According to a recent report by Lifeway Research, described by David Roach in the Baptist Press, “most American Bible readers … value accuracy over readability,” which is why they “prefer word-for-word translations of the original Greek and Hebrew over thought-for-thought translations.”There is overwhelming evidence and near universal agreement among linguists that word-for-word translations are less accurate than other approaches.* Equally, translators generally agree that, when the original is readable (as much of the Bible is), accuracy and readability go hand in hand. That is, valuing accuracy is often the same as valuing readability.
So what’s going on?
One question might be, “why do so many Bible readers still make the basic mistake of choosing the wrong translation (word-for-word) to achieve their goal (accuracy)?”
Another question might be, “is there some merit to the word-for-word translations that linguistic approaches are missing?” (I try to answer that question here: “the value of a word for word translation.”)
A third question might be, “is there something about thought-for-thought translations that makes them unsuitable even though they ought to be more accurate?” (I think the answer is yes.)
But I’m starting to wonder about the ongoing Bible-translation debate that pits accuracy against readability, and words against thoughts. Maybe it’s not primarily about language and translation at all. Maybe the issue is part of the broader disagreement about the roles of religion of science and how to balance the two. In other words, sticking to a word-for-word translation may be like opting for a literal biblical account of history and rejecting evolution, at least for some people.
What do you think?
[Updates: Mike Sangrey has a follow-up on BBB with the delightful title, “Headline news: Accuracy Battles Readability — Surreality Wins.” And in a post on the same topic at BLT, J. K. Gayle creates what I think is the right frame of mind with, “Imagine having to chose between accuracy and readability in a translation of Orhan Pamuk or Homer or Virgil.”]
(*) Just for example, my post on “what goes wrong when we translate the words” gives a sense of one problem; my post on “what goes wrong when we translate the grammar” gives another. My recent TEDx video explores the issue in more detail, and my And God Said goes into much more detail.)
The debate between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence” has come up again at BBB, this time in the comment thread to a post about David Ker’s The Bible Wasn’t Written To You. (It’s a free e-book. Take a look.)
Dannii started the debate with a reference to his post “In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax.”
John Hobbins countered that “mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is […] a reasonable default strategy.”
That is, essentially, the crux of the debate: whether or not the grammatical details of the original should be mimicked in translation or not. The formal equivalence camp thinks yes. Functional-equivalence translators disagree.
My take is that mimicking the grammar is as foolish as mimicking the sounds. We don’t translate the Greek ho (which means “the”) as “hoe” just to mimick the sounds. And we shouldn’t translate, say, a passive verb in Greek or Hebrew as a passive one in English just to mimic the grammar. Failure to realize this basic point, it seems to me, is to misunderstand what translation is.
So why is this basic theoretical point nonetheless so hard to grasp?
I think part of the answer lies in the practice of Bible translation. By and large, published English versions of the Bible are either formally equivalent or flawed in other ways, so the debate ends up, in practice, pitting formal equivalence not against functional equivalence but instead against other kinds of mistranslations.
The non-formally equivalent CEB can help us understand how this plays out.
Among that translation’s aims is that it should be written at a 7th-grade reading level. But I think that that goal is a mistake, because the Bible is not written at a 7th-grade reading level, so from the outset, the CEB has made a decision to abandon accuracy in some regards. And as part of pursuing that goal, the CEB’s editors make other mistakes. For instance, the CEB recasts Hebrews 12:1, turning it into a statement about going in a different direction in life, while the original is about going unburdened in the same direction.
Similarly, from the CEB translation comparison, we see that Genesis 2:7 now reads, “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land” instead of the NRSV, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (their italics, to highlight the comparison). But the original doesn’t have any notion of “fertile,” and “topsoil” is almost certainly wrong for what should be “dust.”
My point is not to pick on the CEB, but rather to use it to highlight what I think goes wrong in the formal equivalence versus functional equivalence debate.
The formal equivalence crowd looks at the kinds of mistakes we just saw in the CEB, and, rightly in my opinion, notes that these versions miss essential aspects of the original. Then they compare, say, the NRSV renditions of these verses. The NRSV correctly has “lay aside every weight” in Hebrews 12:1. It correctly has “dust” in Genesis 2:7. And it doesn’t introduce the notion of “fertile” there.
In these cases, the NRSV is more accurate that the CEB. But I don’t think that the NRSV’s accuracy here comes from its philosophy. Rather, I think it comes, in this case, in spite of its philosophy.
After all, it’s this same philosophy that leads the NRSV to translate Mark 12:18 as, “The Sadducees … asked him a question, saying:” even though we don’t “say” questions in English; we ask them. The NRSV makes the same mistake in Genesis 44:19.
The supporters of functional equivalence use mistakes like these in the NRSV to attack formal equivalence.
And what follows is a debate where both sides are right — because both the CEB and the NRSV have mistakes — but where neither side is really talking about translation theory. They are talking about practice.
So instead of asking which version is better, I think the right questions are:
1. Can functional-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?
2. Can formal-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?
The terms “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence” mask the fact that at least two distinct theoretical issues separate most translations:
1. what counts as “the same” in translation; and
2. how much text should be translated at a time.
Even though the two issues are not the same, they are related, and we find the following two general patterns:
By and large, “formal equivalence” translators work on the assumptions that: (1) “The same” means “the same meaning;” and (2) the realm of translation is the word. Accordingly, formal-equivalence translators try to find English words that mean the same thing as the original Hebrew or Greek ones.
“Dynamic equivalence” translators assume that: (1) “The same” means “the same affect;” and (2) the realm of translation is the phrase. So they try to find English phrases that produce the same affect as the original Hebrew or Greek.
For example, the Hebrew word ner meant “oil lamp” when the Bible was written. (We know it didn’t mean wax candle or electric lamp because they hadn’t been invented yet.) The formal equivalent of ner might therefore be “oil lamp,” while the dynamic equivalent might be “candle” or just “lamp.”
Similarly, the Hebrew words tarum karno (Psalm 89:24 and, in reverse order, Psalm 112:9) mean “will be high” and “his horn,” respectively. A word-for-word translation might be “his horn will be exalted” while a phrase-for-phrase translation might be “he will be triumphant.”
I think we would do well to stop using “dynamic equivalence” as the opposite of both “formal equivalence” and “word for word.”