism), and “teaching” (i.e., discipleship). For us to make disciples, we must go, evangelize, and teach. Some meaning is being conveyed by the structure, and I think that’s significant.

What about natural language translations? They are an extension of functional equivalence but see no value in the formal structures, and they try to repeat the same message in the full idiom of the target language. Eugene Nida says that the purpose of a translation is to transport “the message of the original text … into the receptor language [such] that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors.”  In other words, when we read it in English, we should hear it in the same way the original Greek audience heard it. The best example of a natural language translation is the NLT. There’s much I enjoy in the NLT. I often read it to see what a highly qualified group of scholars believes the biblical text means, and it rarely disappoints.

However, I do have two issues with natural language translations. If I read a modern translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and it reads so naturally that I couldn’t tell it was speaking of a person who lived two millennia ago in a different culture, I would be suspicious of the translation. There is something significant about entering into the historical context in order to understand its meaning. After all, Christianity is rooted in history. Unlike most other religions, if these things did not happen — the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus — then we believe in vain. They did happen, but they happened in a different time, in a different culture, and are told to us in a different language. I think it’s helpful to feel the cultural differences.

The second problem I see with natural language translation is that they’ll often introduce ideas simply not in the biblical text in order to achieve natural English style and readability. As a result, readers don’t know if they are reading the Bible or the translators’ additions. This is the basic reason why I separate functional equivalent translations like the NIV, which is quite restrained in what it adds, and a natural language translation like the NLT, which is comfortable adding a significant amount of extra information.

For example, Luke tells us that the sailors, fearing they would run aground on the Syrtis, lowered the sea anchor (Acts 27:17); that’s what the Greek says. The NLT writes, “They were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast.” Assuming the Greek readers would understand “the Syrtis” as “the sandbars off the African coast,” the NLT does achieve its goal of conveying the full meaning of the original, but to my mind this goes beyond the role of a translation. Certainly not all ancient people knew there was a sandbar in that area, and Luke did not feel it was important to add this fact, assuming “run aground” was sufficient to convey the meaning. I hope I never hear a sermon on “the sandbars … off the African coast.” I can just hear it now: “What are the sandbars in your life?” “Where is your African coast?”

One point I want to emphasize in closing is that functional equivalent and natural language translations are two distinct approaches to translation. While there is much overlap, as there is between formal and functional, at their core functional equivalent and natural language translations have different goals. Often people lump them together, and even worse critique a functional equivalent translation using examples from the NLT. Let’s keep them separate.

MY CONCLUDING NOTES

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

People often lump functional equivalent translations like the NIV with natural language translations like the NLT, and then critique the former based on the latter. But these are two distinctly different translation theories and should be kept separate, although obviously they share much in common.

Dr. Mounce is making an important point that often gets overlooked; many people conflate translations like the NIV with works like the NLT, and then dismiss functional translations based on assumptions that are not accurate about them. Unfortunately, the strongest critics in such cases are often (not always) those who cannot read Greek and have never done any work in translation themselves.

Before we can accurately criticize Bible translations, we must first understand the translation philosophies by which they are produced.

Functional equivalent translations argue that the purpose of translation is to convey the meaning of the original text into the target language. This may mean that a participle is translated as an indicative verb, or that a few Greek words are passed over (such as conjunctions) or translated with punctuation marks in order to produce proper English style. This also introduces an additional amount of interpretation, which can be problematic. However, it also produces a more understandable translation, which is after all the purpose of translation. However, these versions can still be somewhat idiomatic, not speaking totally natural English but adhering somewhat to the underlying Greek and Hebrew structures. The NIV, and at times the CSB and NET, fit into this camp.

The terms “functional equivalence” and “dynamic equivalences” are interchangeable and refer to the same translation philosophy; Dr. Mounce uses the term functional equivalence because he feels it more accurately represents the underlying translation philosophy.

In this philosophy of Bible translation, the translators are asked to translate according to the functional meaning of the text. This means that their aim is to make the plain meaning of the text more accessible to the reader.

Sometimes, however, the plain meaning of the text requires the underlying grammatical structures of the original language because the author may have employed certain literary or rhetorical devices to convey their meaning. In such cases, functional translations may be required to use “awkward English” to communicate the meaning.

In my opinion, however, this is why Bible students need to read from both “formal” and “functional” translations because functional translations are sometimes forced to choose between “clarity” and “structural meaning”, and they usually choose “clarity” over “structural meaning”. As Dr. Mounce rightly points out, it is a mistake to dismiss the value of grammatical structure in conveying meaning.

These translations are more willing to add words when they are needed to convey meaning, something even formal equivalent translations regularly do. Consider Matthew 10:29. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (NRSV, also NASB, ESV, KJV). “Apart from your Father” what? While this is word-for-word, it doesn’t mean anything, and so some translations add words based on the context of the verse: “your Father’s care” (NIV); “your Father’s consent” (CSB); “your Father’s will” (NET); “your Father knowing it” (NLT).

Formal translations often times produce what I call “ambiguous texts”, meaning that their texts are constructed in such a way as to produce indeterminate sentences. One of the advantages of this is that astute Bible students can learn to recognize these sentences as indications that deeper study is needed to determine the author’s original intent. However, this advantage is also their disadvantage because many Bible readers are not true Bible students; either because they lack the necessary skills or work ethic, most Bible readers are not able to recognize these ambiguous texts and further investigate their meaning.

The example provided in Dr. Mounce’s blog is a great example: “apart from your Father” could leave one with the impression that God himself is killing the sparrow. In this case, a formal translation is less accurate than a functional translation because the functional translations convey in English the meaning that would have been understood in Greek.

What about natural language translations? They are an extension of functional equivalence but see no value in the formal structures, and they try to repeat the same message in the full idiom of the target language. Eugene Nida says that the purpose of a translation is to transport “the message of the original text … into the receptor language [such] that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors.”  In other words, when we read it in English, we should hear it in the same way the original Greek audience heard it. The best example of a natural language translation is the NLT. There’s much I enjoy in the NLT. I often read it to see what a highly qualified group of scholars believes the biblical text means, and it rarely disappoints.

Dr. Mounce believes we need another category to describe translations like the NLT, and the designation he has given to them is “Natural Language Translation”.

In placing a premium on the “impact” of the text, these translations try to replicate how the original text might have impacted the original audience and import that impact into their contemporary setting. This endeavor is often too quickly dismissed in terms of its commentary value for Bible translation because these translations do, as Dr. Mounce pointed out, provide valuable insight from highly qualified scholars into the Biblical text.

Nonetheless, I urge extreme caution when using these translations because considerable degrees of meaning can either be removed from or added into the text. I do not think anyone should ever use translations like the NLT as their primary Bible because it is impossible to know when you’re reading the original meaning and when you’re reading the translator’s attempt to make the text relevant to contemporary settings.

This is the criticism that is often made of translations like the NIV, but I believe it is unwarranted because the NIV is far more restrained in its translation philosophy. Their concern is to clearly replicate the original meaning, not to bring the original meaning into a contemporary setting.

Dr. Mounces cute example of fearing that he will one-day hear a sermon on “the sandbars off the African Coast” illustrates why the differences between “functional equivalent” and “Natural Language” translations are so incredibly important: we need to know that the points we are preaching stand on the inspired word of God, not a translator’s attempt to make the text relevant. Natural Language translations make that task impossible and increase the likelihood that preachers and readers will err in preaching and understanding God’s word.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Mounce’s three part series on Bible translations is a great resource for helping Christians understand the Bibles that they are reading. I hope Dr. Mounce does more work along these lines because this is one of area of understanding that is under developed in the Church, and I think the common misconceptions about this topic – some of which come from the marketing practices of Bible publishers – are often a source of severe contention and discord among Christian brothers and sisters.

In providing my own reactions to Dr. Mounce’s blog, I have tried to add the idea that Christians should try to read from both translation philosophies because there is much to be gained by deepening one’s penetration into different aspects of the original text like this.

My primary reading and preaching Bible is the CSB. I am simply impressed by how accurate they are, and how adept they have proven at picking up important nuances in the meaning of the text. However, the NASB remains my primary exegetical study Bible because they seem to do the best job of conveying the formal structures of the underlying language. In addition to the CSB and NASB, my primary comparison Bible is the NET. I have high respect for Dr. Daniel Wallace, who served as the editor for the NET, and I find the extensive translations notes to be remarkably valuable.

Additional Resources:

 

 

3 Replies to “Bible Translation: Dynamic Equivalence and Natural Language – Dr. Mounce”

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