A Criticism of Functional Equivalence

September 24, 2009

Functional equivalence in Bible translation attempts to elicit the same meaning of the original in language forms that are natural to the receptor language. Formal equivalence attempts to be as literal (word for word) as possible. A great emphasis in functional equivalence occurred in Bible translation for third world countries. In some cases, these languages had no written alphabet, dictionary, or grammar. Translators were undertaking a tremendous task.

From these third world experiences, functional equivalence procedures began to be applied to translations in English. The past half century has seen greater use of functional equivalent methods, but the approach is not without critics.

Leland Ryken in his book, The Word of God in English,* points out a number of fallacies to this approach. One fallacy strikes at the heart of translation issues. It is the fallacy that all translating is interpretation.

Ryken notes a failure to distinguish linguistic interpretation from thematic interpretation. By linguistic interpretation, Ryken means the choice between what word best translates the original term. Translators may have to choose between wilderness or desert to describe the area of Israel’s 40 years of wandering. They may choose between descendant or seed to render the Hebrew term zerah.

Word choices like this do involve interpretation, but functional equivalence frequently goes beyond this into what Ryken calls thematic interpretation of the meaning of the text. For example, note the following two versions of 2 Peter 1:20.


Formal Equivalent/ESV Functional Equivalent/NIV
knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.

The NIV has given us an interpretation of this verse. It has specified the “someone” in the passage. This is a case where I think the interpretation is correct. However, someone could come along and say, “This is not what Peter said, and I don’t think it is what he meant.” We would have to resort to the more literal translation and make our case.

In addition, this raises the issue that translators may make the wrong thematic interpretation in various passages. Thematic interpretation gives rise to much greater variation in translations. It is a case of readers beware.

*The Word of God in English is available as a free PDF download at http://www.esv.org/translation/woge.

The Gender Neutral Language Controversy

September 10, 2009

The NIV has been in the news this past week. Plans are underway for a revision of the NIV to be published in 2011. The plans include the discontinuation of the TNIV, which was first published in 2002. The biggest battle over the TNIV, and the greatest concern over revision of the NIV involves gender neutral language.

To be honest, the Bible is not an egalitarian book. In other words, feminists will never be satisfied with the Bible as written. To illustrate, one only needs to look at the Inclusive Bible’s handling of Colossians 3:18-19: “You who are in committed relationships, be submissive to each other. This is your duty in Christ Jesus. Partners joined by God, love each other. Avoid any bitterness between you.” That is a rewrite of Paul and not a translation. The Bible affirms the equal value of males and females, but it does allow for differences in gender roles.

English usage has become more gender sensitive in recent decades, although usage has not solved all issues. The third person singular personal pronouns are still he or she.

Most modern translations (e.g., NKJV, NIV, and ESV) attempt to be somewhat gender neutral. When words like all, anyone, or everyone occur even thought they have masculine grammatical gender in Greek but there is no word for man in the text, they are rendered in a more gender neutral way – “all” instead of “all men.” The occurrence of man when it is understood generically of human beings is often translated persons or human beings instead of man.

Romans 3:9

“for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” RSV

 For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. NKJV

 We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. NIV

 Matthew 5:15

Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. RSV

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. NIV

But the question arises; can we go too far in the pursuit of gender neutral language? That has been at the heart of the controversy over the TNIV, and it will be one of the issues in the NIV revision. I think it is possible to go too far. Two areas have been of principle concern. First, we should not remove reference to males in historical passages when those references are present. Some translations have. Notice the following examples:

 Acts 1:21

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us  NIV   (TNIV)

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of those who had been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us.  NIVI  

 1 Timothy 3:2

the husband of one wife  RSV

married only once  NRSV

The second concern has to do with the third person singular pronoun. The TNIV and the NRSV substitute third person plural pronouns for third person singular pronouns. In other words, they change “he” to “they.” Problems arise especially in the Old Testament. We can obscure Messianic references doing that. For example:

He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Psalm 34:20, ESV

he protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken. Psalm 34:20, TNIV

This is an important issue. How does your translation handle gender language? The preface of some translations will tell you. Comparison with other translations may be helpful.

Aren’t These Translations Dangerous?

September 3, 2009

When I was a teenager, someone at my home congregation made available some copies of Good News for Modern Man. I read the New Testament all the way through for the first time in this little paperback. I’m sure that in other congregations there may have been tracts warning of the errors of this modern version and recommending people stay away from it. This leads to a legitimate question. Aren’t these translations dangerous? 

My experience as a Bible reader suggests that we can over blow the dangers. I was in a greater danger from not reading the Bible. Bible illiteracy is the great danger of our society. (And by the way, the publication of many different translations has not stemmed that tide.) If I hadn’t found something easier to read, I might have given up or simply have failed to grow in faith. That little paperback led to a growth in my devotional life.  I was strengthened by milk for stronger food.

I think several factors militate against the flaws in some translations. I was not reading the Bible in isolation. I had mature Christian people around me. These people were more knowledgeable that I was, and I could ask questions. In other words, my church family helped guide my reading.

I was also aware of multiple translations. I wasn’t just relying on Good News for Modern Man alone. At that point, I had a King James Version to compare with, and it wasn’t too long that I also had a Revised Standard Version and a New American Standard Bible. In other words, I was aware that I was reading a translation. I’ve learned over the years that no translation is perfect because translating is a human activity. That is why the final court of appeal in religious discussion is the Bible in the original languages. But I’m extremely grateful for access to the Bible in my native language.

One further fact needs to be noted. The Bible is an amazingly resilient collection of books. Most of our teachings are not based on one passage alone. Even when a translation throws us a loop with a questionable translation, other passages may keep us from going the wrong direction. The Bible is its own best interpreter.

The functional equivalent translation (meaning for meaning) is designed for easy access to the beginner and the person with few reference books to consult. My own pilgrimage suggests that those translations are not necessarily harmful and may be helpful. But I think their proper use is as a stepping stone. Careful Bible study in English is best done with a formal equivalent (more literal) translation (e.g., NASB, NKJV, and ESV). If you have only been reading a meaning for meaning translation, I would encourage you to try a more literal translation especially in careful study.