Skip to main content

Accuracy or meaning?

When translating a text there are a number of decisions to make. One of these is how close to make your translation to the original text. 

Some translators make it very close indeed. They translate word by word and keep the sentence structure as close to the original as they can (this is called formal equivalence or word for word). Other translators try to capture the meaning of the original text and don’t worry so much about keeping the sentence in the same structure as it was originally (this is called dynamic equivalence or thought for thought). An extreme version of dynamic equivalence is a paraphrase which begins not with the original language but with another English translation and then attempts to make it more understandable.

  • A formal equivalence, word for word, translation gives priority to what the original language says and how it says it. It aims to be a literal translation.
    • Pros: it stays close to what the original Hebrew or Greek says; where the original is complex or deep they keep this; they try to avoid interpreting what the original writer meant and leave that to the reader
    • Cons: sometimes they can be hard to understand and make little sense to a modern reader; sentence structure can be hard to follow; often relies on the assumption that the reader will understand technical language
  • A dynamic equivalence, thought for thought, translation gives priority to what the text means. It aims to make the text as readable for a modern audience as possible.
    • Pros: is often easy to read and understand; it communicates what the passage means in an easy style; avoids technical language
    • Cons: the translator decides for you what the passage means (which means that you have to follow what they think); sometimes the sentences are very different from what was originally said (or what you find in other translations); often the poetry of the original is lost.

There are very few purely formal or purely dynamic equivalence translations, most are a mix of the two but with an emphasis in one direction or another.

Chosen your translation? Check out these resources...

Read the Bible icon Read the Bible
Open the full Bible