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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.