Bible Translation Approaches: Contrasting Closest Natural Equivalence to Formal Equivalence

Which Bible Translation Should I Read?

Most well-known English Bible translations were produced using the traditional approach to translation which is called formal equivalence. Most translations of the Bible available in bookstores today use some variation of formal­ equivalent translation. These specific formal-equivalent translations are noted in the graphic above:

  • New American Standard Bible
  • English Standard Version
  • King James Version
  • New King James Version
  • The Readable Bible

Strict formal equivalence translates word-by-word, matching each Hebrew or Greek word with one or more English words. However, strict formal equivalence would produce very difficult English. For instance, John 3:16 would read:

This way for loved the God the world so that the son the only he gave so that all those believing in him would not perish but have life eternal.

However, using closest natural equivalent translation, John 3:16 in the GOD’S WORD Translation reads this way:

John 3:16 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)

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Since grammar and syntax vary from one language to the next, adjustments have to be made when moving from the source language to English. If adjustments are not made, the resulting translation would be difficult, if not impossible, for most readers to understand. For this reason, no translation is strictly form-equivalent.

In essence, formal-equivalent translations adjust the grammar and syntax of the source language text only enough to produce a reasonably recognizable and understandable English translation. They do not adjust the English any more than necessary. Formal-equivalent translation results in an English text that is a combination of English words, some English syntax, and some Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek syntax. For instance, one Bible’s translation of Numbers 35:18 is:

Or anyone who strikes another with a weapon of wood in hand that could cause death, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death.

At other times formal equivalence produces translations that appear to be natural English and that make sense in English. However, the meaning of some formal-equivalent translations in English does not match the meaning of the source language because an idiom or figure of speech in the source language means something different in English. While formal-equivalent translation is often called literal translation, it can present a text whose meaning is literally wrong for English readers.

For instance, the beginning of Psalm 1 in one Bible translation reads:

Blessed is the man who does not… stand in the way of sinners.

In English this says that someone who avoids stopping sinners from sinning is blessed. However, the Hebrew text means that a person who does not join sinners in sinning is blessed.

Using formal equivalence can make the translation harder to read than the source text was.

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For more information, download the complete brochure about the translation process of GOD’S WORD.


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