In the world of Bible translations there are two primary models or theories for bringing the ancient text into contemporary language. One is usually referred to as formal equivalence (or “literal” or “essentially literal”). The other is referred to as “dynamic” or functional equivalence.
Formal equivalence involves trying to make a translation that changes as little as possible from the original, or source, text. Word order changes are only made when necessary to make sense in the translated, or target, text. That includes keeping the order of clauses the same if possible. Grammatical structures are also kept the same if possible. For example, an effort is made to translate a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb, and a prepositional phrase with a prepositional phrase. Effort is also made to translate a word or phrase the same every time it occurs.
Translating idioms is a challenge for any translator. Formal equivalence prefers to keep the idiom the same if it “makes sense” in the target language, but this is a debatable issue. Versions that favor formal equivalence sometimes retain a idiom that some readers think does not really make sense or worse, miscommunicates. Such is the case with “stand in the way of sinners” in Psalm 1:1 and “cleanness of teeth” in Amos 4:6.
That brings us to dynamic or functional equivalence, sometimes referred to as “idiomatic translation” because it strives to translate a source text into the “idiom” or natural expression of the target language. All so-called idiomatic translations include some passages translated “literally,” when such a translation sounded natural in the target language. But in cases where a change would result in a more natural expression in the target language, a functional equivalence translation does not hesitate to make that change. The original “form” of the text is considered to be separate from and expendable to the substance or meaning of the text. Where formal equivalence translations have a high tolerance for expressions that do not sound natural in the target language—and so require more processing effort on the part of the reader—functional equivalence translations have a very low tolerance for such expressions.
Is there a third way? Perhaps. Optimal equivalence, the translation approach of the HCSB, shares some features with both formal and functional equivalence. Like formal equivalence, it does not downplay the importance of the form of the source text. The sentences “It was Eddie who scored the touchdown” and “Eddie scored the touchdown” may be semantically equivalent, but they are not interchangeable. Each is appropriate in different contexts. Form matters.
Among the many issues of “form” that matter in translation is gender. Functional equivalence translations tend to avoid “he,” “him,” “his,” “man,” and “father” where possible, replacing them with such words as “you,” “they,” and “parent.” Optimal equivalence is not driven toward such changes, and the HCSB is committed to gender accuracy.
On the other hand, optimal equivalence is not so committed to retaining the form that it is willing to produce translations that are hard to understand; it does not settle for a translation that merely “makes sense.” It shares functional equivalence’s commitment to naturalness of expression. This often requires a footnote giving the literal rendering of a word or phrase that has had to be translated idiomatically.
For example, in order to produce an accurate translation of the phrase “stand in the way of sinners” in Psalm 1:1—that is, a translation that does not mislead the reader—the HCSB translates it as “take the path of sinners.” But attached to the word “take” is a footnote giving the literal meaning, “stand in.” The same is true of the expression “cleanness of teeth” in Amos 4:6, which is rendered “absolutely nothing to eat” with a note giving the literal phrase. There are over 3,000 such notes in the HCSB text.
With its dual commitment to the importance of form in the source text and to naturalness of expression in the target language, optimal equivalence is best able to produce a translation that is both faithful and clear, such as the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
Dr. Ray Clendenen serves as Senior Editor of Bible and Reference Publishing at B&H Publishing Group in Nashville, Tennessee.