God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Why the Debate between Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalence is Deceptive

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?


April 21, 2011 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , , , , ,


  1. When learning French, I bought a French magazine to practice. I soon realized that the cheap dictionaries didn’t allow me to understand what I read. I bought a huge, expensive dictionary. In addition to the “definition” of words, it had the various idiomatic phrases which, of course, the magazine used. The literal translation made no sense.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 21, 2011

  2. The terminology of Bible translation annoys me somewhat, because in the real world of professional translation, these terms don’t exist. There’s mainly just good translation and bad, with some genres requiring more lexical rigidity than others. Preserving the word order and other idiosyncrasies of the source language is always inadvisable. Lsnguage is a vehicle for conveying thought. When your focus becomes preserving syntax instead of thought, you’ve missed the point.

    Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat is a good book on the subject.

    Comment by Paul D. | April 21, 2011

    • Precisely, Paul. Bible translation largely exists in its own insular world, cut off from the realm of translation (which is one of the reasons I wrote And God Said).

      Comment by Joel H. | April 21, 2011

  3. So true, Joel.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | April 21, 2011

  4. Umberto’s book…hmmmmm….I gotta git that. Thank you for the pointer. I was unaware of that book.

    If I understand the book’s description correctly, he’s interacting with translation issues at the Pragmatic level. Pragmatics hasn’t even entered the mind (certainly not the method) of Bible translation yet. It needs to.

    I like your questions, Joel. I’ve often thought that discussing the “mapping” (if you will) between the formal things we see on the page and the intended Pragmatic effects, would marry Formal Equivalency and its partner Functional Equivalency.

    Formal Equivalency (FE) advocates already acknowledge that rendering an original form with an appropriate English one is acceptable (though it’s been a journey from the ASV, to say the least). Exceptions to this are still put forth by those who want a tool which gets them half way across the language divide (which, I think, is a good thing assuming the user knows how to use it–a rare thing). What FE advocates dislike, and understandably so, is when the “mapping” appears arbitrary or subjective. They dislike applying the linguistic intuition to Bible translation. Then the cry, “you’re adding interpretation” is heard. Texts where the “mapping” is intuitive and formally explainable, even though interpretation is still in play, are readily accepted. So, from one perspective, it’s a bit inconsistent. And yet, from another perspective, there’s a consistent insistence on scientific formalization. And, that’s a good thing.

    So, I like your two questions. I think the answer lies in question 1.5; but, I’m reading between the lines.

    Comment by Mike Sangrey | April 21, 2011

  5. I put a too long comment here

    As always – thanks for the shared ideas.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | April 21, 2011

  6. Hi Joel,

    Nice of you to follow up on this debate.

    It’s easy to make fun of formal equivalence; it is an art to know when to persevere and when to let go.

    Still, if one is interested in close readings of a text, the best translations are as literal as possible and as free as necessary.

    That’s why, if you pick up just about any scholarly commentary on a book of the Bible, the translation the scholar provides, if she provides on, will be if anything *more literal* than translations in the formally equivalent KJV tradition.

    The value of formal equivalence is easily exemplified. Check out this post:


    In these long running debates, I note that, when specific examples are brought to the table, the value of striving for formal equivalence wherever the target language permits it is acknowledged by all.

    Did you hear Lawrence Venuti’s Nida Lecture at SBL a year or two ago? The room was full of Bible translators but Venuti had the guts to stick up for translations like the highly acclaimed one just published in German: The Zurcher Bibel.

    But the new approach, “fremd fremdes lassen,” i.e., the strangeness of the source text should be preserved in translation, is at considerable odds with Nida’s approach.

    Comment by John Hobbins | April 21, 2011

    • Well said. The important thing, though, is to recognize that pure formal equivalence doesn’t work.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | April 21, 2011

    • Two comments John:

      The translation for a scholarly commentary will of course be very different from that of a general-purpose Bible. Audience and purpose and all that.

      Secondly, for general-purpose translations I don’t acknowledge any value to strive for formal equivalence under any circumstances, so at best it’s almost all 😉

      Comment by Dannii | April 21, 2011

    • Thanks for the link, John.

      I think there are at least two concepts here, and it seems that you’re using “formal equivalence” for both, while I only use it for the first:

      1. Mimicking the formal grammar of the original; and

      2. Mimicking the literary devices of the original.

      I believe there is enormous merit to the second, so on that I think we agree. But I remain convinced that mimicking the grammar is not translating.

      Unfortunately — and this dovetails with the point I tried to make in the post — most translations that give up (1) also give up (2), leaving us with no good English translation of the Bible.

      An example may be helpful.

      In my video about chamad, I translate Proverbs 12:12 (around 2:22 into the video), which, in the original, demonstrates chiasmus, that is, the form “A,B” in one line, followed by the reversed “B,A” in the next. In Hebrew:

      chamad rasha
      takes wicked evil spoils
      tzadikim yiten
      roots righteous give

      For me, the translation trick is to capture the pair of opposites, preferably preserving the chiasmus. Because Hebrew grammar allows the verb to appear before or after the subject, chiasmus is easier in Hebrew than it is in English, so chiasmus is a common challenge in Bible translation. My solution is this:

      “The wicked take evil spoils, while roots are given by the righteous.”

      There’s lots to criticize about my translation (and the poetic line is in general not so easy to understand), but the point here is that I maintained both the pair of opposites (“wicked/righteous” and “take/give”) as well as the chiasmus: “wicked take / given by the righteous.” This comes at the expense of translating both active Hebrew verbs as active English verbs. For me, there’s no question that the chiasmus is more important than the grammatical forms of the verbs.

      In my opinion, the KJV fails in this regard: “The wicked desireth the net of evil men: but the root of the righteous yieldeth fruit.” Can you even find both pairs of opposites, let alone the chiasmus?

      Again, my point is not to criticize any given translation, but rather to ask the more general question: Which approach is most likely to present a path to the best translation?

      I believe the answer is to preserve rhetorical devices, but not to mimic the grammar.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 22, 2011

      • That’s a helpful distinction.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | April 22, 2011

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