A Reason for Preferring Formal-Equivalence Translations

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John Hobbins divides Bible translations into the following two categories:

Which do you prefer: (1) a translation that makes sense on its own, without off-site explanation, or (2) a translation that is a head-scratcher until an explanation is given which clears things up, and even then leaves you wondering if you have it right?

Most people who speak this way intend the former category to be what is called dynamic equivalence and the latter what is called formal equivalence. Usually the English Standard Version is held up as the most recent and best example of the second category, although some put the New Revised Standard in that place. The New Living Translation is my favored candidate for the first category. A number of others exist that I don't like at all. The New International Version and its revision Today's New International Version occupy the middle ground between the two (but the NIV seems to me to be closer to the first category than to the second, and the TNIV is closer to the second than the first, except in gender language which is closer to the first than even the NIV).

John seems to be saying that pretty much everyone really wants (1), even if they actually use one of the translations in (2), but that many examples in translations in category (1) really don't achieve the purpose very well. Henry Neufeld responds with several reasons someone might actually prefer category (2) translations while insisting on a balanced perspective of using and recommending both kinds of translations as the circumstance warrants. I agree with Henry in general, but I think he's actually ignored some of the reasons why someone might want to use the kinds of translations usually put into the second category. The rest of this post is adapted from a comment I left on Henry's post.

Here are several reasons to prefer certain translations that are often classified in category 2 that don't require sitting at a desk with all your study tools present. One complaint against the NIV and TNIV that I believe also applies to the NLT has to do with consistency of translation. You always know when the KJV, NASB, and ESV are translating 'hesed', because it's translated as the same expression every time. All you need to know is that the KJV uses 'lovingkindness' for that term and for no other term and that the ESV uses 'steadfast love' or whatever it uses. When I read the TNIV, I often wonder which term is being used. It's actually the TNIV that I need my study tools to understand, not the ESV.

The same goes for terms often translated in the ESV as "flesh". While the ESV isn't as consistent on this as some of the other Tyndale-tradition translations, it's far more consistent than the TNIV or NLT. When I read the TNIV and see a term in that general ballpark, I often wonder if it's the same term usually translated "flesh" in the category 2 translations, but I usually know if it is by simply reading it in the ESV. So the category 2 translations are again in practice working out to fit the category 1 description and vice versa.

On the gender-inclusive issue, the same thing happens with 'adelphoi'. The ESV always translates it as "brothers". When I see "brothers and sisters" in the TNIV, I usually wonder if it says something explicit about sisters or if it's the translation philosophy supplying that.

Now you have to know something about Bible translation to be in a position to benefit from these translations the way I do, although you can get some of it just from reading the introduction to the translation, which doesn't require sitting at a desk with lots of study tools. Also, if you can think globally about what you read and have a good memory for exact words you can benefit somewhat in these ways without such prior knowledge, because you can observe much of it on your own. I'm not saying that this is a reason everyone should use these translations. But it's one of my primary reasons for liking the ESV, and it has nothing to do with the reasons Henry gives or the context he suggests for when someone would want to have a translation like this at hand.


I think your reason for preferring #2 give here is valid. I think its a point that perhaps isn't mentioned enough.

As I see it, a translation like the ESV or NAS is literally (no pun intended) made to be used with the original languages.

In contrast, The NLT, TNIV, and others are made to be read so that going back to the original languages isn't as necessary. The key word there is "as" of course, since no translation is perfect. But they are a needed type of translation for people who just want to read the text in large chunks. The ESV and NASB are horrible for that. You maybe able to dig into them word by word or clause by clause, but you cannot simply read them.

Way back when I was in college and had to read through the Bible for a survey class, the prof for OT survey let us use any translation we wanted. Most people chose the NLT or the Message. But the very different prof for NT survey, required us to read the entire NT from the NASB. Now that was miserable.

(1) Is there a reason you want to know if the same words are used? Can you give a specific place in the TNIV (to pick one, or NLT, if you prefer) where you wish you could have a clear understanding if two different words in English are the same word in Greek?

(2) So, is the reason you like the ESV (or another FE translation) is that it's like reading the original language without actually having to struggle through reading the original language? In other words, you want to know when Paul is using "sarx" without having to work through the Greek surrounding it. (This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, so forgive me if this sounds bad.)

I want to clarify (2) above, lest anyone take it the wrong way.

Basically, my thought as I read your reasoning given above was "why not just read the NT in Greek?" Then, I realized that it's neither convenient nor easy (after all, I don't read the Greek NT as my main Bible reading either). Thus, I wondered if you are using the ESV as an easier means to get the original languages. Make sense? Hope that clarifies.

Mike, my point is that for certain reasons you don't need to go back to the original languages with the ESV, whereas you would with the TNIV, NIV, NLT, etc.

I do simply read the ESV. I in fact read the whole thing, one chapter at a time, and I wouldn't say that it doesn't read like English. It mostly does, with exceptions with certain turns of phrase that sound more like archaic English but are enough understandable for most literate English readers (contrary to what some, such as Wayne Leman and Peter Kirk argue). When I finished reading the ESV, I then read the HCSB, and now I'm reading the TNIV. I'll do the NLT2 after that. I much prefer having the ESV or HCSB at a Bible study or sermon. I read the NASB all the way through, one chapter at a time, in high school, and at the time it was my favorite translation, even after reading it all through. It has awkward phrasings, but that never bothered me at the time.

Danny, there are lots of places in the NIV, TNIV, and NLT where this sort of thing makes a difference. There are all manner of connotations that go along with 'hesed'. So when some kind of love-term appears in some chapter in II Samuel, say, that I'm listening to a sermon on, I can look in the ESV and see the expression always used for 'hesed', or I can look in the TNIV and wonder if this is that covenant-rich term. I don't know Hebrew other than a few words here and there, so this is especially important to me with Hebrew words that I do know and know a lot about. It's not to avoid struggling through the Hebrew. It's to learn what I can learn without having to gain a whole language that I'm not in a position to learn at my current stage of life.

With Greek it's less important, because I do know Greek, but I don't always have a Greek NT with me. I try to bring it if I know a sermon on Bible study is on a NT passage, but I sometimes forget it, and I don't always have the study tools to understand it as well as I would if I had access to commentaries and language tools. I might be waiting for the bus with my kids and be reading through a passage in the TNIV, and I might wonder if a certain word is 'sarx' or some other word for the body. I can look it up once I get inside, but it might not be as important to me by then, and I might forget, whereas with a translation that's more consistent I might know just by reading it in English. It's not a case of doing a serious study and wanting a shortcut. If I really want to get to the bottom of it, I can look it up later. It's the ones that I probably won't look up later that lead me to wishing I were reading a translation that was more consistent.

No translation could hope to be ideal on this, but there are some that I like more than others on this issue, and it's one that regularly leads to a wish for more consistent translations for common terms in certain translations.


Thank you for a well-reasoned post. I will refer to it in the future. I agree with you that FE translations generally speaking do a better job of preserving semantic coherence, especially long-distance coherence, than do DE translations.

RSV=ESV, of course, is a lot easier to follow than NASB. Like you, I enjoyed NASB - until I learned Greek and Hebrew well enough to realize how often I was getting the wrong impression.

There are instances in which DE translations restore concordance that was lost in the FE translation tradition. For example, Isa 52:7 speaks of the messenger who brings "good news." This is behind the term used in Mark 1:1, traditionally rendered "gospel." NLT has "good news" in both cases. That restores the semantic connection.

The comments already made have made an argument that both types of translation are needed. Each has a role to play. Very few students of NT Greek become so proficient as to "think" in Greek. The FE translations may assist one to accomplish such thing.

Yet the DE translations allow many of us to think through the Word in English, our native tongue. Thinking in English helps us to relate the Word more quickly and fully in the patterns of language already present within us.

Although the NIV is oft criticized for its style - I think that the prose of most of the people with whom I live and work can identify with that style, though I must admit - there are a few places the NIV is starting to sound old-fashioned to me as well.

I recommend that a reader start with the NIV, HCSB, NET, or NLT, and then move to an ESV, NASB, or the like if they wish to do certain types of studies.

Finally, I think that the variety of words used to translate a Greek or Hebrew word in a MLB gives an edge to those translations. I believe that context is far more important factor than "root meaning" in understanding a particular word in a partucular place.

John Blackburn

Right, but I can think through how the context affects it when reading it in translation. I can't know which word it is to begin with, and I can't tie passages together that are verbally related unless the English is verbally related too. So the dynamic translation has things not present in the formal. But the one kind of thing I'm focusing on in this post helps when you don't have study tools with you, and the thing you point out is independent of whether you have study tools.

interesting discussion. i agree that it is a shame sometimes that words like 'flesh' were dropped in the NIV new testament. it renders paul's contrasts less obvious than they are as he penned them. another notable example is the 'walk' metaphor in ephesians - the NIV has replaced it and the result is that you miss a major literary motif which also brings all its OT background.

a conclusion that i often hear from people that are well qualified to judge is that the NIV has actually done a much better job than the ESV with the old testament in terms of its rendering of the original languages (and there is also the question of the priority of the masoretic text). regarding the consistent use of one word to render any given hebrew word (as per the hesed example), i'd say that the crucial factor is the ability to discern semantic range. only scholars really are capable of doing this. even students that have thoroughly gained hebrew and can read it off the page still need their reference books and commentaries to make an informed judgment. therefore, i'm not sure that FE will always get the general populace or the more committed bible reader closer to the meaning of the text. perhaps this is most evident in hebrew poetry. as one prof says, best read the Good News Bible and learn hebrew!


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