Translation equivalence

Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog is blogging about translation equivalence. It’s a good post about the difficulties in translating from one language to another. He uses examples of real life modern languages to illustrate this. In his first post on this series, he gives great examples like:

When Spanish speakers want to learn the name of a person, they ask that person, “Cómo se llama?” A literal translation of the Spanish is: “How do you call yourself?” (or even more literally, in the Spanish word order, “How self you call?” But neither of these literal translations is what we English speakers say to someone to learn their name. The translation equivalent we use is, of course, “What’s your name?” In the Cheyenne Indian language the translation equivalent is, “Nitonshivih?” literally, “you-how-named?”

This really makes a lot of sense because it shows how difficult it is to translate the original source language into English or any other language. Here’s an example that hits home to me. In English, when you want to find out how someone is doing, you ask them: “How are you?” But in Chinese, you would ask: “Ni how ma?” Literally, it would be translated as: “Are you good?” In English, these two ways of asking the same thing in two different languages are very different. When translating from Greek into English, how could a literal translation do the proper job? It is absolutely impossible.

Wayne made another good point in saying:

Anyone who has studied a language beside their own knows that many wordings between the two languages do not match up word for word, or even the same words in different orders. To speak or write a language well, it is necessary to express concepts in that language the way that social conventions have determined those things are worded in that language. To be a fluent speaker of a language you must follow the syntactic and lexical rules of that language. To translate properly, we need to match equivalent form-meaning composites…

He is absolutely right because each language has its own unique and particular nuance that cannot be fully expressed in another language. Other than dialects that are similar to one another, there is probably not one language that can be perfectly translated into another language because each language is limited by its own vocabulary, grammar, and cultural-linguistic uniqueness.

The implications on accuracy in bible translation is huge. Some people may claim that formal equivalence (word-for-word translation from the Greek & Hebrew) is the most accurate but these claims are invalid. And some people also claim that dynamic equivalence (idea-for-idea translation) is the most accurate, but these claims are also invalid. If we go for formal equivalence (e.g., NASB, ESV), we may lose some accuracy in the writers’ intended ideas. Vice versa, if we go for dynamic equivalence (e.g., TNIV, NLT), we may lose some precision in the writers’ intended “technical definition”. There are pros and cons that go with each translation philosophy so we must allow for some “give-and-take” if we choose to go with one particular translation that is predominantly governed by one philosophy. Words and/or ideas expressed in the original language can never be 100% perfectly expressed in another language because that second language may not even have an equivalent word available.

So if we are looking for the most accurate translation, there is no such a translation. If you find one, please let me know. I would never look to just one translation for “accuracy.” Personally, I think one should have a dynamic translation in one hand, and a formal translations in the other.

5 thoughts on “Translation equivalence

  1. Thanks a lot, this is really helpful. Really well for me and I’m not going back to the proprietary guys! If You Need More Information Please Visit us :- eTranslate is an international company specialising in the provision of Internationalization and Globalization Solutions.


  2. The CSB and TNIV are both great middle-of-the-road translations.

    As I sit here doing my sermon prep, I have open on my table the TNIV, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NLT, and the ESV, HCSB and Message on But having too many sure takes up a lot of space though. 😉


  3. Well I have found the CSB to come about as close to that happy marriage of formal/dynamic (not perfect by any means), but even then I’ll reference say the ESV or NASBu (formal), or the TNIV, NLT (dynamic), or The Message (out there somewhere 😉 when studying.

    Recently I have been comparing the REB, as well.


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