The blog world is abuzz today with rave reviews of Leland Ryken’s new book, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach, and I must cede to formal equivalence theorists their day in the sun. Of course, if you’ve paid attention to my blog you’ll recognize from my choice of translations that I’m not completely convinced of the thesis of Ryken’s book. My position seems a bit out-of-vogue in today’s milieu, what with the fiasco of the TNIV and Zondervan’s public humiliation on the gender issue. I’ll frankly concede my disappointment with the avant-garde path that the NIV has taken in the past few years, and am hopeful that its chastened translators will return to the task of accurate translation rather than political expediency.
That being said, I remain convinced of the propriety of the functional equivalence theory of translation--not because it is simpler or easier to read (though it is), but because I have become convinced that this theory has the potential to produce the very most accurate translations. And as an inerrantist, I am extremely interested in accurate translation.
A few years back Rod Decker published an article on this topic that confirmed me in this understanding, and I’d like to take a few moments to point out a few of his arguments (mixed together with a few of my own):
(1) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for idioms (not that formal equivalency has no answer to this problem, but their answer is simply to say this is an exception).
(2) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for the extremes of highly paratactic languages (long strings of independent clauses connected by “and,” such as is common in Hebrew) and highly hypotactic languages (long strings of dependent clauses connected by a huge variety of logical connecting devices, such as is common in Greek). This discovery satisfactorily addressed (for me at least) my last lingering concern with functional equivalence (viz., that functional equivalency translations do not translate all the words), though I freely admit that a number of very great minds are not so convinced as I.
(3) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for the problem of non-SVO languages (subject-verb-object) without producing translations that sound faintly like Yoda from Star Wars narrating the Bible.
(4) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for the problem of non-corresponding vocabulary sets between transmitter and receiver languages without opting for obscure terms that average readers do not recognize.
(5) Functional equivalence, in summary, most successfully accounts for the principle that the basic unit of propositional thought is not properly the word, but the clause.
My point here today is not to criticize formal equivalency in Bible translation. Throughout my professional career I have made it a strict point never to criticize any translation of the Bible, no matter how humorous, wooden, or Jonathan-Edwards-sounding a given reading may be. Every translation of the Bible is the Word of God, and I treat every one with due reverence as such.
Nor do I have any devices about ridding the church of formal equivalence. As some have pointed out, those who know Greek and Hebrew can often "see" the original languages bleeding through formal equivalency translations, making it easier to reconstruct the original an interpret it. For this reason I use and promote formal equivalency translations regularly and with great profit.
Nor do I have any tension using and preaching from a formal equivalence translation in the many churches where I attend and fill pulpits. I am deeply indebted to countless such churches and church leaders who use formal equivalence translations and I am far from suggesting that church life is damaged by their usage.
But I do think that one can construct a legitimate, valid defense of functional equivalency today despite the growing aggregate of arguments against it. And I hope that this post contributes to it.
- Mark Snoeberger
- After growing up in the great state of Pennsylvania, I settled down in 1994 with my new bride, Heather, in Allen Park, Michigan, and have been here at Detroit Baptist Seminary ever since (with a bit of time away for doctoral work). Since 2007 I have been privileged to be a part of the systematic theology faculty here. I love teaching, researching and writing, hunting with my two boys, and enjoying any little bit of God's unadulterated creation I can find (which means I occasionally have to get out of Detroit). But all these things matter to me only because theology matters. For it is God himself who gives all men life and breath and everything else (Acts 17:25).