Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Monday, August 30

Is “Dynamic Equivalent” a Dirty Word?

I was talking to someone yesterday who was explaining why he didn’t use the NIV. He referred to it as a “dynamic equivalent” translation, and it wasn’t a complement. Strange as it may sound, it was the first time my attention focused on the word “equivalent” instead of “dynamic.”

Let me first emphasize that all translations are to some degree “dynamic equivalent.” There are no “literal” translations. There are no non-interpretive translations. Everyone has to be dynamic in their translations, albeit different versions are more dynamic than others.

My favorite example is τοῦ θεοῦ. Try to translate it without being dynamic! You may say something like “of God,” but that is interpretive and quite dynamic. There is no Greek preposition equivalent to “of”; that wold have to be ἀπὸ θεοῦ. And “of God” does not translate the article τoῦ. So how can “of God” be proposed as “literal”?

Another example is John 11:35. In response to Mary’s tears, John writes ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς. You have to drop the article since we don‘t say “the Jesus,” and most translations write, “Jesus wept.” But what if the aorist is inceptive as the NRSV thinks: “Jesus began to weep”? Or even, “Jesus burst into tears”? I hardly think that the rather boring perfective “wept” adequately conveys the force of Jesus’ tears. So how do we convey the equivalent meaning into Greek? We have to be dynamic. Okay, enough for my hobby horse.

In the middle of my conversation, I realized that the more important word is “equivalent.” And this is true of all translations. All of us are trying to produce the equivalent meaning in English that is expressed in Greek. The debate is how dynamic we have to be to achieve that goal.

The specifics of the discussion, he said, was his objection to translating ἄνθρωπος as “brothers and sisters.” I am sure you see the first issue. No one translates ἄνθρωπος as “brothers and sisters.” ἄνθρωπος is singular and means “man,” often in the sense of “mankind.” The Greek word he meant is the plural ἀδελφοί (which I am sure he knows; he just slipped up).

But does the Bible say “brother”? Of course not. “Brother” is English, not Greek. The text says ἀδελφοί. But what does ἀδελφοί mean? All translation, if it is to produce the equivalent meaning, is meaning based. We don’t translate ἄνθρωπος as “brother” since that is not what ἄνθρωπος means. So what does ἀδελφοί mean?

If Jesus were speaking to James and Jude, we would translate ἀδελφοί as “brothers “since that is what the word means. They are his brothers, at least the same mom.  But if Jesus were speaking to a men’s Bible study, ἀδελφοί would be translated “brothers,” since that is our term for members of our faith community who are all males. We certainly would not translate ἀδελφοί as “brothers and sisters.” The men would start looking around trying to see where the women were.

But what do you call a mixed audience of men and women who are members of your faith community? In some historical and cultural contexts you might refer to them as “brothers,” although I suspect that this verbiage is quickly going out of style. Have you seen the update of the NASB that translates ἀδελφοί as “brothers and sisters” with “and sisters” in italics?

But in other contexts, we use “brothers and sisters” to address a mixed group of people in our faith community. This is not a cultural and liberal change; this is where the English language is going. And frankly, there are many girls and young women who are offended at being called “brothers,” and I do not want people to be unnecessarily offended at the Bible. There is enough offense (of the good type) that we don’t need to add to it.

So is “dynamic equivalent” a dirty word (or phrase)? Of course not. All translators try to say the equivalent thing in their target language, and all translations are necessarily dynamic.

Comments

¶ Of course, the main point of your blog post is true: There is no such thing as "literal, word for word" from one language to another. And the initial several examples you cite are well taken. Until you get to ανθρωπος and αδελφοι, your friend's case in point. This is an entirely different subject, that of the modern shift to gender neutrality, which is a matter of social and political correctness. As I've pointed out before in comments here, this is rooted in the twentieth century women's liberation movement, feminism that has now progressed to a deplorable transgender/transsexual sexual identity crisis, which will soon label the masculine and feminine words and pronouns of the scriptures "hate speech." ¶ No women seemed to have a problem with man/brethren in the English Bibles up to the latter part of the twentieth century. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Anyone quoting that knows what he meant. It would have been totally unnecessary for him to substitute "...person...humankind..." and we do not now need to qualify his statement to explain that he was not precluding future female astronauts, nor scientific/technological progress contributed to by women. ¶ Again, the biblical thing people miss is that man (Adam) was made in the image of God, which defines what the word "man" means. When God created Eve, he fashioned her from out of Adam's flesh. Eve is then called "wo-man" ("ish-ah"). Her identity is derived from the man's identity, and his identity is derived from God's identity. There is not a problem here! ¶ Now we are as Christians identified with Christ. Gal 2:20 ("I no longer live but Christ lives in me") and 3:26-27 ("you are all sons of God...have clothed yourselves with Christ") makes even women "sons of God" in Christ (though they be daughters of men) because Jesus is a man, not a woman. ¶ I will stick with the 1978/1984 NIV and the 1995 NASB. Perhaps you could ask your friend for an example of his objection to "dynamic equivalence" from one of those editions, to see if he even has a problem with "dynamic equivalence." Then you will find out if his problem is dynamic equivalence, or gender neutrality instead.

While I understand your point in regards to the theological significance of Adam (man), I think it does little good to talk about what did or did not seem "to have a problem with" in the past. People did not seem to have a problem with using ships to get from Europe to America in the 19th century, but now that we have planes, I doubt you would be able to find many people who would see a ship as being a suitable replacement for their travel across the Atlantic (certainly not if they have any time stipulations). Or to give a more relevant example, if you said someone was "pitiful" in the 17th century people would assume you were describing them as full of pity (generally a positive, cf. 1 Pt. 3:8 KJV); however, today that would be seen as quite rude. The functional meaning of words changes over time, and it does little good to govern the modern meaning of words by what they meant in the past. With regards to the rendering of "αδελφοι," I think a look at modern Spanish is quite helpful. In every Spanish translation I could find of Colossians 1:2, "αδελφοις" gets translated as "hermanos," which is the closest equivalent of our word "brothers," but also "siblings" and is the standard way of referring to a group of siblings, both male and female, as long as there is at least one male. Today the word "brothers" simply does not carry the same connotation. So while for many centuries this may have functioned as a perfectly good English translation that did not exclude the possibility that it included men and women, that is quickly becoming a reality of the past. Today many readers of the New Testament are completely unfamiliar with the idea of "brothers" referring to men and women. Therefore, though I believe there are plenty of ways in which current social trends are at odds with the truth of Scripture, I think there is a compelling case to be made for the translation of "αδελφοι" as "brothers and sisters."

The fourth sentence of paragraph three reads "wold" instead of "would."