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Comparing Versions - Formal and Functional Equivalence

An explanation of the Translation Chart in What's in a Version?

by Henry Neufeld

In translation theory, formal equivalence refers to translating by finding reasonably equivalent words and phrases while following the forms of the source languaage as closely as possible. It is often referred to as "literal translation." In the first chart, I rate 20 translations based on how closely they follow the forms of the source language. In making this determination, I took a single passage in all of the versions, and took the ratio of the total words used in translation to the number of words that can be strictly linked to the forms of the source language. Simple word reordering necessary for the translated text to follow word order rules of the receptor language are not included, but I also count one word off for every sentence break not reflected in the source text and for each instance of substantial reordering, such as moving a clause from one sentence to another. I also count off one word for any word which is not reflected in the translation. After this I modify the value somewhat according to some other factors in the translation including translation of idioms, conversion of measures, and other such issues.

It is very important to understand that the measure of "formality" is not the equivalent of the measure of accuracy. In this index, and the following index of idiom translation, the issue is the approach to translation; accuracy as such is not the issue. In order to be accurate a translator may need to stick close to the form of the source language, but on the other hand careful paraphrasing may be necessary to make the translation clear and understandable.

Formal Equivalence (Literal)

Living Bible1
The Message2
Contemporary English Version5
Todayís English Version6
Revised English Bible6
New Living Translation6
Godís Word7
New Jerusalem Bible7
New Century Version7
New American Standard Bible9
New American Bible9
New International Version8
Todayís NIV8
New Revised Standard Version9
Holman Christian Standard Bible9
English Standard Version9
New English Translation9
New King James Version10
King James Version10

Idiomaticity or Functional Equivlance

Functional equivalence, sometimes called dynamic equivalence or meaning based translation, is a translation method in which the translator attempts to reflect the thought of the writer in the source language rather than the words and forms. The translator will read a sentence or other unit of thought, try to understand it as well as possible, and then write that thought in the target language. The forms of the source language are not important, because they are not the same as the forms of the target language.

This index is a measure of the extent and type of rephrasing used in translating idioms. I checked thirty verses containing Greek or Hebrew idioms in each of the translations. A word for word translation is rated at no points, an understandable but basic and dry translation is rated at one point, while translation with an English idiom with a similar impact to the idiom in the source language receives two points. The scale values are based on the number of points possible.

Again, don't read this index as a value judgment on various Bible versions. The New American Standard Bible, for example, aims to be a word-for-word translation. Its high score on formal equivalence and low score on idiomaticity reflects the intent of the translators. The Message, on the other hand, scores very poorly on formality, but has a practically perfect score on idiomaticity. This again reflects the intent of the translator. Neither tells us how accurately either version reflects the intent of the authors in the source language. That requires separate and much more extensive study.

King James Version1
New American Standard Bible1
English Standard Version1
Holman Christian Standard Bible2
New King James Version2
New Revised Standard Version3
Todayís NIV3
New American Bible4
New Jerusalem Bible5
New International Version5
New English Translation5
Living Bible7
Revised English Bible7
New Living Translation7
Godís Word7
New Century Version8
The Message9
Contemporary English Version9
Todayís English Version9

This book on Bible versions examines functional equivalence and formal equivalence and how they impact your use of a Bible

For further information on Bible Translations see:

What's in a Version
What about the KJV?
The KJV was one of the greatest single achievements of Bible translation of all time, but it has become somewhat archaic and new discoveries in archeology and language have passed it by. This pamphlet discusses the importance of the KJV, but also the value of modern versions.
Bible Translations FAQ
These are some of the most persistent questions I get in e-mail and also when I teach. What is functional equivalence, formal equivalence, paraphrase, and dynamic equivalence? How do they change Bible versions? Why don't you think the KJV is best? This is hard hitting, sometimes a bit sarcastic, but bear with me because I have answered these questions many times.
Notes on the Major Bible Versions
Provides some short notes on the Bible versions. Bible Translation Selection Tool
Choose your own criteria and prioritize them to produce a list of Bible versions in the order you might want them.
Choosing a Bible with Study Notes
What's in a Version? (Book)
My books for laypeople on Bible translations (cover picture to the left). This book goes into much more detail on the process of Bible translation and what that means to you as an individual student and reader of scripture.