Author: Ron Graham
Dynamic Equivalence in Translation
—Acts 20:7 as an example
The scriptures were written mainly in two languages. The Old Testament’s language was Hebrew. The New Testament’s language was the common Greek spoken in the time of Christ and his apostles. Today the scriptures are translated from those languages into hundreds of other tongues. Most people need the scriptures translated into the language which they speak best.
This lesson is about one of the principles of translation known as "dynamic equivalence". Don't let this technical term put you off. The principle itself is both easy and important to understand. By taking a little time to understand this principle, you will be more intelligent both in choosing the best translations to buy, and in reading those translations.
1 What is dynamic equivalence?
When a statement in one language is translated into another language, there are two things that the translator must consider.
- The form of words
- The force of meaning
Translation is not accomplished by merely substituting words in a word-for-word equivalence. More often than not, this will not produce the force (or dynamic) of meaning. The translator will therefore modify the form of words so as to achieve the same force of meaning. The jargon for "the same force of meaning" is "dynamic equivalence".
2 An example
What "dynamic equivalence" is, and why it is important, needs explanation. The best way to do that is to take an example from the scriptures. There are dozens of examples, but to keep our study as simple as possible, I've tried to choose just one example that would illustrate the principle of dynamic equivalence well. It is a phrase in Acts 20:7.
In the original manuscript, the phrase would have appeared something like Figure 1. Writers used only capital letters and did not put spaces between words...
Translators today have the Greek in an easier form to read. The spaces have been inserted, and a lower case script is used. The phrase we are using as an example looks like Figure 2. The translator’s task is to help us understand what these Greek words mean, and the translator will do so by using an English phrase that conveys the same meaning as that Greek phrase does.
τη μια των σαββατων
The translator would not simply write an equivalent English word in place of each Greek word as is done below (Figure 3). A word-for-word replacement is often of little use, because it is only a form of words equivalent, and may not convey the force of meaning (the dynamic equivalence).
Whilst each English word in Figure 3 is a counterpart of a Greek word, this string of English words is not a translation, because it fails to convey the meaning that the string of Greek words conveys.
the one of-the sabbaths’
The translator, being able to understand the Greek, would see three changes that need to be made in the above English rendering, so that it will give the sense of the Greek...
- the word "σαββατων" rendered "sabbaths'" really means "week" in this instance
- the word "μια" rendered "one" has the ordinal sense and actually means "first" in this instance
- there is an elipsis in the Greek phrase and a word implied in the Greek needs to be supplied in the English, namely the word "day"
So the translator writes the phrase this way (Figure 4)...
the first day of the week
The Greek phrase is now rendered in plain English such that we understand it well. The phrase has been made intelligible to us. Most translators would be satisfied with this translation. It nicely conveys both the form of words and the force of meaning.
3 Forsaking the form of words
Before we go any further, I would like you to look at something Paul says. "The things given us by God we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Holy Spirit..." (1Corinthians 2:12-13).
Notice that Paul claims that his words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, many translators will not go beyond the sort of translation illustrated in Figure 4.
These translators try to balance the form of words and the force of meaning, and try to accommodate both. That is difficult at times. However these translators will attempt it, because they believe that both form of words and force of meaning are inspired by God.
Other translators, however, deliberately forsake the form of words used by the original writer, and substitute it with their own form of words so as not to be restricted in conveying what they believe to be the force of meaning.
Such translators would treat as paramount the "word" in the sense of "message" (Acts 20:7). They would treat as secondary the particular words used to express that "word" or message. They are willing to sacrifice the form of words for the sake of clarifying the message and meaning the words convey.
To show you what I mean, here is an example (Figure 5). In this "translation" the English word "Sunday" has no counterpart in the string of Greek words being "translated". Yet the translator believes that this English word makes the string of Greek words intelligible. In this example the translator provides no equivalence in the form of words at all, but attempts to to provide clear "dynamic" equivalence.
As another example (Figure 6), let us suppose a translator doesn't like the word "Sunday" because of its pagan connotation and lack of connection with the Christian faith. The translator nevertheless still wants to substitute the form of words in the Greek with a different form of words and so selects a phrase from another part of the scripture (Revelation 1:10) which a lot of Christians use in place of the name "Sunday".
the Lord’s day
That imaginary example is interesting because it replaces inspired words in one place with inspired words from another place! It is interesting also because there is a lot of meaning wrapped up in the phrase "the Lord’s day" that is not in the Holy Spirit’s phrase "the first day of the week".
So this would not really be dynamic equivalence would it? Much of what is called dynamic equivalence in translations is like that. There may be a lot of non-equivalence, a lot of meaning in the translation that is not in the original form of words.
Now let me give you an example that is not hypothetical or imaginary (Figure 7). This example may be found in a few English translations. The translator believes that the phrase reflects Jewish time reckoning, by which a day starts with evening (Genesis 1:5), six hours before midnight, when a day starts according to Roman reckoning.
The translator believes the "midnight" mentioned in Acts 20:7 is the beginning of Sunday, and Sunday is "the next day" mentioned in Acts 20:7. Therefore the translator thinks that the disciples gathered on Saturday evening. So the translator replaces the words "the first day of the week" with "Saturday evening".
Many regard that type of "translation" as dubious dynamic equivalence because it reflects the translator’s own interpretation. If the translator has made a mistake, and got the meaning wrong, then many who read that translation are led to make the same mistake. If the translator were to convey the original words and put "the first day of the week" the readers can work out for themselves whether it was Saturday evening or Sunday evening.
4 A word of caution
Dynamic equivalence, as a respectable principle of translation, has been around a long time. The work of J.B. Phillips and James Moffatt for example were in use a long time before the many later translations were produced. (Both these translators, incidentally, are contented with "the first day of the week" for our example phrase). Phillips especially used dynamic equivalence extensively.
In those days it was clearly understood what Phillips and Moffatt were doing. A strong distinction was made between their kind of work and the "stricter" translations. Their work was never intended to compete with or to replace those stricter translations, but rather to complement them. This important distinction has now become grey and blurred, and this must make us cautious.
Fortunately almost all translators write a foreword to their versions which clarify the principles they follow in translation. Furthermore, without knowing a speck of Hebrew or Greek, by comparing one translation with others, we can be alerted when we observe one translation making a definite departure from the norm.
The Point of Departure
The point of departure, the point where we should become very cautious, is exemplified at Figures 5, 6, and 7. The translator forsakes the form of Greek words inspired by the Holy Spirit, which is the equivalent of "the first day of the week" in English. That is replaced with the translator’s own words with a view to providing what the translator believes is a stronger and more accurate force of meaning.
I trust that this lesson has helped you understand how translations differ. Please don’t get the idea that I am "against" dynamic equivalence! The work of a translator should be, as J.B. Phillips well puts it, "to produce in the hearts and mind of his readers an effect equivalent to that produced by the author on his original readers". This is what dynamic equivalence is all about.
We do need to be aware however, that some translators may produce in the hearts and minds of their readers an effect quite different to that which the author of scripture produced on his original readers. That is certainly not dynamic equivalence, and that is what we ought to be "against".