The Lord Jesus and His apostles usually quoted from a Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint—when citing Scripture, and regarded this translation as the Word of God. This validates the use of translations throughout history, as the gospel has spread to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Until about 1950, translators employed a time-honored word-for-word translation method often called “Formal Correspondence” or “Essentially Literal” translation. The translators reproduced the words and forms of the original text as faithfully and transparently as possible into the receptor language. Examples of English Bibles that follow the Essentially Literal translation method are the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Version (NASB), and the New Translation by John Darby.
No translation can be “perfect” in the sense of exactly capturing all the nuances of an original language word or phrase, since no words from any two languages exactly correspond to each other in meaning. And there is a literary problem: the closer the translator stays to the original text, the more difficult it is to produce a smoothly flowing translation in English. So, accuracy in translation is a double-edged sword – it means being accurate not only to the original language, but also to the receptor language.
Translating the Bible is a serious task. Faithfulness in translation is one aspect of faithfulness to God Himself: “‘Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has My Word speak My Word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat?’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:28 ESV). An honest translator will attempt to duplicate all that is in the original text as closely as possible, and intrude as little as possible. In analyzing a translation, we should look to see how closely the translator stayed to the original word-for-word progression of the ancient texts.
An honest translator will allow God’s interests, as the Author, to supersede the reader’s preferences. As Martin Luther put it: “I have been very careful to see that where everything turns on a single passage, I have kept to the original quite literally and have not lightly departed from it. I preferred to do violence to the German language rather than to depart from the Word.” It is notable that the translators of the KJV and a few other versions showed their regard for the sanctity of the original text by employing italic script: They used italics to distinguish words that they had to insert for good English sense from words that actually corresponded to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words.
Regrettably, a new approach to Bible translation, “Dynamic Equivalence,” arose some 50 years ago. Other names for this method include Functional, Idiomatic, Thought, and Impact Translation. These strategies translate “thought-for-thought” rather than “word-for-word.” The preface to the United Bible Society’s Contemporary English Version (CEV) states, “The CEV is . . . an idea-by-idea translation, arranging the Bible’s text in ways understandable to today’s readers.”
Examples of Dynamic Equivalence Bibles include the New International Version (NIV), the New Living Translation (NLT), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), the Good News Bible (GNB), God’s Word (GW), Today’s English Version (TEV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Living Bible (LB), and The Message.
Dynamic Equivalence (DE) is no different from what was once called “paraphrase.” By departing from verbal correspondence, the DE method allows far too much translator intrusion, and each new version pushes this textual relativism to greater limits in order to satisfy the publishing house. When translators are given free rein to interject their viewpoints into the text, the original meaning is corrupted. Some may object that I have grouped the relatively conservative NIV with the looser NLT and with the reckless Message. However, extremely loose “translations” like The Message are simply the logical result of the license that was unloosed when the DE method was uncritically accepted a generation ago. DE has removed all definite controls on translation, and its sad legacy today is a relativized and completely destabilized English Bible text.