Bible Versions Part I: Formal Equivalence

Bible Versions Part I: Formal Equivalence

I realize one of the most overwhelming things for a new Christian (or even an experienced Christian) can be finding the right Bible. With that in mind, I will attempt to provide a common man’s guide to finding the Bible version best suited for your reading and study. Foundational to my own exploration of the subject is the realization that there is simply no single best Bible version. There are a number of factors that go into each available translation, making some Bibles more suitable than others for each person.

I am certainly not a translation expert, but I have some of my own experience in researching and using various versions that I want to share with you, because it greatly helped me determine which Bible translations are most appropriate. Yes, do note that I use the plural Bibles, meaning that I commonly use multiple Bible versions in my study. I recommend that everyone do the same.

I wanted to start with a foundation for Bible translation. That foundation is the translation philosophy behind the Bible. All this term means is that there are simply different focal points for various ways of translating the Bible.

I realize there are more technical ways of breaking these groups down, or there may even be other categories, but essentially there are three main philosophies when it comes to translating the Bible. The three are formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and optimal equivalence. It can be argued that a fourth category could be a paraphrase. Paraphrases have their place, but I wouldn’t recommend one as a primary study. With that in mind, I’ll stick with the three primary categories.

Up first is formal equivalence. Formal equivalence is simply a focus on maintaining the form of Scripture. More plainly stated, the translation seeks a literal, word-for-word structured translation from the original languages. The translation seeks to preserve everything from verbs to sentence structure. Bibles that belong in this category include the NASB (New American Standard Bible) and the ESV (English Standard Version). Let’s look at a quick example from the NASB and ESV:

Psalm 22:1 NASB
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.

Psalm 22:1 ESV
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

The NASB is often cited as an example of “Yoda speak” – you can see how the original language form remains in the phrase “Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.”  I can almost hear “young Skywalker” appended to that phrase when I read it. The NASB is also the more literal of the two, and known for being one of the most literal translations available. The ESV is a little more palatable, although still not something you would hear someone say in normal conversation. We would say something more like “God, don’t you hear my groaning? Why don’t you save me?” Obviously, there are variations on that, but look at modern structure verses what you see above. That’s the difference in a nutshell.

Our church uses the ESV and it remains one of my favorite Bible versions. I find it fairly easy to read and study, and it preserves much of the figurative language in the Bible, which is a huge plus for my English-degreed background. However, as my youth group will tell you, I occasionally struggle with the ESV when it comes to reading Scripture aloud. The ESV uses a number of clauses in a single sentence, and that can be a battle for a culture used to overly short and choppy sentences.

I am going to stay away from getting mired in controversy, but the weak points of formal equivalence translations comes in sacrificing clarity for loyalty to the structure. Formal, aka. literal, translations are often lauded as being the closest to the original Bible. This is partly true and partly untrue. The true part is, again, the structure is preserved for the most part. However, English versions also end up with some 200,000+ words more than the original Bible because each language has its special connotations and language meaning. For instance, Hebrew numbers can mean numbers (amazing!) or they can be symbolic of something else, as is often the case with the Bible. How do you convey this with simply saying the English equivalent number? (Hint: Rhetorical question; you can’t do it.) Translation decisions must be made by the translator(s).

Formal equivalent versions are an excellent choice, but they are often best suited for study. I would suggest being careful when using a formal equivalence version for reading aloud or sharing the gospel with others. You’ll sometimes find yourself not only explaining the gospel, but explaining the translation of the gospel as well.


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