Functional equivalence, or dynamic equivalence, is one approach to Bible translation. Functional equivalence attempts to convey the meaning of the original text, even if it requires a bit of rewording in the target language. Functional equivalence prioritizes natural readability and comprehension in the target language rather than literal accuracy and strict fidelity to the wording of the original text. It has been summarized as “thought-for-thought” translation. The opposite of functional equivalence is formal equivalence, which emphasizes word-for-word translation, preserving grammar as much as possible and resulting in a more literal translation.
Every translator must make critical decisions when translating the Bible from its original languages. Even in the most “word-for-word” translations, decisions must be made where synonyms and confusing sentence structures exist. Translations that are too strict are typically hard to make sense of. For example, if you were to rigidly translate every single word from Greek into its English equivalent using a dictionary, your New Testament would be full of meaningless conjunctions and articles, because Koine Greek used conjunctions and articles differently than English does.
The question is not if someone will make interpretive decisions as part of the translation process, but what philosophy guides the choices.
In the world of Bible translation, two basic philosophies have been historically recognized among the major translations:
• Functional equivalence, which attempts to communicate what the author originally intended without being rigidly constrained by the syntax and diction of the original language.
• Formal equivalence, which seeks to translate what the author said in the closest way possible, preserving grammar and word forms when appropriate.
The first option, functional equivalence, is a theory of Bible translation that emphasizes idea over structure. When the aim is functional equivalence, a translator may make changes to the form of a verb or replace a conjunction with a punctuation mark. Some of the scholars who developed dynamic equivalence as a translation theory switched to calling it “functional equivalence” due to misunderstandings around the word dynamic. Functional equivalence strives to convey the meaning of the text and is more willing to sacrifice the structure of the original language to accomplish this goal.
Eugene Nida, one of the scholars who helped define functional equivalence, describes translation this way: “Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style” (Nida, E., and Tabor, C., The Theory and Practice of Translation, Brill, 2003, p. 12). This is a helpful picture of the functional equivalence approach.
The functional equivalence approach can be extremely positive, as sometimes a rigid translation simply does not make sense. Additionally, there are words and concepts in the original languages that do not have a direct equivalent in the target language. The danger of functional equivalence is that it can become too interpretive, allowing the translator to decide the “meaning” for himself.
As an example of the difference between functional equivalence and formal equivalence, we’ll look at Ephesians 3:18. In the Greek version of this passage, Paul does not supply an object at the end of the verse. Translated literally, it simply reads, “to comprehend, with all the holy ones, what [is] the breadth, and length, and depth, and height” (LSV). Some translations elect to translate the verse as is (NASB, ESV, NRSV, NET). This would be an example of formal equivalence. Other English translations, more inclined to functional equivalence, choose to supply an object from the surrounding context, attempting to elucidate Paul’s meaning (see NIV, HCSB). For example, the NIV says, “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18, emphasis added). The Greek word for “love” is not in verse 18, although it appears in the next verse, and so we know what Paul is speaking of. Neither approach is necessarily wrong, but the difference illustrates how a translation philosophy plays out in the real world.
Most English Bible translations fall somewhere along the spectrum of functional and formal equivalence and do not adhere strictly to one approach. When studying a passage, it is worth comparing different translations to understand the full scope of what the author is saying. Ultimately, the most important thing is to read the Bible, allowing it to penetrate your life and draw you closer to God.