By Seth Vitrano-Wilson
Many Christians have heard of the debate going on in Bible translation circles between “literal” (also known as “word-for-word” or “formal equivalent”) and “dynamic equivalent” (also known as “thought-for-thought” or “meaning-based”) translation. The “literal” or “essentially literal” camp, spearheaded in English by translations like the ESV or the NASB, says that their approach to translation is required by the belief that every single word of the Bible is fully inspired by God (known as “plenary verbal inspiration”). Meanwhile, the “dynamic equivalent” camp, as exemplified by the Good News Bible or the New Living Translation, says that the message, not the particular words, is what matters, and that their style of translation helps people understand that message more clearly. For decades now, this second philosophy has been dominant among Bible translators, a dominance challenged by the “literal” camp only in English and a few other major world languages. Most languages of the world today do not have a word of Scripture—but those that do nearly all have a “dynamic equivalent” style translation, not a “literal” one.
But recently, there is a new translation philosophy that has become influential in evangelical Bible translation circles. It’s called “functionalism,” and it comes out of critiques of the dynamic equivalence theories of Eugene Nida and his successors.
Functionalism critiques some aspects of dynamic equivalence that needed to be critiqued. For example, while Nida and other more ardent proponents of dynamic equivalence have sometimes claimed that their approach was the “right” and “scientific” way of translating, functionalism argues that there are situations where a more literal translation would be appropriate and helpful. In fact, as translators such as Bill Mounce and Dave Brunn have helpfully pointed out, all translations use elements of both literal and dynamic translation styles. 1 No English translation, for example, translates the Hebrew phrase erek appayim in Exodus 34:6 by calling the Lord “long-nostriled,” even though that is exactly what the words on their own mean. Instead, they rightly avoid an overly literal translation and give readers what the phrase really means in this sentence, namely that the Lord is “slow to anger” or “long-suffering.” On the other hand, even the most “dynamic” translators will often present the words of some verses in a very literal fashion, and would agree that departing from a literal translation in these cases would be unnecessary and unfaithful. In short, the dichotomy between “literal” and “dynamic,” while based on genuine philosophical differences that matter, is much more nuanced than is often presented to the public.
Functionalism also provides a helpful step back from the “literal vs. dynamic” wars by recognizing that different translations have different “functions” (hence the name “functionalism”), and that there is more than one faithful way to represent the truth of Scripture. For example, an interlinear (representing the exact word order of the Hebrew and Greek with the English underneath) is a very helpful tool for Bible students, but it is not at all adequate for devotional reading. Likewise, an illustrated “Children’s Bible Stories” book is a great way to introduce children to truths of Scripture, but it is completely unsuited for use in liturgy or as a base for expository preaching.
Nonetheless, while functionalism arrives at some right conclusions, it does so in a very dangerous way. The first proponents of functionalism were secular academic theorists who argued that translators can have any number of different “functions” for a translation, and that we can never say that a translation is “wrong.” Translators simply need to follow what is needed for their function. In the words of one pro-functionalist author, this means that “the translator no longer has to always go back to the source text to solve translational problems; rather, they base their translation on the function of the text in the target culture,” and that functionalism “break[s] the unnecessary recourse to the ‘authority’ of the source text.” 2 If one is translating Harry Potter, who cares about the “authority” of the source text? 3 But when engaging in the monumental task of Bible translation, the authority of the source text is the authority of the living God, who commands us: “Do not add to the word that I command you, and do not subtract from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2). 4
Closely connected to functionalism is “skopos theory.” Skopos theory says that every translation has a “skopos” or “purpose,” and that there is no right or wrong purpose. Instead, translators should sit down with the local church and other important stakeholders, decide what kind of translation they want, write this down in a “translation brief,” and then use that as a basis for translation decisions. Part of this is simply common sense—of course local church leaders should be heavily involved in translation decisions. But the idea that there is no right or wrong purpose, and that “anything goes” in a translation brief as long as people accept it, is deeply problematic.
Recognizing the problem of “anything goes” inherent to functionalism and skopos theory, one proponent of functionalism, Christiane Nord, has emphasized the importance of “loyalty,” both to the source text author and to the “needs and expectations of the target audience.” 5 In the context of Bible translation, this solves the half the problem—namely, the importance of loyalty to God and His purposes and expectations. 6 But we cannot simultaneously maintain equal loyalty to God as author and to the target audience’s “needs and expectations.” Our loyalty cannot be split between two masters: when translating the Bible, local church leaders, translation teams, and outside translation helpers must all put loyalty to God—and respect for His perfect Word—above all other considerations.
Functionalism as an Open Door to Syncretistic Bible Translations
Functionalism enshrines the “audience’s needs and expectations” as the arbiter of how translation should be done. Functionalism also allows translators to define their “audience” as narrowly as they like, and then to claim that the views of anyone outside this audience are not relevant to the “function” of the translation. This is problematic in general, but it becomes especially dangerous when functionalist approaches are adopted by proponents of “Insider Movement” theology.
Insider Movement proponents argue that the best way to reach non-Christians with the gospel is to encourage new believers to remain within their “socioreligious contexts.” For instance, they would advocate that Muslims who come to faith in Jesus should continue to worship in a mosque and call themselves Muslims, while Hindus should continue worshiping at temples and call themselves Hindus. If, then, the function of a translation is to reach Muslims, they would say that only the understanding of Muslims, or of believers who have remained in the mosques and the Muslim community, are relevant to translation decisions.
So, for example, when Arab or Turkish Christians speak out against highly Islamicized Bible translations that take out “Father” and “Son,” include the Islamic profession of faith (“There is no god but Allah/God”), or obscure the divinity of Christ, they are ignored by the Western translation consultants developing these translations. Even when Muslim-background believers—clearly far more “insiders” than any of the consultants—object strenuously to these syncretistic translations, they, too are ignored, because, Insider Movement proponents claim, they have been “extracted” from their “socioreligious context” and are too influenced by Christians. (The influence of the Western Christians involved in the Insider Movement is presumably considered acceptable.)
In other words, the only believers whose views are considered relevant to translation are believers who still go the mosque, most of whom still consider Muhammad to be a prophet, and still consider the Qur’an to be the Word of God—perhaps even more so than the Bible for some. Moreover, church planters often deliberately separate new believers from the influence of other Christians who speak the same language. It should not be surprising then that these new believers—even if they have genuinely experienced true change through the Holy Spirit—are easily influenced by the arguments of educated, high-status outsiders who suggest they should take out the terms “Father” and “Son,” put the Islamic profession of faith into the Bible, or make other changes to the text that diminish the divinity of Christ and obscure Trinitarian teaching.
In the past, even within the framework of “dynamic equivalence” or “meaning-based translation” theories, one could argue that the renderings made in Islamicized translations or in highly contextualized translations for other groups were seriously inaccurate. Indeed, in 2012 and 2013, there was a great deal of internal opposition within Wycliffe and SIL from translators who fully accepted meaning-based translation, yet believed that non-literal rendering of divine Father-Son terms were not proper “meaning-based” translations—that translations like “spiritual Son” or “Messiah” or “caliph” were wrong because they had the wrong meaning. At one point, 24 out of 25 SIL translation consultants from a particular region signed a letter opposing the non-literal translations of Father-Son terms being done by other SIL translators. (This letter, along with other efforts within SIL, was not publicized at the time because of the sensitivity of the subject and because of internal SIL policy that forbade members from participating in any public discussion of the Father-Son issue—a policy that is still being enforced today.) In other words, while proponents of Islamicized translations have used meaning-based translation principles to justify their translation decisions, many opponents have used the same principles to critique them.
However, once one accepts the tenets of functionalism, it becomes nearly impossible to argue against these translations. After all, if the “local church” (defined however Insider Movement proponents choose to define it, and excluding anyone they deem as too far “outside the context”) wants a certain translation choice—if it fulfills the skopos they have for the translation—what can anyone else say about it? Ideas about “meaning” or “faithfulness” become completely relativized to what serves the purposes of the Insider Movement and the outsiders who promote it.
A Biblical Perspective on Functionalism
As stated earlier, the Bible does not ultimately belong to any of us, but to God. God has given the church the responsibility to proclaim, translate, and live according to His Word, but He does not give the church carte blanche to translate any way we feel like. We must look to His purpose, His “skopos,” above all other considerations.
When the Galatian churches were erring, did the Holy Spirit lead Paul to give them “what they wanted”? Does Jesus in Revelation pat the seven churches on the back and tell them not to “fall into the trap of setting rules and fixed boundaries,” 7 or does He warn them lovingly and sternly against tolerating false teaching in their midst? The work of protecting the sheep from wolves who promote false teaching does not belong to “outsiders” or “insiders,” but to the whole body of Christ. Clearly, God has given some people greater knowledge of His Word in the original languages, or greater knowledge of particular languages and local contexts; not everyone is equal in authority and responsibility to speak to translation issues. But functionalism is built on a type of relativism that is widespread in secular academia—which is where functionalism first began—that says that only certain privileged “insider” groups can speak to “truth in their context.” This idea is in direct contrast to a biblical understanding of the unity of the body of Christ, in which the task of faithfully preserving the God-honoring, joy-producing truth of God’s Word is shared by the whole global church in its diversity of language, culture, and experience, with different parts of the body providing valuable knowledge and understanding. The sad irony is that insider approaches today are most often driven by Western “experts,” and are often vigorously opposed by local Christians, including former Muslims, who are speaking out against unfaithful translations in their midst. 8
A Growing Problem
Until recently, most of the functionalist “Religious Idiom Translation” work has taken place in Muslim contexts. However, this approach is spreading. For example, one major translation network has recently developed a guide to functionalist Religious Idiom Translations among many different religions, and high-level consultants are reaching out to translators in Hindu and Buddhist contexts to develop a community of functionalist translators, with the purpose of creating the same kinds of “rationales” and “justification” for “deeply contextualised” translations among Hindu- and Buddhist-majority groups that they have already developed in Muslim contexts.
These approaches are being promoted at high levels of prominent organizations. Functionalist Religious Idiom Translation approaches are also being taught and promoted at the most influential schools that train evangelical translators. Given the institutional weight behind them, it is clear that the functionalist promotion of Religious Idiom Translations—which, in Muslim contexts, have already produced syncretistic translations that have been widely rejected by the global church—is dominant in Bible translation today.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Functionalism has brought us a helpful corrective to the idea that there is only one “scientific” style of translation that benefits the church. God has a purpose in bringing about faithful interlinears, another purpose in bringing about faithful translations, and yet another good purpose in faithful explanatory paraphrases that can function like a good commentary or sermon. But this does not give local churches—however defined—the freedom to translate any way they want. We must be faithful to God and the perfect, flawless Word that He has given us; that is our first and most important purpose in translation. Any translation that skews biblical teaching, however accepted or desired by the local church, should be opposed and corrected in love and gentleness by those who love God and love His people.
It is possible that the dominant institutions of Bible translation will, through the work of the Spirit, come to recognize the dangers and limitations of functionalist thinking and Religious Idiom Translations. We can and should pray for such an outcome, and should continue to engage in love with our brothers and sisters in these institutions. But those of us who share concerns about these approaches should not simply do nothing and hope these institutions make dramatic changes that they have, so far, strongly resisted, even to the point of trying to squelch internal dissent and threatening with removal those who seek an open, public discussion of functionalist Religious Idiom Translation theory.
Instead, we must work together to promote and utilize alternative approaches, and call the global Church to join us. We must establish alternative networks of translators, develop alternative translation training programs, and articulate biblical principles of translation that look to God’s Word to understand God’s purposes for Bible translation. We must reach out to the many God-fearing, faithful members of the dominant translation organizations that are unaware of what is being promoted by their leaders, and urge them to advocate for faithful approaches within their organizations—or, failing that, to join other organizations instead where they can have confidence that the translation projects they are supporting are using faithful approaches. Without exaggeration or malice, we must raise awareness in the global Church about these issues, so that donors, sending churches, and new recruits can make informed decisions about what kind of translations they believe God wants them to help produce, and so that translation quality can be improved worldwide as people turn away from theories that give people “what they want” and instead give the world what God, who knows what we truly need better than we possibly can ourselves, gave us.
- William D. Mounce, “Do Formal Equivalent Translations Reflect a Higher View of Plenary, Verbal Inspiration?”, Themelios 44(3); Dave Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. ↩
- Uchenna Oyali, 2015, “A critique of functionalist approaches to translation studies,” Journal of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria, 18(1), 59. ↩
- Actually, J. K. Rowling might care, and could sue to make a point of it. Even secular authors don’t want their work messed with; how much more God! ↩
- See also Revelation 22:18-19 and Proverbs 30:5-6. ↩
- Christiane Nord, 1997, “Defining translation functions: The translation brief as a guideline for the trainee translation,” Ilha do Desterro 33, p. 51. ↩
- Drew Curley makes this point well in his unpublished “Towards a Universal Skopos for Translation of the Bible.” ↩
- The words of a prominent functionalist translator, posted on the MAP forum (an open public forum for discussion of Bible translation issues). https://map.bloomfire.com/questions/3796569 ↩
- See, for example, opposition to such translations from Turkish Muslim-background pastor and Bible translator Fikret Böcek, Muslim-background missionary Fred Farrokh, or the wide variety of Arab Christian leaders in several statements during the summer of 2020. ↩