Dynamic Equivalence

Paul Helm over at Helm’s Deep offers a thoughtful but (in my opinion) problematic post on Dynamic Equivalence.

And since comments are turned off over there, I write these thoughts here:

1) I would suggest that Paul Helm has fallen into the same trap that many have in terms of the label Dynamic Equivalence in misunderstanding what it actually means — which is the very reason why Nida changed the terminology to Functional Equivalence. And indeed, I would go even farther and suggest that we should be using the term Meaning Based Translation methods.

2) He writes, “If the result of translation which aims at keeping to the original as faithfully as can be results in some puzzlement and ignorance when the text is read, so be it. It is the task of the Christian ministry to explain the Scriptures, as Philip explained them to the Ethiopian eunuch.”

I would suggest that this sort of statement leads us in an unhelpful and false direction. The difference between us today and the Ethiopian eunuch is that the eunuch could understand the words himself without translation. When a translation adds extra puzzlement and difficulty, we’ve entered completely different territory. A translation should be easy to understand where the text is easy to understand and difficult where the text is difficult.

3) He also writes, “Nor am I proposing to comment on whether or not paraphrasing the Bible, instead of translating it, is the best method of conveying its message to culturally-remote peoples.

I would suggest here that we tend to forget in modern culture (used with its historical sense not its philosophical sense), that we are just are culturally removed — if not more so — than the so called culturally remote people groups. Thus to make a distinction between them is far from helpful.

The rest of the post is a discussion of the phrase “dynamic equivalence” and its problems, which goes back to my very first statement. The term “Dynamic Equivalence” is a misleading term and shouldn’t be used.

Finally I’ll say to his link at the bottom: “[Michael Marlowe’s ‘Against the Theory of Dynamic Equivalence’ (http://www.bible-researcher.com/dynamic-equivalence.html) offers wise comment and telling evidence of the slippage that occurs in the search for dynamic equivalence.]”

I would suggest that Marlowe’s article does not offer wise comment and telling evidence. Rather, what it does offer is a failure to understand the issues in translation methodology with reference to meaning based translation method. I would instead point you to Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence, 2nd edition by Mildred Larson, which does a far better job discussing the issues (with the caveat that the discussion of metaphor across languages has a few problems) – or perhaps Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice, which is a relatively easy read, cheaper, & helpful.

26 thoughts on “Dynamic Equivalence

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      1. Surprisingly I’m not that far into the book. I was first made aware of this about 5 or 6 years ago from a friend who was an Israeli Orthodox Jewish convert to Christianity. He studied the Hebrew Bible and Talmud (which as you know is written in Aramaic) for years in yeshiva in Israel and then upon his conversion he moved to the US and went to Creighton University where he studied Greek and Patristics. And Brenton says in the intro to his translation that:

        The variety of translators is proved by the unequal character of the version: some books show that the translators were by no means competent to the task, while others, on the contrary, exhibit on the whole a careful translation. The Pentateuch is considered to be the part the best executed, while the book of Isaiah appears to be the very worst.

        There’s also a book that I’ve only been able to skim on Google Books because of its price called The Septuagint Version of Isaiah and Cognate Studies by Isac Leo Seeligmann but I’ve been assured that it’s one of the best books on the subject that’s out there. Now you have me wanting to dive back into Silva and Jobes to see what they say!

    1. If the text of Isaiah in the LXX (Rahlfs) is the ‘least formally equivalent’, then all English translations are mere paraphrases. The LXX, no matter which book you chose, is far more literally translated than you seem to imply. Maybe you could say, “Some books in the LXX are translated more loosely than others according to the very (dare I say ‘impossibly) strict standards of that day,” but to imply that they come anywhere close to the lax practices of Dynamic-Theory today, is simply dishonest.

      1. Tell me, Mr. Taylor, what have you read on meaning base translation methodology anyway? The very fact that you made up your own term “Dynamic-Theory” suggests that you read little to nothing on the subject.

        I’d also suggest that you spend some more time with your copy of the LXX. For example, the LXX translation of Daniel has so much paraphrase that it’s more a midrash than it is a translation.

        Suffice to say, you’re wrong.

        1. Mike,

          First, it’s been five years since I’ve bothered reading up on Dynamic Equiv. Translation theory and at that time, I never saw anyone call it “meaning base [sic] translation methodology.”

          As far as my reading went back then it included:

          Translating the Word of God (Beekman and Callow)
          Bible Translating: An Analysis of Principles and Procedures, with Special Reference to Aboriginal Languages (Nida)
          Style and Discourse (Nida, Louw, Synman, and Cronje)
          The Theory and Practice of Translation (Nida and Taber)
          Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating: From One Language to Another (Waard and Nida)

          and then, somewhat related popular works like:

          Invitation to the Septuagint (Jobes and Silva)
          The Inclusive Language Debate (Carson)
          The Word of God in English (Ryken)
          The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Poythress and Grudem)

          As for personal background, I’ve studied Greek under Moo and Beale at Wheaton (both proponents of D-E translation theory) and am the grandson of Ken Taylor, a pioneer of sorts in the practical application of the theory in English with both his Living Bible paraphrase as well as his oversight of the NLT later in his life.

          I’ve heard it all, read a lot, and remain unconvinced.

          As for my experience with the LXX, I’m not a scholar, so I focus my attention on the Greek of the NT and BibleWorks for the Hebrew and LXX of the OT.

          And while I might be wrong, I think you are too, but time will tell what the effects of your theory do to the church. I don’t think it’s too early to tell, but it hasn’t been fully studied yet. As for the older methods, they have proven themselves over and over and over again throughout the ages.


          Chris Taylor

        2. Well, at the very least, I’m glad you’re well read. I apologize for making misplaced assumptions.

          But you’ve confused something. My statement about your wrongness has nothing to do with translation methodology. I was referring to your words about the LXX – which are wrong. Daniel is FAR MORE of a paraphrase than the majority of our English translations – maybe not the Message.

          As for my phrase “meaning based translation” it comes for the book of the same title: Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence, 2nd edition by Mildred Larson. Personally, I consider it to be a far better book on translation than most (incidentally, I’d be more impressed with your list if you had left Ryken’s book out), though Gutt’s work on relevance & communication is also important.

          The older methods haven’t proven themselves because they aren’t methods. It’s the scholars of past translations who have proven themselves. Their method doesn’t actually exist.

  1. Good post. I think the basic translation philosophy of attempting to most clearly convey the meaning of a text (which is effectively “dynamic equivalence”) is the whole task of translation. The more translation I’ve done, the more I’ve come to see “literal” as a bit of a problematic concept in itself, since equivalent words don’t always have equivalent meaning across languages and language tends to be figurative anyway.

    Bible translation offers bigger problems because of the theological implications of the translation and the many differences over what various passages mean, which often makes “meaning-based translation” more difficult, since the meaning is often disputed.

    That said, I think translators sometimes overcomplicate the process in the attempt to find an “easier” conceptual equivalent for a word that actually does transfer across languages and cultures rather well (such is part of my criticism of the NIV’s translation of “sarx” into English, as posted recently on my blog, with the other major problem being that they chose a set of terms that in no way accurately represents the concept Paul was getting at in those sections).

    But the idea of a word-for-word approach only works if the words can function as equivalents across the languages and cultures, which is often not the case.

    1. I agree that translators sometimes over complicate things and I’m not terribly sure of SARX myself in the NIV, but I’m also less quick to criticize it than you as well, which you have already seen on your post.

      Even still the failures of a particular translator or even committee of translators is different than the failure of a particular translation methodology. At the very least meaning based translators *have* a method, one that is based on serious thought about how language & meaning work. So called, “essentially literal” translators have *no* method and the result is an adhoc translation that places an emphasis on lexical meaning sometimes to the exclusion of other kinds of meaning, e.g. pragmatic & discourse, not to meaning issues of sense & referent.

      The ESV gets away with it because it’s not an original translation & the NASB is often inconsistent to a fault.

  2. Mike: I enjoyed this post. As someone who grew up on the KJV, I find the ESV translation very easy for me to use and understand. Indeed, until recently I would have been firmly in the “essentially literal” camp myself. My views have been changing somewhat and I see that for someone who didn’t grow up in the culture that I did, that a different translation approach would be better. I wonder if you would consider writing a post that explains in more detail your translation philosophies, preferably with links to some accessible writings on the issue. In other words, write more about what you are *for* than *against*.

  3. Good post, thanks for the book pointers.

    I’ll second Matthew — I’d love any extra stuff you could write, eg. advice for someone who will only be doing a year of Koine study, vs. advice for the 4yr studier.

  4. Do you think a lot of this misunderstanding in the method of translation comes from a shallow understanding of the original languages? Since most people are trained to basically decode a sentence into English, instead of actually learning the languages so that they think and understand in Greek and Hebrew, then entire translations are produced that are more of a decoding rather than a translation. It’s like people learn enough Greek and Hebrew to be dangerous and realize that there are differences between the English sentence and the Greek sentence and so they try and make the English look as much like the Greek sentence as possible, making the sentence that is almost not even English in the end.

  5. The owner of this blog has claimed that my essay “Against the Theory of Dynamic Equivalence” reveals a “failure to understand the issues in translation methodology with reference to meaning based translation method.” But I doubt that anyone who is really familiar with the literature of the field, and who has actually read my essay, will agree with that dismissive statement.

    Michael Marlowe

    1. I have a name, you know.

      As for your essay, the only reason I was “dismissive” is because my post isn’t about your essay. It’s about Paul Helm’s post. But I’ll willing to say something more substantive (albeit brief in light of the comment format). I do know the literature of the field. I probably know it better than you do.

      Your essay lacks substance, only deals superficially with the relevant literature (preferring to focus on the lay discussions and basic intro volumes, as well as works that few today would accept as authoritative today), provides no sort of reliable theory or hypothesis about how language works (something that at least Nida attempted to do), and spends more time ripping a part translations themselves rather than dealing with the actual issues of theory and methodology. This is particularly problematic, in that no English translation has yet been produced that actually implements either Nida’s method or anyone else’s. More significantly, your essay conflates multiple methodologies into one. More than anything your essay spends more time with appeals to authority than it does in actually dealing with questions of language and communication. You consistently fail to answer the question “How does meaning work?” and create a chimera of argument that function more as an elaborate red herring than an argument against any sort of translation methodology. You regularly use words and phrases that have more rhetorical impact than grounding in reality (e.g. Stanley Porter is not a disciple of Nida). Overall, I found very little substance in it that is truly relevance to the discussion of the validity of Nida’s methodology.

      One of the few positive points in your essay is your extremely brief comment about Gutt. Relevance theory has much to show for it. And yet in as much as you’ve completely criticized the field of linguistics as a whole, its rather inconsistent of you to say anything positive about him either — even if briefly. But to the extent that Gutt’s move away from Nida reflects more terminological issues than actual substance, you’ve missed the boat. Even more so since you’ve thoroughly misread Nida as well. The only time I’ve seen someone so poorly misread someone else was when I read Stanley Porter’s misreading of the dead grammarians and linguistic literature in his dissertation.

  6. I perceive that “no English translation has yet been produced that actually implements either Nida’s method or anyone else’s” is your way of deflecting all criticism that notices the real-word consequences of these theories. It keeps them sacred, in a pure realm of academic abstractions, like the argument of an ivory-tower Marxist who insists that true Marxism has never been tried.

    1. You can perceive that if you want, but you’d be wrong. Completely.

      I’m just as frustrated with the NLT and other similar version as you are. Probably more. In terms of our views on specific translations, we probably have more in common than you would realize. But we have extremely different starting points.

      Fundamentally, the reason I don’t consider such translations to truly follow any sort of meaning base translation methodology (whether Functional Equivalence or Relevance Theory, etc.) is because consistently no truly professional translators are ever involved in English translations. It’s always Biblical scholars who have dipped their feet in translation studies. All we get is Biblical scholars and English stylists. That’s crap. That’s not what translation should be. Now maybe if there were an English translation whose committee had Biblical Scholars, Greek & Hebrew linguists and English linguists, we could somewhere. I don’t want someone who knows “English style.” I want someone who knows English. If it were somehow possible to convince someone like Geoffrey Pullum to work on an English translation in conjunction with people like D. A. Carson, Moises Silva, Karen Jobes, John Walton, Bruce Waltke, Dan Wallace, Paul Danove, Buist Fanning, Stephen Levinsohn, Steve Runge, Randall Smith, Randall Buth, Wayne Leman, Emma Pavey, and Ernst-August Gutt. Then maybe I could stand behind a translation like that as truly being one based both on the best Biblical, linguistic research, and a rigorous translation methodology.

      When it comes down to it, translations like the NASB frustrate me because they have no method and translations like the NLT frustrate me because they pretend to have a method but are more interested in simplified language. There is absolutely no reason why a meaning-based translation should be simple language. That is completely unacceptable and all the translations that have done that have given meaning based methodologies a bad name.

      For a discussion of what I think a good translation should do: https://evepheso.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/linguistic-functions-in-translation/
      For why actually having a methodology (whether in doing grammar or in doing translation): http://www.ntdiscourse.org/2010/05/why-bother-with-theoretical-frameworks/

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