A Criticism of Functional Equivalence

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: