Form or function? (Choosing a Bible, Part 2)

When discussing philosophies of Biblical translations, there are two main classifications: formal equivalence and functional equivalence.

Formal equivalence attempts to maintain the “form” of the original language inasmuch as possible. This can also be described as a word-for-word translation (although that descriptor isn’t always technically accurate.)

Functional equivalence attempts to maintain the “function” of the original language inasmuch as possible. This can be described as a thought-for-thought translation. Functional equivalence is also sometimes termed “dynamic equivalence.”

The following chart summarizes a few of the differences between formal and functional equivalence in translation:

Formal Equivalence Functional Equivalence
Word-for-word Thought-for-thought
Words more “true to original” Tone more “true to original”
Syntax often more awkward Syntax often more natural
Generally higher reading level Generally lower reading level
Examples: NKJV, NASB, ESV Examples: NIV, TNIV, NLT

Why you should choose to use formal equivalence:

  • Lends itself well to deep personal study and rich word studies
  • Less opportunity for interpretation in translation
  • Generally uses more traditional terminology
  • May be more “poetic” (“Grace of God” rather than “God’s grace”)

Why you should not choose to use formal equivalence:

  • We’re not all scholars (especially not of Greek and Hebrew)
  • We’re not all readers (and formal equivalence does require more work to read and understand)

Why you should choose to use functional equivalence:

  • Easily read and understood
  • Lends itself well to devotional and evangelistic reading
  • Better captures tone of the original (which, since we aren’t all scholars, we might not be able to understand from a formal equivalence translation)

Why you should not choose to use functional equivalence:

  • It’s worthwhile to stretch our minds in the study of the Bible
  • The text is more likely to contain interpretation by the translator

Ultimately, both formal and functional equivalence can be useful modes for Bible translation–and are acceptable for use. I think it would benefit most believers to have at least one translation from each camp. Which type any given individual uses routinely and which type one uses as a reference probably varies a great deal based on one’s personal inclination towards cerebral or psychosocial expression. (Whether one is a “thinker” or a “feeler”, to use Myers-Briggs typology.)

4 thoughts on “Form or function? (Choosing a Bible, Part 2)”

  1. When studying a particular passage I like to read in in the KJV then in the NKJV and then again in the Amplified or NLT. I can appreciate the poetic version (formal) and gain more knowledge and understanding through the Amplified or NLT (functional). Thanks for this great comparison!

  2. Interesting. I like the NASB, precisely because that awkwardness gets my attention and makes me think about what I’m reading. So I guess I’m inclined toward formal equivalence.

  3. I’m more comfortable with formal because it’s closest to the original and less likely to be “off” — the increased translator interpretation can be a problem. But I can read the functional if I think of it more like a commentary.


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