When it comes to translation, most speak of two opposite approaches: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. While this terminology is meaningful, Bible translations cannot be neatly sorted into these two categories. We are convinced there is room for another category of translation philosophy that capitalizes on the strengths of the other two.
Often called “word-for-word” or a “literal” translation, it seeks to preserve the structure of the original language and represent each word with an exact equivalent word, so the reader can see what the original author wrote. Formal equivalence is based on the conviction that the Holy Spirit inspired the very words of Scripture in the original manuscripts. It provides readers of the target language with some access to the structure of the original Biblical text and achieves accuracy to the degree that the target language has an exact equivalent for each word and that the grammatical patterns of the original language can be coherently reproduced. However, it can sometimes result in awkward, if not incomprehensible, wording or in a misunderstanding of the author’s intent. Literal renderings of ancient idioms are especially difficult.
Also called “thought-for-thought” or “functional equivalence”, it translates the meaning so that it makes the same impact on modern readers that the ancient text made on its original readers. Strengths of this approach include a high degree of clarity and readability, especially in places where the original is difficult to render word for word. It also acknowledges that accurate and effective translation requires interpretation. However, the meaning of a text cannot always be precisely determined. A Biblical author may have intended multiple meanings. Furthermore, lack of formal correspondence to the original makes it difficult to verify accuracy and thus can affect the usefulness of the translation for in-depth Bible study.
Translations are seldom purely formal or dynamic but favor one philosophy of Bible translation over another. Optimal equivalence recognizes that form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed unless comprehension demands it. The primary goal of translation is to convey the sense of the original with as much clarity as the original text and the translation language permit. Optimal equivalence starts with an exhaustive analysis of the text at every level (word, phrase, clause, sentence, discourse) in the original language to determine its original meaning and intention (or purpose). Then relying on the latest and best language tools and experts, the nearest corresponding semantic and linguistic equivalents are used to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text with as much clarity and readability as possible. This process assures maximum transfer of both the words and meaning of the original inspired text.