Please Support the Bible Translation Work of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
In translation philosophy, the goal of DE/FE is to produce a translation that is the “functional equivalent” of the OL text. As I said earlier, I take strong exception to the use of the term “equivalent,” regardless of whether it is used to describe interpretive translation or literal translation. But for the purpose of this chapter, let’s assume that a translation can succeed at being equivalent overall to the original text.
“Functional” equivalence as a philosophy assumes that it is possible to create a translation with the exact same meaning as the OL text, without matching the grammatical forms found in the original or using words that match the meanings of the OL words, as established or recommended by lexical research. Of course, it also assumes that a translation done as a formal equivalent differs from a functional equivalent to such an extent as to be contrasted with it. In other words, two such translations will belong to these two separate categories, and there is a dichotomy between them.
The question is, are these assumptions justified? I think it is possible to evaluate the assumptions about word meanings and the two separate categories without great effort. First, the meanings of OL words as they were understood in ancient times have been researched and provided in standard lexicons, so I think there are only three possible options for OL translation: 1) use one of the meanings in the lexicon for the word in question; 2) use a synonym or a phrase that matches one of the meanings listed; or 3) use a word or phrase that is not a match (either entirely or partially). Option three will be chosen either when the translator has information about the meaning that is better than that available to the lexicographer(s), or when the translator chooses to interpret the word in a different way based on his understanding of the context.
The first option is preferred most of the time for literal translation, and frequently the second option is preferred and exercised with considerable care to maintain “equivalence.” The third option is rarely chosen, and then is not considered legitimate unless the translator has better information than the lexicographer(s). As I have explained previously, this can happen when the translator is able to examine texts where the word is used outside the Bible, i.e. texts that were not available to the lexicographer(s). Over time, it seems inevitable that the standard lexicons will be revised to account for these additional texts. It is also possible, I believe, for the translator to have a legitimate disagreement with the lexicographer(s) based on evidence–as opposed to subjective interpretation.
As for functionally equivalent translation, the fact of the matter is that very often the first two options will be preferred as well, though sometimes with greater freedom when a phrase is chosen (option two). In addition to all the “little” words like the articles (“the,” “a/an”) and pronouns that occur routinely in the OL text, the translator will very often find that the meanings chosen by the translator of a literal version will be agreeable to himself as well. This is a word-for-word agreement that ironically exists between literal and DE/FE translations. I could list examples, but there would be thousands of them, in view of the many thousands of total words in the Bible.
Consider just one example, the word “altar.” It is hard to imagine a synonym or synonymous phrase that is either better or needed. The word occurs 381 times in the NASB, 380 times in the ESV, 376 times in the HCSB, 381 times in the NIV, and 408 times in the NLT, where it obviously would have been replaced or paraphrased if it were considered awkward or difficult. Even the more restricted term “bronze altar” occurs in all the translations in almost all the same verses.
This across-the-board agreement of translation choices between Bibles with competing translation philosophies reveals at the outset a flaw in the assumption of a dichotomy between literal and DE/FE translations. It soon becomes apparent that one translation is not categorically a formal equivalent and another a functional equivalent, but that the differences have to be examined at a verse-by-verse (or even line-by-line) level.
Of course the differences, which do occur often, are due to functionally equivalent translation allowing the translator greater flexibility in choosing phrases (option two), and–especially–meanings based on subjective interpretation (option three). This seems to have been the case, for example, in the NIV’s rendering of “works” in Rom. 8:28. It simply is not the equivalent of the original Greek, and there are no objective grounds for thinking that the formal lexical meaning is incorrect.
If we recall the instruction that Eugene Nida’s professors gave him to translate the meaning of a passage and not just the words, I have to conclude that there really is no such thing as a functional equivalent at the level of the OL word, i.e. an “equivalent” word or phrase that is in any sense contrary to the formal meaning. Indeed, “equivalent” and “contrary” do not go together well. I would add that if the meaning of the passage depends on the subjective interpretation of some of the words, contrary to their formal meanings, then it follows that the interpreted meaning probably will be incorrect.
Focusing on agreement between formal and functional equivalents, what is true for word meanings is also true for grammatical constructions, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Again, a list of examples would be very long, so I will note just one example and leave it to the reader to make more comparisons, if desired.
There are few grammatical constructions more basic and common than the simple sentence with a subject, verb, and object. There are thousands of them in the Bible, and seldom can the word order be changed in English without the meaning of the sentence being botched or obscured. Recall, specifically, my word-for-word translation of Is. 40:19 earlier. It is necessarily a little awkward, but an interlinear-style translation of the same verse would switch the subject and object in the first clause, completely confusing the meaning. Since English is so dependent on word order to express grammatical relationships, it is inevitable that literal and DE/FE English translations will mostly agree on the structure of these sentences. Even when the word order is altered for emphasis (either to reflect the OL text or as an interpretive decision by the translator), care will be taken not to confuse subject and object.
So in point of fact, there is no categorical dichotomy between literal and DE/FE translations in regard to word meanings and grammatical structures. For both, there will be a great deal of agreement, and an accurate appraisal will require comparisons on a verse-by-verse basis. Furthermore, I maintain that translations of individual words that are contrary to the formal, lexical meanings without objective justification do not qualify to be considered “equivalents,” so to treat them as such is begging the question.
However, it remains for us to examine whether grammatical structure or style in an RL translation that differs from the structure of the OL text can be considered functionally equivalent. Some differences are unavoidable; one of the most basic is word order, which is relatively inflexible in English compared to the OL’s of the Bible. Even ancient Hebrew, which is primitive in its structure compared to NT Greek, has a marker lacking in English that can provide greater flexibility in the placement of the direct object, for example. Emphasis (and de-emphasis) is conveyed by non-routine word order, as we saw for example in the case of Is. 40:19. When emphatic word order in the OL text cannot be duplicated in the English translation, emphasis is lost, and therefore some of the meaning is lost.
A classic example of this loss is found in John 1:1.
 We saw an example of this in the NLT’s use of “formed in a mold” for “cast” above (p. 67).
 I emphasize once again that interlinear translations are not to be confused with word-for-word translations, as they have been by some who have used the acronym “WFW” as a designation for interlinears.
 The significance of a loss of emphasis might not seem obvious, because the limitations of English have accustomed us generally to do without it in works of high literary quality like the Bible, and even in lesser works like modern novels. The significance becomes obvious, however, in spoken English where voice inflection (a change of volume or tone) is so important in conveying meaning or intent. To do the same thing in written English usually requires the use of italic or boldface print, often considered unacceptable. Even when used (as it is occasionally in this book), it must be used sparingly in works of quality.