Bible Translation Theory: Formal vs. Functional Equivalence

As mentioned yesterday there are four kinds of approaches used by modern Bible translators, but two of them are dominant*: formal equivalence and functional equivalence. Today I want to share a few powerful arguments for preferring formal equivalent translations (word-for-word) over functional equivalent translations (thought-for-thought).

Arguments for Preferring Formal Equivalent Translations:

1. Formal translations are more faithful to the original languages.

2. Formal translations use the only translation philosophy known to scholars prior to the middle of the 20th Century.

3. Formal translations protect the reader from translators’ opinions and biases.

4. Formal translations are more theologically precise.

5. Formal translations seem to sound and feel more majestic and beautiful.

6. Formal translations allow you to interpret  the meaning.

7. Formal translations have a longer shelf life.

8. Formal translations tend to showcase the various styles of the Bible writers better than functional versions.

These arguments are not necessarily proven truths. They may be challenged by proponents of functional equivalence, just as formal equivalence adherents will challenge the veracity of many of the arguments made by functional equivalence advocates. Monday we will present some of those arguments made by those who favor functional equivalence.

What about you? What is your thoughts about these arguments? Do you agree or disagree? Do you prefer a formal translation? If so, which one? Did I neglect to mention any good arguments for formal equivalence?

*Since paraphrases should not considered legitimate for primary use and study and should be relegated to supplementary usage, and since optimal equivalence is a new approach utilized, to my knowledge, by only one modern translation (HCSB), then it should be no surprise that the battle over which translation theory is superior is between formal and functional equivalence.

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6 thoughts on “Bible Translation Theory: Formal vs. Functional Equivalence”

  1. Nicely done, sir! I appreciate the tone that your post provides, even amongst the ads down the right side that contains the NIV and NLT.
    I happen to have switched to the HCSB over a year ago–I am very happy with that choice, so thanks for noting it! If a person only uses one Bible, I would recommend that one every time.

    I am convinced that the English language, when studying the Biblical texts, does not allow the use of only one Bible, and most American Christians can enjoy this luxury. I would agree with you that word-for-word is overall the preferred method, and would note that this is how the Bible is ‘generally’ translated into every other language besides English as well.

    Isn’t this discussion/debate solely amongst the English translations? Is this because English is now the de facto language world wide?

  2. Thanks mashmouth for stopping by my blog and commenting.

    You are right on about us as Americans needing to use more than one Bible. Also, I’m curious what kind of HCSB you have.

    I’m not sure if I agree with your statement that formal translation is the approach used when translating into every other language besides English. My understanding is that groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators tend toward functional translation theory when bring God’s Word into a written form for the first time. But I’m certainly not an authority on the issue. Maybe someone else will read this and speak to this issue with more authority.

    Along those lines, as for your questions, I really don’t know if this discussion/debate is solely amongst the English translations. I do know that in China there is an older “standard” Chinese translation and there are more modern translations and there are actually groups of Christians who believe that the older translation, the original Chinese translation, is the ONLY one, kind of like the King James only groups here in the USA.

    Again, thanks for your comments and I hope you will continue to discuss these issues in future posts on the subject!

  3. Formal equivalence only. Functional equivalence is a paraphrase. Formal equivalence is a translation, function equivalence is an interpretation.

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