Monday, November 21, 2011

Literal Translation vs. Dynamic Equivalence

When it comes to deciding which Bible to purchase, use, or trust, there is a good test to use. Since a new translation seems to come out about every fifteen minutes in this country, there is no way to have a memorized list of which translations to trust.

The test is simple: open the Bible and see if it is a literal translation or if it is a dynamic equivalent. This information will be located somewhere on the inside cover or in the first couple of pages. This final installment of the Bible Blog will show the difference between the two.

Literal Translation

For the last 2,000 years the textus receptus, also known as the majority text, has been one the most trusted and accepted set of documents that we have. In the first century the Bible was just our Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew but was already available in Greek. So as the New Testament was written, it was written both in Greek and Latin. Therefore, the earliest Bibles were written mostly in Greek. Some of the best and most trusted documents made up what would later be known as the textus receptus.

It was from these documents that other translations came to be, including the 1611 King James Version. The reason that I am such a big supporter of the King James Bible is I am a big supporter of where it came from.

The KJV translators did a meticulous job of translating word for word, making sure that they had the best English translation of the Bible. They even continued to meet for almost two hundred years (other people, obviously) to make sure they still had the best. This word for word rendering is what is meant by the term literal translation.

In 1971 the New American Standard Bible (NASB) was produced by the Lockman Foundation, but instead of using the textus receptus, they used the Biblia Hebraica and Nestle’s Greek New Testament, 23rd edition. This project took over a decade, and this is considered by most scholars to be the best English Bible available.

A hundred years passed without an update to the KJV, and in 1982 Thomas Nelson Publishers commissioned 130 people to produce an updated version of the Bible. This team went right back to the textus receptus and translated what came to be known as the New King James Version of the Bible. They simply took what had been done in 1611 (and the next 200 years) and updated the English words, not the meaning of the document.

Other good literal word for words translation include, but are not limited to, the American Standard Bible (1901), and the English Standard Version (2001).

Dynamic Equivalence

While the literal translation takes a word for word translation approach, the dynamic equivalence (or “functional equivalence”) takes more of a paraphrase approach. This method is not as concerned with getting the word for word message, but for just getting the message across. The obvious problem with this is that key words can be left out, we are not getting the Bible the way it was inspired, and we can lose a lot of the cultural heritage.

The most notorious dynamic equivalence is the New International Version (NIV), which debuted in 1978. I have problems with this translation for the reasons stated above, and also for the fact that this was a gateway translation in that it opened the door for more liberal documents to emerge. Not the least of these liberal documents was the NIV’s daughter, Today’s New International Version (TNIV, 2002), which was like a feminist’s rendition of the NIV.

The dynamic equivalence also gets messy when one considers that in 1971 The Living Bible (TLB) came out, which was not a translation of an ancient text, but a paraphrase of the KJV. TLB’s author, Kenneth Taylor, simply took his KJV and rewrote it.

It is a very dangerous game when we embrace a book that calls itself a Bible, and yet that book was not translated literally word for word. The margin of human error becomes magnified exponentially, and liberalism begins to creep in. This whole notion of just translating the gist is what eventually gave way to the heresy known as The Message.

When it comes time for you to make a decision on which Bible you will trust as the Word of God, use this little test to see if it is a word for word rendering of God’s Word, or if it is just the basic idea.

As one who has read many of the dynamic equivalences out there, believe me, there is nothing dynamic about it.  


Anonymous said...

Your blogs about this subject are almost legalistic. Since the original Hebrew was translated into other languages initially, it is almost suspect to claim that one of those trnaslations is more reliable than another. The key point to remember is that not all languages translate equally to each other. God Himself scattered our languages at the Tower of Babel, so it is almost silly to believe that a complete and accurate word for word translation is possible. It is also silly to believe that a complete idea for idea translation is possible. What must be paramount is the inspiration from the Holy Spirit within one's self regardless of whether a word for word or idea for idea Bible is used. I agree that not all translations should be welcomed and utilized, but you must consider that any Faithful Christian who is truly seeking the Word of God will be led by the Holy Spirit to the translation that speaks to their understanding, just as you were led to the KJV it seems.

I appreciate the warning and urgency of careful consideration to the specific translation that one uses, but I prayerfully urge you to consider that going too deep in this particular topic, and proclaiming an ancient translation itself, namely the textus respectus translated by Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus in 1516was not the whole New Testament itself. The Vulgate was needed to fill the holes since the textus respectus was very different from the original text in the classic form.

Tread lightly on such deep and Theological topics, and use caution. Your article is useful and informative, yet your very own allegiance to the KJV based on the textus respectus could be called into question due to the necessity of the Vulgate and Erasmus' difference in translation.

We must trust that God and the Holy Spirit will guide us and those who translate Scripture to preserve and present the Truth as He intended. I came to Christ thanks to an NIV translation, to criticize a translation based on the evidence which you have presented here gives little weight to your argument. To know what the writers wrote under inspiration without any doubt would require the originals themselves, and that is not possible. We must have Faith that God is working in the Translation of His Word and just because you may have concern or cause to pause over a translation, does not in any way mean it will be ineffective to one who might need it.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

By the way, the textus respectus was comprised from only six manuscripts which between themselves did not contain the entire New Testament. That is why the Vulgate was used to fill in the gaps. Again, someone translated from something else.

In Him.

Anonymous said...

John MacArthur sums up what I am trying to say nicely....


"Since no one language corresponds perfectly to any other language, every translation involves some degree of interpretation. A translation based on formal equivalency (word for word) has a low degree of interpretation; translators are trying to convey the meaning of each particular word. When faced with a choice between readability and accuracy, formal equivalency translators (word for word) are willing to sacrifice readability for the sake of accuracy.

By its very nature, a translation based on dynamic equivalency (idea for idea) requires a high degree of interpretation. The goal of dynamic equivalency is to make the Bible readable, conveying an idea-for-idea rendering of the original. That means someone must first decide what idea is being communicated, which is the very act of interpretation. How the translators view Scripture becomes extremely important in the final product.

Sadly, there are many in the Bible-translation industry who have a low view of the Scripture. They think the Bible is merely a product of man, replete with mistakes, contradictions, and personal biases. Many translators today have also adopted the postmodern idea of elevating the experience of the reader over the intention of the author. They make the contemporary reader sovereign over the text and demote the intended meaning of the historic human writers who were carried along by one divine author (2 Peter 1:19-21).

Therefore, it’s vital that you find a translation that represents what the Holy Spirit actually said as faithfully as possible. Who’s interested in some contemporary translation committee’s spin on what they think contemporary readers want to read? We want to read what the author intended us to read, which is what the Holy Spirit originally inspired."

I think what Pastor John is saying is like you, trust a version which utilizes ancient texts and verifiable documents from the originals, and not some contemporary methodology absent of ancient manuscripts and earlier writings.


Tommy Mann said...


Thank you for your comments. I am a little confused because you disagreed with me, even calling me a legalist, and then post a MacArthur blog which made my same point. The dynamic equivalence is more concerned with readability than with accuracy.

You also seem to be doing what MacArthur warns of, and that is "elevating the experience of the reader over the intention of the author."

I am not a KJV only guy, as you guessed. I said in the blog that the NASB is considered to be the most accurate, and that along with my NKJV, is one that I frequently use.

I am also well aware of how the texts receipts came to be, including the use of the Vulgate (I mentioned that the Latin texts were used). I'm not sure how what you said changes any of my points.

Thank you for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Im really enjoying these blogs Tommy, however I do have to insert a thought here that keeps coming to my mind on this subject. This whole discussion seems to be leaving God out of the picture. It seems, and you can correct me if I am wrong, that what everyone is saying is that God inspired the scripture in the language of the original writers and then walked away from the whole thing and that is wasn't until some really smart guys came along that we were given a Bible that we could trust. I am not a KJV only guy, although that is the Bible I use in both my personal studies and my ministry, but I see the fruit from it. I have read other versions, some good and some not do good, but the KJV has been the one that has borne the most fruit in my life. Also, as you look back over the past 400 years there have been awesome examples of God pouring out His Spirit and sending earth shaking revivals. These were times when the KJV was most widely used and God saw fit to work with it. Is God still working today? Is God still active in preserving His word for us today? I say yes on both accounts. Has there been an English Bible since the KJV that has God's blessing? Every believer must decide that for themselves. Personally, I see no reason to change. The beauty of the language and the thought that I am holding and reading something that has been used by God for over 400 years thrills me. Two last thought and I done. I would remind you that the devil has been in the business of attempting to change what God has said since Eden. It only makes since that he is also active today trying to undo anything good that God has done. Also, I would say to people on both sides of this issue, what good is it to be King James only if you don't read it? And what good is it to be all for new and improved translations if you don't read them. I believe if an individual truly has the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in them and they are open to heartsnoir God to speak to them on this issue that He will give them peace about it.
Thanks for your work in the ministry Tommy. All things through Christ! Rick Ross

Anonymous said...

Please excuse my typos. I'm sending these comments from my iPhone and I have fat fingers. LOL:-)

Tommy Mann said...


Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you for your comments. You are right--God is still working and still preserving His word. I don't believe that His Spirit is at work in every translation, because works like The Message do not reflect His truth; but I do believe that God is still at work.

Don't worry about the typos. I am the king of the Android typo!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting your blog. I am not a scholar, but I have some knowledge of several different languages - Spanish, Greek, Mandarin, and Mayan. I want to point out that word for word translations can easily lose the meaning that was intended by the author. For example, how many different Greek words were translated "come", in English? Dozens. Yet, when those dozens of Greek words are funneled into a single English word, an incredible amount of meaning is lost. Also, some languages, such as Aramaic, are highly idiomatic. And, word for word translations do not always convey the final meaning intended by the author. The reason that this is important is because - according to the parable of the sower - the hearer must understand the meaning of the message. He cannot just recognize the words that are spoken. Beyond that, the hearer must understand the meaning behind the words. What does the message mean? If the hearer does not understand the message, then the devil comes and steals the message. But, if the translation does not convey the intended message, then the devil is out of a job, because the meaning of the message was never conveyed in the first place.

Apart from being "readable', a dynamic translation can be designed to convey the meaning of the message. Does this involve someone's interpretation? Yes, interpretation is inescapable. But, simply following a "word for word" translation does not automatically mean that the meaning of the message will be conveyed. In fact, the underlying meaning - that the words are supposed to signify - could become totally obscured. For example, look at the incredible difference in usage between erchomai, and parousia. How is it the translation of these two words is so inconsistent, especially the word "parousia"? Which does it mean? "Presence" or "coming"? How about in classical Greek? How does the term relate to the use of "adventus" - which is the Latin equivalent? I doubt that there is a single word equivalent for "parousia", which would convey the idea intended, in some passages.

Another example has to do with idioms. For example, the phrase "the clouds of heaven", in Aramaic, has a very different meaning than what I westerner might think. According to some scholars, in Aramaic, the phrase, "the clouds of heaven", refers to the authority of heaven, from the throne. To someone speaking Aramaic, the phrase, "coming in the clouds of heaven", could have a very significant meaning which probably ties to language used in the Old Testament. But, if we follow a word for word translation, we might simply imagine a man-sized figure, floating on some vapor, up in the air.

My own conclusion is that our use of the Bible should not be based on static, commercialized translations of the Bible. My view is that there has to be some flexibility in make sense from the original texts, and what we conclude from those texts, via translations, study, etc. People who feel that this type of approach is "dangerous" fail to realize how much damage is already done once one trusts implicitly in a word for word commercial translation of the Bible. Just my two cents.

Benjamin Eble said...

Sorry for the typos:
Edit: Should be - "If the hearer does not understand the message, then the devil comes and steals the words."

Tommy Mann said...

Thank you Benjamin,

I agree with you completely. When I speak of a word for word translation, I am also taking into account the use of idioms. If someone were translating "What's up?" into another language, I would expect them to convey the meaning instead of the two literal words.

My fear with dynamic equivalents is that they are going beyond idioms and paraphrasing entire portions of Scripture as opposed to a few words of an expression. That is not an attack on any particular translation, but it is a concern.