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.

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