People have translated the Bible, in part or in whole, into other languages for over 2,000 years; throughout most of that time, “formal equivalence” has been the primary philosophy of Bible translation. Formal equivalence in translation comes about when a translator seeks to communicate the Bible into another language on a word for word basis. All of the earliest translations of the Bible into English followed formal equivalence standards; 19th and 20th century revisions to the King James Version maintained formal equivalence in translation.
Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century many translators began using a different philosophy of translation: dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence in translation comes about when translators seek to communicate the Bible into another language on a thought for thought (or sense for sense) basis. Dynamic equivalence translations thus prove a bit freer in how they render individual words in an attempt to make the primary meaning of the text clearer for the English reader.
Much has been made about this distinction; many believe there is a firm and strong distinction between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. In reality, Bible translations fall on a spectrum between hyper-literalism (formal equivalence to the extreme) and free paraphrase (dynamic equivalence to the extreme). Most formal equivalence translations or versions of the Bible give some thought to rendering the text in a way to be understood; many dynamic equivalence translations still seek to communicate the text according to the words found in the original.
The most popular Bible in modern English is a dynamic equivalence translation: the New International Version (NIV), completed in 1978 and revised in 1984 and 2011. An “easy to read” version written at a third grade level, the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV), was published in 1996; another revision, Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was published in 2005.
The New International Version was hardly the first dynamic equivalent translation to be published. In 1966 English Roman Catholics developed an English translation based on a 1956 French translation from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and the result is the Jerusalem Bible (JB); in 1985 the Jerusalem Bible was completely revised, disassociating entirely from the French and reliant only on Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), still in use among Roman Catholics today. In 1970 British Protestants developed a revision of the English Revised Version (RV) as the New English Bible (NEB); it was thoroughly revised in 1989 as the Revised English Bible (REB). In 1971 The Living Bible (TLB) was published as a paraphrase of the American Standard Version (ASV); a group of translators were later brought together to revise The Living Bible but ultimately came up with an entirely new version, the New Living Translation (NLT), in 1996. In 1976 the full translation of the Good News Bible (GNB) was completed; this translation is also known as the Good News Translation (GNT), Good News for Modern Man, and Today’s English Version (TEV). Other popular dynamic equivalence translations include the Contemporary English Version (CEV; 1995) and God’s Word (GW; 1995).
Dynamic equivalent translations, therefore, have proliferated since 1970, and have markedly contributed to the often confusing alphabet soup of Bible versions and translations available in English. Furthermore, not all dynamic equivalence translations are exactly the same: some, such as the NIV and NLT, maintain some allegiance to the formal equivalence philosophy; others, such as the GNT, CEV, and GW, are thoroughly dynamic equivalent in philosophy; and still others, such as the TLB, move toward paraphrase.
In general, dynamic equivalence translations can provide value in assisting the modern English reader in understanding the primary meaning and referent of a passage. Dynamic equivalence translations tend to be written at a lower grade reading level and are therefore more accessible to a wider swath of English speakers. For people who have little to no understanding of the Bible and the events described within it, for those for whom English is a second language, and for those who have challenges with reading comprehension, dynamic equivalence versions may provide assistance in understanding the meaning of the Bible. For those with greater understanding of the Bible and its message, dynamic equivalence translations can challenge presuppositions, forcing the reader to consider alternative ways of framing or translating the text. The reader may ultimately disagree with the translator’s decisions, but in the process may gain insight or appreciation he or she would otherwise have no opportunity to experience.
Many are incensed at the existence of dynamic equivalence translations, considering them as corrupt and motivated by a desire to advance false doctrines. The NIV, for instance, has been commonly reviled on account of its use of dynamic equivalence in translation (called the “Non Inspired Version” pejoratively by some). A common criticism involves the translation of Greek sarx, normally “flesh,” as “sinful nature,” and thus an allegation of Calvinistic influence (e.g. Romans 7:25). And yet “sinful nature” is what Paul is attempting to communicate with his use of sarx in many such passages; we can affirm that without affirming Calvinism, and it comes with the added benefit of not casting aspersions on the good creation which God has made. Most of the translation decisions made in the NIV and other dynamic equivalence translations can be defended according to the standards of dynamic equivalence even if they may not make the Bible reader or student the most comfortable.
Nevertheless, any reader of a dynamic equivalence translation must take great care with how they handle those versions and not put too much stock in how they read in any given passage since meaning is emphasized over specific form. Over-reliance on the wording of a dynamic equivalent translation may lead the reader toward fallacious reasoning not supported by the original text of Scripture, especially as it relates to inference. As an example, the CEV in 1 Timothy 3:2 speaks of officials as “faithful in marriage”; the original Greek reads “one woman man,” and so the ASV would have the bishop be the “husband of one wife.” To be the husband of one wife means to be faithful in marriage; yet the implications of being the husband of one wife go beyond mere faithfulness in marriage.
Dynamic equivalence translations are here to stay. If Christians are better able to understand the meaning of what God has made known in Scripture through dynamic equivalence translations, well and good. Christians may find it beneficial to explore dynamic equivalence translations and versions in order to have the Biblical text illuminated in ways they might not otherwise notice in formal equivalence translations. To these ends, dynamic equivalence translations may be good for personal reading, but not recommended for preaching and teaching. The reader does well to consult major formal equivalence translations (KJV, ASV, N/RSV, NASB, ESV) in any given reading or passage before drawing inferences or conclusions from any dynamic equivalent translation. May we all seek to come to a better understanding of what God has made known in Scripture to His glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry