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Bible Translation Approaches: Contrasting Closest Natural Equivalence to Function Equivalence

Which Bible Translation Should I Read?

Because of the problems associated with form-equivalent translation, another translation theory was developed. It is called function-equivalent translation. (An older name for this theory is dynamic-equivalent translation.) Function equivalence takes the differences between the source language and the target language seriously. The function ­equivalent theory is not concerned with preserving the maximum number of characteristics (e.g., word order, grammar, syntax, idioms, etc.) of the source language text. It recognizes that if a translation preserves the maximum number of these characteristics, it is often unnatural in the target language.

Function equivalence is a great advance in translation theory. It helps the translator to focus on the goal of translation and not merely on technical matters concerning the source language. Function equivalence avoids producing translations that would convey the wrong meaning, no meaning, ambiguous meaning, or that would contain bad grammar or style. It conveys the meaning of the text in ways that are natural and meaningful in the target language, thought-for-thought.

While the function equivalence theory of translation has the proper focus, in practice it has produced English translations that have lost some of the source text’s meaning. One reason for this is that translators using function equivalence have often attempted to translate the Bible so that all passages can be understood on a common, predefined conceptual level. 

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Some specific function equivalence translations are noted in the graphic above:

  • Christian Standard Bible
  • New International Version
  • New Living Translation

For instance, one Bible translation available today is marketed in an edition specifically translated for children. While many parts of the Bible are appropriate for children, other parts were never intended for children. Certainly, Song of Songs is not for children. Job is a complicated and difficult book in Hebrew. In trying to make these books function on levels for which they were not intended, the translators risk miscommunication by oversimplifying or destroying the literary or artistic integrity of the text they are translating.

In printed texts meaning is conveyed not only by words and sentences, but also by the author’s choice of literary devices based on his assumptions about his readers’ concerns and their ability to think abstractly, and by his skill in using language. In the Bible these factors vary from book to book. A translation must take into account not only how meaning is communicated in the target language, but also on what level that meaning was intended to be communicated by the original author in the source text.

One function-equivalent translation states in its preface that it is intended to “be read with ease and understanding by readers of all ages.” That is, every book of the Bible is intended to be clear to children as well as adults. However, Paul probably never envisioned his letter to the Ephesians as being read by children. To make Ephesians understandable for children, this function­ equivalent translation from Ephesians 1:19 says:

I want you to know about the great and mighty power that God has for us followers.

The phrase great and mighty power translates the Greek words υπερβάλλον μέγεθος της δυνάμεως. In this translation most of the meaning of the Greek word υπερβάλλον has been lost. It does not merely mean mighty, but means surpassing, extraordinary, perhaps even limitless. However, since these more abstract concepts are difficult for children, this function-equivalent translation has simplified the language-but with a loss in meaning.

Some of the books of the Bible contain material that is very difficult to understand. Others contain relatively easy-to-understand material. Translators should not make the text more difficult to understand in the target language than the source text was (as form equivalence can do). However, translators should also not assume the responsibility for making the text simpler than the source text was (as function equivalence can do).

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