How to Choose a Bible Translation for You and Your Child, Part Two
How to Choose a Bible Translation for You and Your Child
Part Two: “Como se llama?” – The Difference Between Formal and Functional Translations
By Chris Jennings, Assistant Pastor of Children’s Ministries
If you have even learned a little bit of Spanish, you have probably heard the Spanish question, “Como se llama?” [komo say yama] That is what someone would ask you if they were first meeting you and did not know your name. And you might respond back, “Me llamo Chris.” [may yamo kris] If one were to translate the phrase “Como se llama?” “formally” (or “literally”), it would be translated “What yourself call?” But no Spanish student worth his salt would ever translate it that way! He would “functionally” translate the phrase “What is your name?”
This same issue occurs when scholars translate the Bible, the divinely inspired Word of God. The Hebrew and Greek languages often have very different syntax (sentence structure) than English does. English usually uses a “Subject-Verb-Object” sentence structure (John threw the ball). Hebrew, for example, often follows a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure, (Threw John the ball).
Because of these differences between Hebrew, Greek and the English language, no Biblical translation is truly “literal” or “word-for-word.” This should not cause too much concern, however. Even though “What is your name?” is not a “literal” translation of “Como se llama?”, the meaning is the same. All Bible translations make some adjustments in English to make the Hebrew and Greek clear to English readers. Translators have to make a critical decision when translating the Bible: how much of the original syntax, idioms and terminology do I keep in my English translation? Formally equivalent translations (such as the New King James Version, the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible) make a decision to keep as much of the original syntax and idioms as they can, but still attempt to make the English comprehensible. Functionally equivalent translations (such as the New Living Translation or the Good News Bible) have as their goal to translate the original meaning of the text without necessarily using Hebrew or Greek idioms or syntax. Mediating translation (such as the New International Version) attempt to balance using original syntax and idioms and creating a translation that sounds natural to an English reader.
Let’s look at a few translations of Romans 5:1 to make this clearer:
Greek: Dikaiothentes oun ek pisteos eirenen exomen pros tou theou dia tou kuriou emon Iesou Xpristou.
“Word-for-word”: Being justified therefore from faith peace we have to God through the Lord our Jesus Christ.
“Formally Equivalent” Translations:
King James Version (KJV):
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
English Standard Version (ESV):
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Notice a couple of things in these “formal” (often called “literal”!) translations – none of them are direct word for word translations, even of a simple Greek sentence. Even translations that people refer to as “literal” are not as literal as one might think. The translators all (and rightly so) made the choice to make the meaning of the Greek sentence as clear and natural as possible in English while keeping as much of the syntax as they could.
“Functionally Equivalent” Translations:
New Living Translation (NLT):
“Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.”
Contemporary English Version (CEV):
“By faith we have been made acceptable to God. And now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God.”
Functional translations try to make their translation sound as natural to the reader as the original would have to its reader. These translations also sometimes decide to change words such as “justify” into phrases that make more sense to younger readers or readers who know English as a second language. The danger that this type of translation can fall into however, is that they sometimes add words or phrases that don’t exist in the original, such as “has done for us” in the NLT. They trade readability for accuracy. The benefit of these translations is that younger readers can better understand what they are reading.
New International Version (NIV):
Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB):
“Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mediating translations take a middle ground between form and function. Although the NIV is not too different from the formally equivalent versions here, the HCSB made a decision to change “having been justified” to “have been declared righteous.” Theologically, both are correct. To a new Christian, “justified” might sound odd and unfamiliar, but “declared righteous” may be clearer.
As you can see, translators make tough decisions when it comes to translating the Bible, and no translation is perfect. Formally equivalent translations may be more accurate but give up readability and may be less natural and understandable to younger readers. Functionally equivalent translations may be more natural and clear, but give up accuracy at times. In my next article I will make some suggestions for how to choose a translation both for you and your children.
Sources for this Article:
Burge, Gary et al. Bible Translations Comparison. Torrence, CA: Rose Publishing, Inc.
Fee, Gordon D. and Strauss, Mark L. How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth. Zondervan, 2007.
Sheeley, Steven M. and Nash, Jr., Robert N. The Bible in English Translation: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdom Press, 1997.