Is word for word translation always better?

In, Why so many versions, translation philosophy was examined. One thing people often wonder, is why would anything other than a word for word translation be used? I’ve read articles focussing on how “inaccurate” the dynamic/functional equivalence translations are. The truth is that the inaccuracy of dynamic equivalence is debatable.

Dynamic equivalence focuses on the thought for thought translation idea. So an attempt is made to capture the idea behind what is being said rather than simply putting the words that were used. As was explained in the above mentioned post, there are very few formal equivalence versions of the Bible, apart from literal translations and interlinear translations. So no matter how committed a translator is to formal equivalence, the readability of the translation is more important, this is what I intend to focus on.

If we use a non-biblical example, it won’t mess with anyone’s theology. In Afrikaans, the phrase, “… enige Jan; Rap en sy maat” is a very good example. This phrase would be formally rendered as, “… any Jan; Rap and his friend” (the capitalised words are proper nouns.) This of course is nonsensical to an English speaker, we could perhaps make guesses, but we can’t really understand what it’s about without previous exposure to Afrikaans idiom. Now if we wished to translate the thought instead of the word, then we would end up with “… any Tom; Dick and Harry,” which is simple enough for any first language, and many second language, speakers to understand. This of course involves more than just translation, but also interpretation.

There are of course phrases in the Bible that have been, regardless of the translation philosophy, rendered functionally (thought for thought.) As an annihilist, I frequently get questioned regarding the “for ever and ever” in Revelation, and how I can support anything but never ending hell. The easiest answer is that for ever is an ambiguous term, even Biblically, and therefore is not a sound term to base a doctrine on. What few know is that this, although we find this in most versions, is a dynamic equivalence translation. In interlinear Bibles, the words are “unto the ages of the age” which would be the pure formal equivalence translation. Like our idiom above, this is nonsensical to an English speaker. Obviously this is an interpretation since, “for ages and ages” would have been more formal and would still have some level of ambiguity. As someone who is on the “losing side” as far as this particular translation goes, I feel that little has been lost, provided that people interpret what is being said on the backdrop of what else is said regarding the fate of the wicked. That is really the key, if one instance of functional equivalence is going to affect some meaning you get from the Bible, then there’s probably a problem with how you’re interpreting it, since you really shouldn’t base what you believe on a verse here or there, but on the weight of all texts regarding a particular subject.

That is just a little examination of how translation philosophy can affect the message. So before you start accusing the translators of getting something wrong, be sure that they don’t know something about the original language that you don’t (they probably do.) I find the NLT and NIV very useful, I’m unlikely to use a Good News Bible, since there’s a little more interpretation in that version than I feel is necessary. I do tend to stick mainly to the ESV & NKJV, which are formal equivalence versions. I think the key lesson for anyone who wants to make a serious study of the Bible is to get a few translations (an Amplified Bible is useful too) and compare, examine the translation philosophy and different ways of saying things, it will yield far better results than arguing about which version is better.


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