Dynamic Equivalence: The Method is the Problem

When I was studying at DTS, my Hebrew prof, who is fairly well known, was really excited about dynamic equivalence translation. I heard his lectures and saw his work. It made me uncomfortable, though I wasn’t in position to show why. I suspected that the logical outcomes of the method he was teaching would be bad. I also suspected that if I was uncomfortable about what the teacher was doing, it would probably be worse when applied by the students to whom he was teaching this method, students with less expertise and experience.

Let me be clear: the particular practitioner of the method of dynamic equivalence is not the problem. My beef here is not with my prof. I only mention him and my experience in his class to say that I have been taught by a real live proponent of the method. I have heard his arguments. I am not reacting against “those anonymous people out there” with whom I have no real acquaintance. I disagree with him, but it’s nothing personal. I once gave him tickets to a Rangers versus Yankees game at The Ballpark at Arlington.

Moreover, my concern about this issue does not primarily arise from the treatment of gender language. This post is not me ranting against the NIV 2011. This post is me stating that I reject dynamic equivalence translation theory because of the logical outcomes of the method. The method is the problem.

The method bothers me because God inspired the biblical authors to write certain words, and translations can only be identified as the word of God insofar as “they faithfully represent the original” (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X). No translation is perfect. No theory is perfect. But let me give you an example of the logical outcomes of dynamic equivalence.

I preface this example with the simple observation that the gospel of John makes heavy use of the words “truth” and “glory.” In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler teaches that we must come to terms with the author we’re reading. What this means is that we want to understand how the author uses his words. Truth and glory are both major themes in the Gospel of John, and in order to understand how John uses those words, we will want to pay careful attention to where they occur and recur. In order to come to terms with him as an author, we must be able to see his distinctive use of significant language. That is, the commonplace uses of significant words are going to provoke less thought than the out of the ordinary uses of significant language.

Thus, it is interesting that when the Jews are going after the man born blind after Jesus has healed him, they say to him in John 9:24,

“Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.”

This is an interesting assertion, is it not? John presents the Jews assuming that God is on their side, that Jesus is clearly not from God, and that God will receive glory when the man supposedly born blind states what, in their view, accords with reality: that Jesus is a sinner.

We learn a lot from John about the Jews in that phrase “give glory to God.” They clearly think they are honoring God, which in turn implies that they think Jesus is not honoring God.

Now how would someone who has embraced dynamic equivalence translation philosophy render that phrase? We don’t have to guess. Here is John 9:24 in the NET Bible:

“Promise before God to tell the truth. We know that this man is a sinner.”

The problem here is not that the translator failed his vocab quizzes. It’s not that he has confused the meaning of doxa (glory) with aletheia (truth). The problem is that the translator has decided to render what (he thinks) the text means rather than translate the words of the author. In doing this, the translator has eliminated one of John’s key words, removing this occurrence of glory, and created a non-existent instance of another one of John’s key words by putting truth in the text when John did not have it there.

The NET Bible is heavily footnoted, and in their footnotes they tell you what they’ve done. They put John’s actual words in the footnote. Why not put John’s actual words in the text and what they think it means in the footnote? In this case, the inspired words are in the footnote, and the translator has put the fallible interpretation in the text. Backwards, no?

People may have to give some thought to the phrase “give glory to God.” Human beings are made in the image of God. They have enormous capacity. Give them a literal, wooden translation, and they might be forced to slow down and think as they read. They might ponder. They might begin to recognize certain Johannine styles of phrasing things–if translators would give them John’s actual words.

“Promise before God to tell the truth” sounds like something we would say. It doesn’t sound like John. That is the problem.

Another example? R. G. Bratcher thinks that some references to Jesus being glorified in John are pointing to the resurrection of Jesus. On the basis of this interpretation, Bratcher suggests that rather than translating John’s words so that the reader can interpret them, the translator should embed his own interpretation in the translation. Thus, Bratcher argues that instead of rendering ἐδοξάσθη as “glorified” in John 7:39 (“Jesus was not yet glorified”) and 12:16 (“when Jesus was glorified”), the translator should communicate that “Jesus’ resurrection shows his divine status” (R. G. Bratcher, “What Does ‘Glory’ Mean in Relation to Jesus?: Translating doxa and doxazo in John,” Bible Translator 42 [1991]: 407).

Contra Bratcher, since the reference to Jesus’ glorification is not explained in these texts, readers of John’s gospel should have the opportunity to determine what “glorification” means in John 7:39 and 12:16 by “coming to terms with John,” that is, by analyzing for themselves what “glorification” means in the rest of the Gospel. This will be a matter of dispute, but it could be that these references to Jesus’ glorification point to the cross rather than the resurrection. If Jesus’ glorification in John 12:23, 28; 13:31–32; 17:1, 5 is the cross, his glorification in 7:39 and 12:16 may also be the cross rather than the resurrection.

These two examples come not from novices but from supposed experts. These experts have decided that rather than rendering what John wrote in his gospel, it is their place to render what they think John meant. Note, too, that this is not a case of these words or concepts being overly technical. These are not recondite vocables that most people have never before read. The terms “truth,” “glory,” and “glorification” are all over the place in the Bible and in every-day speech.

If I am going to read the Bible in an English translation, I want to read the words of the biblical author.

And I know the kinds of examples that are going to be thrown at me about necessary adjustments going from language to language. But changing something like the very literal “a name to him John” in John 1:6 to “his name was John” is not the kind of thing anyone is rejecting. Nor is that kind of thing represented in the examples above. I am rejecting the change of one understandable phrase, “give glory to God,” to another, “promise before God to tell the truth.” I am rejecting the change from “Jesus was not yet glorified” to “Jesus was not yet resurrected.”

One final example. A stock expression in the Psalms is an idiom that, rendered literally, would be something like “to tread the bow” or “to walk the bow” (e.g., Ps 7:12; 11:2; etc.). Even the most literal translations render this along the lines of “bend the bow.” But stop and think about the expression “tread the bow.” What does that mean? Doesn’t it give a visual image? Can you see the warrior placing one end of the bow on the ground, holding the other end in his hand, and stepping on the bow in the middle to string the bow? Can you see the warrior tread the bow?

Now what does poetry do? Doesn’t poetry enable us to see the world as it really is by describing it to us in fresh ways? The removal of the visual image of the warrior treading the bow removes color and life from David’s poetry.

Learn the Biblical languages if you can. If you can’t, stick with the literal translations, and be suspicious of the experts who tell you that words like “literal” really aren’t that helpful.

22 Responses to Dynamic Equivalence: The Method is the Problem

  1. Steven Gilchrist June 29, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Well done prof Hamilton. I think you presented a trump tight argument as well as a pastoral admonition at the end.

  2. Jason Woelm June 29, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    Dr. Hamilton,

    Fantastic post! I don’t think I’ve ever been able to articulate my issues with dynamic equivalence translations like that. My Greek profs always used the examples like John 1:6 to “prove” that every translation cannot be literal. Your post has given me a new way (and some extremely poignant examples) to explain how subjectivity permeates dynamic equivalence translations. Thank you!

    I’m also reading God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, and, I must say, I’ve been appreciating all of the hard work you’ve put into it. When I’m reading it, I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Whoa,” out loud more! God bless you and your ministry!

  3. Pastor Pants June 29, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    I preach from the NET Bible. I delights me and frustrates me in equal measure. Have started preaching through Zechariah using the ESV (as the NET is less “literal” in the OT) and I have generally preferred the NET rendering thus far. I wish I could prepare my own translation of the text from the original in advance before I preach each week – maybe one day I will.

    I still love the NET and I probably always will. But I take the point and agree with it completely. I am teaching through John (using the NET) currently and recognising his unique lexical and conceptual themes has been one of the most joyful and profitable aspects of the study.

  4. Charles June 29, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    ““Promise before God to tell the truth” sounds like something we would say. It doesn’t sound like John. That is the problem.”

    That is a great sentence both in terms of style and analysis.

  5. John T. Jeffery June 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    This method of translation bothers me also, and I agree with your brief statement of objections to it as far as it goes. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any English translation that is free from the taint of this method. The centuries old rendering of “mn genoito” by “God forbid!” is a cause celebre that indicts even the anointed, I mean, “authorized” version. The translation committee in this case is on record in their “Preface” as intentionally exercising latitude in the substitution of English synonyms and idioms whether explicit warrant was present in the terms of the original or not. My point in bringing this up is that the root problem is not restricted to modern linguistic theory. However, modern linguistic thought, which seems to dominate at the SIL and publishing houses, may provide the impetus for the thoroughly dynamic equivalent approach commonly seen in translations published in the last century. This may be contrasted with the more isolated incidents documented in those produced from the time of the English Reformation to modern times (20th century). The most fundamental problem for me in this translation methodology is tied to your 4th paragraph above where you mention Article X of the ICBI “Statement”. I would point to the 9 articles preceding this one concerning an emphasis on the words of Scripture being inspired, otherwise known as verbal inspiration. This is Theology 101 stuff, but it appears to get lost in the scholarly shuffle in the development of translation “theory”. I might humbly beseech a translator, “What, pray tell, are you translating?” The honest and factual answer would then be, as you have indicated, that what is actually being translated is the thought behind the words, the perceived meaning of the words, or the translator’s own understanding of the author’s/Author’s intent. Without apology, I cannot conclude otherwise, but that the concept theory of inspiration drives this school of thought on translation despite any professed allegiance to verbal, plenary inspiration elsewhere. The true doctrine gets left at the gate when the house of translation is entered as if it had no practical bearing on the practical exercise directly impacting what we are then called upon to put our trust in as the Word of God. Those who labor in the ivory towers of translation need to get back to the fundamentals of Theology 101.

  6. Luke June 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    There’s a place for both methods here Jim. It’s not an either/or. You can prefer one to the other, but both methods/theories are valid & helpful for God’s people in reading God’s word. I’m thankful to God we have so many different types of translations in English to help the reader understand God’s word better. To speak out against one creates a tribal mentality that divides God’s people over silly things. I’m afraid your words & passion on such an issue could contribute to this division that already plagues American evangelicalism. You take on the spirit of a KJV-only type when you tell people to only read “literal” translations & be suspicious of the other ones. And yes, “literal” is not that helpful because no English translation even comes close to being “literal” if we take a “literal” translation of “literal.” The word is used as a club to bash people over the head about the interpretation of certain verses and is an indirect way of saying “I’m right & you’re wrong.” I vote for it to be dropped from our vernacular in favor of things like “word for word” or “formal equivalence.”

  7. Nick Hill July 1, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    andynaselli.com/good-bible-translators

  8. John Thomson July 5, 2011 at 3:55 am #

    As someone who does not have the original languages, I have found invaluable the J N Darby translation which is as literal as they come – and, I find, when consulting commentaries etc, as accurate as they come. I recommend it for folks like me.

  9. Joseph Bradberry July 9, 2011 at 8:44 am #

    To follow your point to its “logical conclusion” would then leave one having to learn Greek, as far as the N.T. goes, for no one could have truely received the genuine interpretation of God’s word except through its original language. Once done in this manner all one would have to worry about is which text-type one would employ Alexandrian, Byzantine, etc. etc., not to mention the textual variants that would give rise to dissonance. Although I do not agree with every interpreted bible, I do encourage people to use the KJV, NKJV, ESV, and the NASB for studing while using the NIV, NET, and the NLT as a point of reference for a more simplistic meaning. God Bless

  10. Brad July 18, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Hi Dr. Hamilton,

    I have just started to study linguistics, so I am a rookie, but it seems to me that the following statements are nonsensical because they show a lack of understanding of how words function:

    “Truth and glory are both major themes in the Gospel of John, and in order to understand how John uses those words, we will want to pay careful attention to where they occur and recur.”

    The above statement seems false because John never uses the words “truth” or “glory” since he didn’t know or write in English.

    “If I am going to read the Bible in an English translation, I want to read the words of the biblical author.”

    The above statement seems false because the Bible was not written in English. You cannot say “I want to read read the words of the biblical author in English” because those words don’t exist. The biblical authors never wrote in English and so you cannot find their words in the English text. You can only find the words of the biblical text by reading the original languages.

    These errors seem pretty basic, but I was wondering if I was missing something. I would appreciate your correction if I am wrong.

    Thanks!

    Brad

    • JMH July 18, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

      Brad,

      Thanks for your note.

      I think that there is enough overlap between the referent of the word “glory” in English and the word “doxa” in Greek for us to render “doxa” as “glory” or a synonym of “glory” in English. There is no reason to render “doxa” with a word like truth. And the same holds for the word “aletheia”–there is significant overlap between what that Greek word means and what the English word “truth” means.

      Further, rendering the words literally will allow those who study John’s gospel and his use of such terms to have their understanding of these terms shaped by John’s use of them.

      Blessings!

      JMH

      • Clif February 24, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

        It seems to me you are missing the point of what Brad was saying. What does “give glory” mean in Greek? Better yet is this a semitism that requires us to look at the Hebrew? If people want to read literal translations, that is fine as long as they have the resources to look up what the literal actually means in the original languages. I don’t think the NET Bible was rendering the WORD doxa as “truth” as much as the clause “give glory” which is very different than doxa by itself.

        You are right though that no translation is perfect. I would go further and say no translation is without interpretation. The more literal the translation, the more likely the person without a lot of background in the biblical languages will misunderstand or read it based on their own cultural background. Maybe we should be like the Muslims and just stick to the Greek and Hebrew.

  11. ruben August 5, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Literal translations, to me at least, are not accurate because they reflect Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic syntax. When the words are translated to English they make little sense because we do not structure our sentences the same way. It’s as simple as that, there may be cases where we get a different meaning and feel for the text because the way the original languages express are foreign to us and we assume all sorts of things based on our culture. God also used the language when He inspired Scripture, so we should be good translators of the language and not just transliterating the words.

  12. Jim Swindle February 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Fans of dynamic equivalence will think my idea laughable, but I believe one advantage of more-literal translations is that they leave open the possibility that some readers will understand the text better than the translators did. There are many verses where honest translators AGREE about the meanings of the words, but disagree about what the writer and the Lord ultimately meant by what they said. The translators agree about the denotation, but not the connotation nore the implications, of the words. With a more literal translation, godly believers, with the power of the Holy Spirit, may see things in a verse that the translators included, but didn’t fully notice nor fully understand.

    • Scott Youngman February 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

      I agree with your statement, “Learn the Biblical languages if you can.” And I would add: Learn the Biblical culture in which those languages were used. The two go together.

      Language and culture include idioms. By its very nature, an idiom cannot be translated word-for-word. Instead, we translate the meaning of the idiom. Think of English “kick the bucket;” it has a meaning which is not obvious to a non-native speaker from the individual words.

      You’ve left your readers at a bit of a disadvantage here on Jhn 9.24 by not quoteing the full NET footnote, which says:
      Grk “Give glory to God” (an idiomatic formula used in placing someone under oath to tell the truth).

      D. A. Carson writes in his commentary in the Pillar series:
      “Give glory to God” does not mean something like ‘Praise God for what he has done in your life’, still less ‘Praise God and not Jesus’, but, as in Joshua 7:19, something like ‘Before God, own up and admit the truth’.

      Leon Morris writes in his commentary in the New International Commentary on the New Testament:
      They begin with the pious exhortation to give glory to God. This should probably be understood (in the spirit of Josh. 7:19) as an exhortation to own up and tell the truth and confess one’s misdeeds. “Remember that God sees you” is the thought, “and give him due honor by speaking the truth”….

      So we must decide if this is an idiom or not. If it is an idiom, then the entire phrase has a meaning, not just the individual words. A good translation will try to convey both the word “glory” AND the overall meaning of the idiom.

      I think, therefore, that a good model could be something like “Give glory to God by telling the truth!” or perhaps “Before God, give glory to him by telling the truth!”

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