Monday, September 14, 2009

Dynamic Equivalence - Is there such a thing?

At present we are seeing a sudden flurry of comment about bible translation and its various principles and objectives, stimulated this time by the appearance of a new version of the NIV. Bible translations are of course big money, and so the comments extolling the virtues of literal translations, and trashing the less literal (or vice versa) are far from being ‘merely academic’ (as is said, usually with the trace of a sneer). So here’s my merely academic pennyworth of a contribution to all this.

Of course all translation involves compromise. But since the Christian revelation presents itself as the truth of God, the preservation of truth, cognitive equivalence, literal accuracy, should be the translator’s goal, even at the expense of immediate intelligibility. 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 take it that a literal translation has the best chance of preserving truth. I shall say no more in defence of this here. 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. Nor am I concerned with the theology at work in some of these translation practices, the idea that the Bible is prior to the church, for example, and that Bible study is an individual and isolated activity, and the allied assumption that it is an unquestionably good strategy for new translations to be parachuted into cultures that are totally lacking in churches or ministers of the gospel trained to ‘give the sense’ to the Bible.

Instead I want briefly to comment on the phrase ‘dynamic equivalence’ offered as a principle or goal of translation, and to argue that the only sort of as ‘dynamic equivalence’ there can be is cognitive equivalence. To suppose that there could be two translations that differ in cognitive meaning but are dynamically equivalent is incoherent. Dynamic equivalence is not a goal that can be achieved.

To begin, consider the phrase itself. It has its home in physical mechanics. Two differently-designed engines are dynamically equivalent if, say, they provide the same performance – acceleration, top speed, steadiness etc. – to two equivalent vehicles. Such an equivalence, or its failure, is precisely measurable. It is possible to achieve this equivalence to some degree, and to achieve it exactly.

When the phrase is used to mark out a goal in translation is clearly metaphorical, for here we are talking not about physical dynamics, but about the effect that apprehending the meaning of a word or phrase or sentence may have, an ‘equivalent effect’, And what I claim is that there is no such thing as ‘dynamic equivalence’ achievable other than cognitive equivalence, and certainly it is not achievable through paraphrase, however ingenious and skilled the paraphraser may be. Why? Because the response of the reader is via his or her beliefs about what they read, what they take what they read to mean. The impacton the human mind of single words, phrases, and complete sentences, is obviously not physically mechanical, but it comes through the meaning or the perceived meaning, of the words. And so we should stick to the original words, translating or transliterating them as best we can.

To this there is one objection, that since all translation fails, a literal and exact translation fails as much as does a papaphrastic translation. The Message is no more or less a failure than the KJV or the ESV. It is true that translation always fails. But it is not always a complete failure.All sorts of nuances are lost in translation. But if translation were a complete failure then there would be no gospel, since Jesus’ teaching as we have it in the Greek of the Gospels is already a translation from Aramaic. And if translation were impossible there would be no Christian theology, since that is predicated on the assumption that the meaning of Scripture is Scripture. And what this means is that it is possible to give the meaning of Scripture in words other than the very words of the original text. The trouble is that paraphrases take greater risks with the original, and they confound translation with commentary, leading to expectations on the part of the reader than are not borne out by the original text.

There cannot be exact equivalence in translation, granted, but there can be cognitive equivalence. For example, it is possible to translate a sentence which when it is true, the translation is true, and when it is false, the translation is false. And it is cognitive equivalence that the translator should aim at. Anything less than this as an aim confuses translation with paraphrasing and commentary. . Commentaries and paraphrases on a text have their place, have a vital place, but they are not translations of an original text. For if two assertions, or questions, or commands, A and B have a different meaning, as they must if B is a paraphrase of A, or a commentary on it, then - quite simply – the belief that A is either true or false is a different belief, has a different cognitive content, than the belief that B is either true or false. So paraphrasing, or producing ‘translations’ of a colloquial or up to the minute kind, cannot produce sets of beliefs in their careful readers that are equivalent to the beliefs produced by a text that keeps close to the original. For beliefs have content, they are beliefs that what A states has such and such a meaning. It is the cognitive content that gives the corresponding belief its unique character. A different account of A means that a belief that this different account is true (or false) is a different belief. A different account, a different meaning, a different belief.

So what if reading an exact translation fails to communicate the meaning of the passage, perhaps because the language has no exact equivalence, and as a result words like ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Messiah’ have to be retained, or because of some other cultural difference? What if there’s no word for ‘righteousness’ or ‘atonement’ or ‘resurrection’? Maybe the best translation strategy in such circumstances is the transliteration of the word with the addition of a marginal note, which is the practice of the Study Bibles of today, and of the Geneva Bible of the Puritans.

It is at this point, where there is failure in translation due to the inadequacy of vocabulary, that an informed and faithful ministry of the word of God is indispensable, to take the time and trouble to explain and expound the idea of righteousness or atonement in the receiving language. Such explanation will no doubt use apt illustrations, metaphors, analogies etc. But most of all it will develop the biblical idea of righteousness or atonement or Messiah, by this means encouraging hearers and readers to enter into the biblical framework of things. In other words, ‘translation’ is a two-way street. Translaors must do their best to translate the original as faithfully and exactly as possible into native languages. But the speakers of those languages have also to be prepared to re-situate themselves in the world of biblical concepts and biblical claims. 'I want to know what the Bible means, and I want to know NOW' is no way to carry on.

[Michael Marlowe’s ‘Against the Theory of Dynamic Equivalence’ ( offers wise comment and telling evidence of the slippage that occurs in the search for dynamic equivalence.]