People often lump functional equivalent translations like the NIV with natural language translations like the NLT, and then critique the former based on the latter. But these are two distinctly different approaches to translation and should be kept separate, although obviously they share much in common.
Functional equivalent translations argue that the purpose of translation is to convey the meaning of the original text into the target language. This may mean that a participle is translated as an indicative verb, or that a few Greek words are passed over (such as conjunctions) or translated with punctuation marks in order to produce proper English style. This also introduces an additional amount of interpretation, which can be problematic. However, it also produces a more understandable translation, which is after all the purpose of translation. However, these versions can still be somewhat idiomatic, not speaking totally natural English but adhering somewhat to the underlying Greek and Hebrew structures. The NIV, and at times the CSB and NET, fit into this camp.
These translations are more willing to add words when they are needed to convey meaning, something even formal equivalent translations regularly do. Consider Matthew 10:29. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (NRSV, also NASB, ESV, KJV). “Apart from your Father” what? While this is word-for-word, it doesn’t mean anything, and so some translations add words based on the context of the verse: “your Father’s care” (NIV); “your Father’s consent” (CSB); “your Father’s will” (NET); “your Father knowing it” (NLT).
Greek often uses a pronoun where English needs the antecedent. This will often happen when a long Greek sentences is divided into shorter English sentences. In Ephesians 1:7, the ESV supplies, “In him” where the Greek says “In whom.” “In him (ἐν ᾧ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” This is acceptable translation method.
Many who adhere to the functional view of translation see little meaning in the grammatical structures of the original text. I take issue with this, especially in reference to dependent and independent constructions. Not always, but certainly many times, the flow of the author’s thought is most clearly seen in the main sentence (the independent construction), and the dependent constructions are secondary, modifying thoughts.
The best example is the Great Commission. Despite the many sermons you and I have heard from missionaries, the Great Commission is not, “Go!” There actually is only one imperative: “Make disciples.” In order for us to do this, Jesus supplies three modifying thoughts (dependent participial phrases) to tell us that this involves going (necessary to reach all people groups), baptizing (i.e., evangelism), and “teaching” (i.e., discipleship). For us to make disciples, we must go, evangelize, and teach. Some meaning is being conveyed by the structure, and I think that’s significant.
What about natural language translations? They are an extension of functional equivalence but see no value in the formal structures, and they try to repeat the same message in the full idiom of the target language. Eugene Nida says that the purpose of a translation is to transport “the message of the original text … into the receptor language [such] that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors.” In other words, when we read it in English, we should hear it in the same way the original Greek audience heard it. The best example of a natural language translation is the NLT. There’s much I enjoy in the NLT. I often read it to see what a highly qualified group of scholars believes the biblical text means, and it rarely disappoints.
However, I do have two issues with natural language translations. If I read a modern translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and it reads so naturally that I couldn’t tell it was speaking of a person who lived two millennia ago in a different culture, I would be suspicious of the translation. There is something significant about entering into the historical context in order to understand its meaning. After all, Christianity is rooted in history. Unlike most other religions, if these things did not happen — the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus — then we believe in vain. They did happen, but they happened in a different time, in a different culture, and are told to us in a different language. I think it’s helpful to feel the cultural differences.
The second problem I see with natural language translation is that they’ll often introduce ideas simply not in the biblical text in order to achieve natural English style and readability. As a result, readers don’t know if they are reading the Bible or the translators’ additions. This is the basic reason why I separate functional equivalent translations like the NIV, which is quite restrained in what it adds, and a natural language translation like the NLT, which is comfortable adding a significant amount of extra information.
For example, Luke tells us that the sailors, fearing they would run aground on the Syrtis, lowered the sea anchor (Acts 27:17); that’s what the Greek says. The NLT writes, “They were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast.” Assuming the Greek readers would understand “the Syrtis” as “the sandbars off the African coast,” the NLT does achieve its goal of conveying the full meaning of the original, but to my mind this goes beyond the role of a translation. Certainly not all ancient people knew there was a sandbar in that area, and Luke did not feel it was important to add this fact, assuming “run aground” was sufficient to convey the meaning. I hope I never hear a sermon on “the sandbars ... off the African coast.” I can just hear it now: “What are the sandbars in your life?” “Where is your African coast?”
One point I want to emphasize in closing is that functional equivalent and natural language translations are two distinct approaches to translation. While there is much overlap, as there is between formal and functional, at their core functional equivalent and natural language translations have different goals. Often people lump them together, and even worse critique a functional equivalent translation using examples from the NLT. Let’s keep them separate.