Fun with formal equivalence

Bible translation is a hilarious subject! Why have I been ignoring it all this time? I’m reading this review of the ESV by Rodney J. Decker, and he quotes 2 Cor. 1:9-11 from an extremely literal translation called the Concordant Version of the Sacred Scriptures (1931):

But we have had the rescript of death in ourselves in order that we may be having no confidence in ourselves, but in God, Who rouses the dead, Who rescues us from a prodigious death, and will be rescuing, on Whom we rely, that He will still be rescuing also; you also assisting together by a petition for us, that from many faces He may be thanked for us by many, for our gracious gift.

I want this translation! 😀

A little later he talks about the term dynamic equivalence, which is now out of date. It was a translation philosophy that had the goal of producing the same response in today’s readers that the text had in the original readers. But really this isn’t always what we want. Decker says, “The Corinthians, as one example, responded quite poorly to Paul’s letter which we know as 1 Corinthians!” When people say “dynamic equivalence” now, as I did in my earlier entry, what they usually mean is functional equivalence, which is what I meant. Functional equivalence tries to create a text in the target language that functions the same way, in the sense of having the same meaning, as the text in the original language.

We Christians are a funny bunch. We’re capable of great profundity at times and great silliness at others. I think this is because we’re idealists and have a very complex set of beliefs and goals. These many beliefs and goals have to be fit together and balanced carefully—and also fit into our non-theological observations about the world, such as about human language—or it can be very easy to get way off track.

Take the idea of a literal translation. One of our goals is to take the Bible very seriously and get as close to its true meaning as possible. Yet we have to translate it into other languages, which threatens to pull us away from the meaning as it was set out in the original languages. So some of us get it into our heads that if we use one English word per Greek or Hebrew word and stick as close as possible to the original word order, we can rest assured that we’ll have an accurate and hence worthwhile translation. But Greek and Hebrew aren’t built like English, so if this philosophy is applied anywhere close to consistently, the reader has to slog through passages like the above! The goal of reflecting the original languages has to somehow coexist with the goal of actually communicating the meaning to your readers.

It is in this spirit of fun that I bring up (what I see as) problems with the ESV and in fact many other issues that I talk about. Most things aren’t a matter of life and death for me. I mainly observe and write about them for my own amusement and as a way to learn about the issues involved. In this case, for one, examining the ESV seems like a good way to get myself back into the original languages.

The reason English Bible translations aren’t a grave issue for me is that I think almost all of them are basically accurate. You’re not going to find out that Jesus really isn’t God by reading the NIV or that salvation is really by works. That’s ridiculous. Just find a translation you like and use it.

I don’t think that evaluating Bible translations is a binary decision—either the translation is right or it’s wrong. It’s all a matter of degree and to a large extent personal preference. This is especially true because the Bible contains about 31,000 verses. It would make more sense to say a particular version is 98% or 99% accurate based on the number of verses it gets right. Not that translation accuracy is a cut-and-dried issue in the first place.

In any case, the point is that since modern Bible translations are on a continuum from acceptable to pretty darn good and I have recourse to the original languages anyway, I feel free to treat the whole thing as a leisure activity and source of entertainment.

Annnd I don’t like to see people gush about something that I don’t think is that great, so poking a few holes in people’s balloons is another motivation. Okay? I admitted it.

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