Comparing Bible Translation Philosophies

There are quite a number of English Bible translations out there. Probably too many. With the various different kinds of translations that exist, it is good to know what type of translation you are using and what it is trying to accomplish with its translation philosophy.

To hopefully help bring some clarity to the various types of translations, I would like to explain the differences in Bible translations, the translational philosophies that lie underneath them, and the pros and cons of the different approaches. 

Translation Philosophies

There are two basic translation philosophies: formal equivalence and functional equivalence. There is a third, optimal equivalence, that seeks to be a good balance of formal and functional; this category is best understood in light of the first two. There is also paraphrase, a form which is sometimes understood as a translational philosophy, but must not really be considered a translation since it does not actually render what the text directly says. Though it’s not truly a translation philosophy, I will consider it so that the differences are clear. 

Formal Equivalence

Sometimes termed word-for-word or literal, which are both misnomers since a “word-for-word” or “literal” translation is impossible, formal equivalence seeks to preserve the form of the text as much as possible. This means that the translators attempt to be consistent with the form the Greek or Hebrew text presents and give as close of an English approximation as possible. The result of this tends to be a more wooden translation that may feel less natural in English, but it will tend to be more similar to the Greek or Hebrew syntax. This is my personal preferred type of translation to use.

Pros: Typically, interpretive decisions in the translation are kept to a minimum, meaning you tend to have a more direct access to the original Greek text. This means that formal equivalence translations work very well for word studies. 

Cons: While formal equivalence attempts to faithfully reflect the original language, there are times that proper English, clarity, or sometimes meaning is sacrificed in the name of faithfulness to the wording of the text. Run-on sentences may be problematic and idioms may not always be clear.

Examples: KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB

Functional Equivalence

Also known as dynamic equivalence or as a thought-for-thought translation, functional equivalence gives less direct concern to the form of the text, but attempts to present the meaning of the text in a way that a modern reader will understand. Translations are more idiomatic and tend to present English that feels more natural. Something to also consider with this philosophy is some translations convert the measurements into understandable equivalents (no more cubits, just good old feet). I would recommend this type of translation to those looking for clarity in their translation without requiring some of the background knowledge sometimes needed for formal equivalence.

Pros: Because functional equivalence translations are more idiomatic, they tend to smooth out difficult grammar and give good approximations of idioms in the original languages. They are easier to read for those who are younger and their interpretive translation decisions can help shed light on phrases that may otherwise be rather esoteric in a formal equivalence translation.

Cons: The biggest negative is that there are times where the meaning of the text, or an alternate understanding, may be obscured by the translation. All translation is interpretive to some degree; functional equivalence has a higher degree of interpretation and they may make the decision for you in the text, so be aware of that. This type of translation also tends to be weaker for word studies.

Examples: NIV, NLT

Optimal Equivalence

This is a category primarily considered for the HCSB. It is more of a blending of the above two philosophies, trying to reach an “optimal” point of retaining the form while giving good readability, but I would say it still leans more towards functional rather than formal, thus it should be classified as functional. I won’t dwell on this type; the same pros and cons apply here in proportion to whichever direction the translation leans.

Example: HCSB

Paraphrase

Again, paraphrase is not actually a translation philosophy, but it is a form of Bible “translation” that exists. This methodology does not seek so much to present what the original languages say, but rather to rephrase it in such a way that it may better convey the meaning. In general, due to the highly interpretive nature of paraphrases, I would recommend limiting your use of them and would definitely not recommend using it as a primary Bible. 

Pros: Paraphrases may be a helpful reference tool to get an interpretive insight into a passage. 

Cons: The original text is mostly obscured by the paraphrase. The interpretations are often just that: interpretations. Paraphrases have a way of unfortunately blunting the actual meaning a text presents. Use with caution and not without consulting a formal or functional equivalent translation. A personal gripe I have is also the rather low quality of language that is often used.

Examples: The Message, The Living Bible

Notes Regarding Translations

With the general categories listed, I want to make a few notes regarding translation in general. All translation work is, by necessity, interpretive to some degree. Certain passages are difficult to translate, thus an interpretive decision needs to be made one way or another. Furthermore, no translation can truly only follow formal equivalence; functional equivalence is very often needed to present clarity, and vice versa. Translations tend to be more on a spectrum of how closely they follow one philosophy or the other, rather than dogmatically following a single one. This is why I’m not sure optimal equivalence can be rightly termed a separate philosophy since it essentially recognizes that reality and falls on the same continuum. 

Knowing what type of translation you are using is quite helpful when you are doing Bible study. If you do not have any facility with the original languages, consulting translations with different translation philosophies can help shed light on nuances of a text. If you come across a passage that is difficult to understand in a formal translation, try looking to see how a functional translation renders it. If a passage in a functional translation appears overly idiomatic, consult a formal translation and see if there is any great difference. I personally prefer formal equivalence, so my personal advice would be to start from the formal equivalence and work towards a functional equivalence translation and maybe even a paraphrase if necessary. If you are able to consult the original languages through a Strong’s Concordance, interlinear text, or some other tool, that is all the better. Just be aware of the limitations of these tools; while you’ll be able to see what words lie beneath the translation, you won’t be truly retranslating with just those tools since they won’t help you much with grammar issues unless you have some prior understanding of Greek or Hebrew grammar.

So which type is better, formal or functional? The answer is really one of preference and what your goal is with your preferred translation. There are many fine ones available; simply understand what the advantages and limitations are of each translation. There are some bad ones out there too, which I will probably write about eventually to highlight why.

I do want to make one final note here regarding translations: the KJV and NKJV use a different Greek text for their New Testament translations than do most modern translations, so there actually are a number of places where the differences are not translational, but textual. If you are unsure of what this means, it simply means that the underlying Greek texts used give weight to different manuscripts, so there are verses “missing” or “added”, or words are different. See this post for more details. 

Examples of Translation Differences

To help highlight the types of differences you may see between the different philosophies, I would like to here present some Scripture passages for consideration.

I will also give the Greek or Hebrew text, along with an overly literal word-for-word translation, so you can see an approximation of a the original language and then compare how this text is then rendered in the various translations (remember Hebrew reads from right to left). I will show little regard for altering the syntax of the Greek or Hebrew to also give an idea of the of word order. This will show why it is impossible to do a “word-for-word” or “literal” translation without sounding absurd. I must also add, even this “literal” translation requires me to make some interpretive decisions in which words I choose.

Colossians 1:15-16

Formal Equivalence:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (ESV)

Functional Equivalence:

15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, 16 for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. (NLT)

Paraphrase:

15 We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. 16 We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. (The Message)

Original Language (Greek):

ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη     τὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, τὰ ὁρατὰκαὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι: τὰ πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται.

“Word-For-Word” Translation:

Who is  (the) image (of) the God the invisible, firstborn (of) all creation, for in him was created the all in the heavens and on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, whether dominions, whether rulers, whether authorities: the all through him and to him have been created.

Comments:

There are some differences to note here. Both the ESV and NLT render the first half of verse 15 basically the same, though the NLT clarifies who the antecedent to the pronoun “he” is by simply inserting “Christ”, something not actually found in the Greek text. The second half of verse 15 is quite different: the ESV gives a straightforward rendering of the Greek protokos (πρωτότοκος),“firstborn,” while the NLT takes an interpretive approach and attempts to convey what is meant by “firstborn.” You see the same interpretive approach taken by the NLT in verse 16 by mentioning “thrones, kingdoms… in the unseen world.” The Greek does not reference any unseen world at that point, but Paul is almost surely referencing the unseen realm and angelic beings with his mentions of rulers and authorities, so the NLT simply makes the interpretive decision for you rather than you needing to reach that conclusion on your own. I think the differences in The Message speak for themselves and also illustrate my gripe about the low quality of language employed.

1 Samuel 17:4-5

Formal Equivalence:

4 Then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was clothed with scale-armor which weighed five thousand shekels of bronze. (NASB)

Functional Equivalence:

4 Then Goliath, a Philistine champion from Gath, came out of the Philistine ranks to face the forces of Israel. He was over nine feet tall! 5 He wore a bronze helmet, and his bronze coat of mail weighed 125 pounds. (NLT)

4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels. (NIV)

Paraphrase:

4 A giant nearly ten feet tall stepped out from the Philistine line into the open, Goliath from Gath. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and was dressed in armor—126 pounds of it! (The Message)

Original Language (Hebrew):

וַיֵּצֵא אִישׁ- הַבֵּנַיִם מִמַּחֲנוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים גָּלְיָת שְׁמוֹ מִגַּת: גָּבְהוֹ, שֵׁשׁ אַמּוֹת וָזָרֶת. וְכוֹבַע נְחֹשֶׁת עַל- רֹאשׁוֹ, וְשִׁרְיוֹן קַשְׂקַשִּׂים הוּא לָבוּשׁ וּמִשְׁקַל, הַשִּׁרְיוֹן חֲמֵשֶׁת- אֲלָפִים שְׁקָלִים, נְחֹשֶׁת

“Word-For-Word” Translation:

And came out a man (of) the betweens from the camps (of) the Philistines. Goliath his name, from Gath. His height six cubits and a span. And a helmet (of) bronze upon his head, and armor (of) scales he (was) wearing and (the) weight of the the armor five thousand shekels (of) bronze.

Comments:

The primary thing to point out here is how the NLT and The Message chose to approximate the Hebrew measurements presented in the text. The differing numbers they come to (over nine feet or almost ten feet; 125 or 126 pounds) are not based in the text, but simply in the different ways they approximated the equivalents. I would also like to point out that the NIV does not give modern measurement equivalents; this is an example of that spectrum, how far to one side or the other the translations swing, with the NIV walking more of a middle road. While formal equivalence technically gives you the more accurate rendering at this point, the meaning is probably lost upon you if you have no idea how to measure a cubit or how heavy five thousand bronze shekels is. This is equivalent to how we in America would a have point of reference for how long six inches is, but most of us would be a little lost trying to estimate 50 millimeters (it’s just under 2 inches). 

1 Peter 1:13

Formal Equivalence:

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; (KJV)

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (ESV)

Functional Equivalence:

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. (NIV)

Optimal Equivalence:

Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (HCSB)

Paraphrase:

So now you can look forward soberly and intelligently to more of God’s kindness to you when Jesus Christ returns. (The Living Bible)

So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that’s coming when Jesus arrives. (The Message)

Original language (Greek): 

Διὸ ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν, νήφοντες, τελείως ἐλπίσατε ἐπὶ τὴν φερομένην ὑμῖν χάριν ἐν Ἀποκαλύψει Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

“Word-For-Word” Translation:

Therefore having girded the loins (of) the minds yours, being sober, completely set hope upon the being brought (to) you grace in appearing (of) Jesus Christ

Comments:

This a good example of where formal equivalence translations have to translate for meaning rather than what is directly in the text. The KJV preserves a quite literal “gird up the loins of your mind,” but that sounds quite odd in English. The ESV instead renders this as “preparing your minds for action,” which gives the meaning of the text, rather than the actual words. Being sober or sober-minded is not necessarily clear if you are unfamiliar with the phrase, so the HCSB is probably helpful in giving a clearer meaning at that point.

I also want to make a grammar note here: preparing your minds for action and being sober minded are not imperatives in the Greek; rather, they are participles, describing the manner in which you are to set your hope. I think the NIV here most clearly captures that nuance; the ESV attempts to, but it is quite easy to read the first two statements as imperatives. You can think of this as “alertly and sober-mindedly setting your hope on the grace that is to be brought to you,” an understanding The Living Bible tries to convey, but I believe falls short in its overall rendering. 

1 Samuel 24:3

Formal Equivalence:

And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave. (KJV)

He came to the sheepfolds on the way, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the inner recesses of the cave. (NASB)

Functional Equivalence:

He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. (NIV)

Paraphrase:

He came to some sheep pens along the road. There was a cave there and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were huddled far back in the same cave. (The Message)

Original Language (Hebrew):

וַיָּבֹא אֶל־גִּדְרֹות הַצֹּאן עַל־הַדֶּרֶךְ   וְשָׁם מְעָרָה וַיָּבֹא שָׁאוּל לְהָסֵךְ אֶת־רַגְלָיו וְדָוִד   וַאֲנָשָׁיו בְּיַרְכְּתֵי הַמְּעָרָה יֹשְׁבִֽים

“Word-For-Word” Translation:

And he came to walls (of) the sheep on the road, and there (was) a cave. And came Saul to cover his feet. And David and his men (were) in the recesses (of) the cave sitting.

Comments:

In this instance, the literal “covering his feet” from the KJV lacks meaning in our modern English. Almost all other translations, formal equivalence included, render the meaning of this idiomatic expression, “relieving himself,” rather than the precise wording. 

John 3:18

Formal Equivalence:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (ESV)

Functional Equivalence:

“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.” (NLT)

Paraphrase:

Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him. (The Message)

Original Language (Greek):

ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται: ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν  εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ  τοῦ θεοῦ. 

“Word-For-Word” Translation:

The (one) believing in him (is) not judged: the but (one) not believing already (is) judged for not has believed  in the name (of) the only unique  Son of the God.

Comments:

There is a slight difference in the rendering between the ESV and NLT here and it is primarily interpretive. Note that the NLT gives a reason for why someone is judged: the judgment is for not believing in the Son. This may not have been the NLT’s intent, but that is the way the text reads in its translation. The ESV gives a better rendering here that, “whoever does not believe is condemned already,” describing the state of the unbeliever, “because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God,” which explains why he is already condemned, rather than what he is being condemned for. It’s a subtle difference, but be aware of how interpretational things of this nature can pop up in functional equivalence and especially paraphrases. Of course, formal equivalence is not immune to this at times either, which is why comparing translations can be helpful.

Conclusion

Hopefully these examples have been helpful in illustrating the differences that occur in translation philosophies and the different Bible translations that exist. Don’t forget that all translation is interpretation to one degree or another. Practically, that means don’t become attached to only one translation because those translators inevitably brought some interpretational bias into it. Comparing between translations can make that clear and give you a different understanding of the text, especially at difficult to translate sections. Knowing your translation and what its goals are will help you make better use of your translation and better interpret your Bible. 

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