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There are two ways to translate the Bible, and both are right

04 November 2022

Accuracy and literalness in biblical translation are not the same, says John Barton


IF YOU have driven in France, you’ll probably have seen the sign Signalisation horizontale effacée. How would we translate it into English? One possibility is “effaced horizontal signalisation”. This preserves the clear impression that the sign is in French.

But it doesn’t impart any significant information, except for those who know the meaning of the French anyway. The other possibility, which is how this phenomenon is traditionally described in Britain, is “no white lines”.

This is a parable for the task of translating the Bible. There is a tendency in modern Bibles to prefer translations that make the text sound as though a native speaker of English had written it. To use a formulation of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), we like “to bring the text to the reader”.

This approach is technically called “functional equivalence”, so named by the godfather of modern biblical translation, Eugene Nida (1914-2011). It has a long pedigree in the practice of secular translation, going back to the classical world where “sense for sense” renderings were preferred over “word for word” ones. It is functional equivalence that delivers the rendering “no white lines”.

Most widely used modern Bibles belong in this functional-equivalence camp. This is true of the Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bibles, as well as the New English Bible and the Revised English Bible. Their translators ask how the biblical writers would have formulated their ideas if they had been writing modern English. The result, when successful, is that the Bible speaks directly to people today, and doesn’t sound outdated or obscure.

J. B. Phillips, in the 1950s, was an early adopter of functional equivalence, opening up the Bible to many for whom, in the King James (Authorised) Version, it had been virtually a closed book. He prepared the way for translations that didn’t feel bound by the diction and constructions of the Hebrew and Greek texts, but rewrote whole verses — or even whole paragraphs — in a more up-to-date, idiomatic English.

He was occasionally over-enthusiastic, as when St Paul’s “greet one another with a holy kiss” became “share a hearty handshake all round” — although this was quite prophetic, given modern liturgical practice at the Peace.

The alternative approach Nida termed “formal equivalence”: what most people call literal translation. This takes the reader to the text. The formal-equivalence translator finds ways of indicating that the text is foreign and ancient, and is not what a modern person would have written.

This is the tradition of the King James Version, and its descendants, the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version. It is also seen in the recent English Standard Version, which seems destined to become the lectionary version for Roman Catholics in England and Wales.

Its strength is to remind us that the Bible comes from a culture with different idioms from ours, and deals with issues that are not on today’s agenda — but perhaps should be. This can be salutary, as it avoids making our relation to the Bible too cosy. It reminds us that the biblical texts are often not what we would have written ourselves.

We owe some familiar English expressions to formal-equivalence translation, such as “stiff-necked” for stubborn — a literal rendering of a Hebrew idiom, which then bedded down in English. Sentences beginning “and” are so frequent in the King James version of the Old Testament because Hebrew ones often start that way, and the translators imitated this, even though it produces slightly strange English, whereas functional-equivalent versions prefer more varied English connectives, such as “but”, “so”, “yet”, and so on, resulting in a translation that looks more like a normal piece of modern English.

There is an often ill-tempered debate between supporters of these two approaches— not only in the Church and in biblical studies, but among translators in general. It is bedevilled on both sides by two assumptions. One is that the superiority of the preferred approach is not just correct, but obviously correct, so that only a fool would support the other side.

The other is that those in the opposing camp disrespect and distort the text. Either, it is claimed, they wrongly modernise it (by functional equivalence), or they deliberately make it seem distant and alien (by formal equivalence). These reactions often lie, perhaps unarticulated, at the heart of our preference for this or that version.

Readers who prefer functional-equivalence translations such as the Jerusalem or Revised English Bibles, often ridicule those who like older, formal-equivalence ones, such as the King James Version. They argue that, for modern times, we of course need a modern Bible that speaks our language.


NOBODY nowadays talks like the King James Bible; so it’s obvious that a non-literal translation is better, even if its wording is further from the original Hebrew or Greek. The point, after all, is to convey the essential meaning. We translate the Bible to communicate the gospel, not to support the study of Jacobean English.

This was essentially Nida’s point, and is particularly applicable to translations for people in non-Western cultures. “I stand at the door and knock” may need to be rendered “I stand at the threshold and call” for potential readers who have neither doors nor locks. This is a typically functional-equivalent move, and to many people it seems the only acceptable approach for a modern Bible. Not to make this kind of adjustment disrespects the target audience.

People who prefer something closer in wording to the original, even if it sounds a bit odd or archaic, similarly often believe that this kind of translation is clearly preferable. Often, versions that are more literal are said to be also more “accurate”. (This is claimed explicitly by the Revised New Jerusalem Bible.)

Since naturally no one wants to defend an inaccurate translation of scripture, it’s felt that the case almost makes itself. Translators, it’s believed, should not explain or modernise scripture, but should reproduce the original as closely as possible in their own language — leaving obscure ideas still obscure, if necessary.

Otherwise, they are taking liberties with the Bible, substituting their own ideas for those of scripture. This position is expressed vehemently by Robert Alter, whose own formal-equivalent translation of the Old Testament (The Hebrew Bible: A translation with commentary) is a masterpiece.

Both positions are defended on moral grounds. Each is seen as a matter of faithfulness, either to the reader or to the text; so, the stakes are high. I believe that both approaches have their merits, but that neither is obviously and exclusively convincing, and I should like to lower the temperature.


TO BEGIN with the question of accuracy, it is important to see that this is not always the same as literalness. “No white lines” is surely an accurate translation of the French sign, while being a functional-equivalence one. It uses quite different words, but it conveys the same information to the driver, in language that an English speaker can understand.

The original French transmits a clear message, indeed an existential one (“Watch out!”). The translator surely needs to convey this with equal clarity in English, if the translation is to be a reliable translation — that is, an accurate one. For this, it is essential to use the English equivalent of the French, “no white lines”, not something verbally closer.

Yet on the other hand, there can be ideas and idioms in the Bible that we cannot render into something we would naturally say ourselves. Some things in the Bible are alien to our patterns of thought. We read the Bible precisely to be confronted with truths we wouldn’t know how to express in our own everyday speech, and sometimes need a special vocabulary to capture in English, even if it departs from normal modern language.

My Oxford colleague Laura Quick puts it like this: “Translation makes the text seem modern and comprehensible, and so we lose something of the strangeness of the biblical world.” Only a formal-equivalence approach can cure this problem.


RATHER than trying to show that one or other of the two translation types is preferable— still less, obviously preferable — it may be better to think of them as equally valid in different circumstances.

Here speakers of English have a particular advantage. There are around 7000 distinct languages in the world, and as yet only a small percentage have a translation of the Bible — usually only one. The United Bible Societies and the Wycliffe Bible Translators do amazing work to expand this range, drawing on vast linguistic knowledge as well as a deep Christian commitment to making the biblical message known.

By contrast, in English there are already hundreds of translations, with ten or a dozen in regular use in the United Kingdom alone. Among them are examples of both the types I’ve been describing.

Neither can satisfy all the reasons why we need translations of the Bible; you can’t get all the advantages of the two contrasting approaches in a single translation. Yet both have good arguments in their favour. Why not read versions of both types, if you’re lucky enough to have them?

We can see the distinction between functional and formal equivalence, and why we need both, by looking at one very recent translation, The Bible for Everyone. This combines Tom Wright’s The New Testament for Everyone, which originally appeared book by book, and John Goldingay’s similar The Old Testament for Everyone.

We can take it as a given that neither of these outstanding biblical scholars is likely to have produced an inaccurate version. What is striking, however, is that while Wright’s New Testament follows a functional-equivalence path, Goldingay’s Old Testament is in the formal-equivalence mode. Both justify their distinctive and contrasting approaches in their introductions — and both, to my mind, successfully.

Goldingay’s formal equivalence approach gives us this: “He came to a cave there and stayed the night there. And there, Yahweh’s word came to him. He said to him, ‘What is there for you here, Eliyyahu?’

“He said: ‘I’ve been very passionate for Yahweh, the God of Armies, because the Yisra’elites have abandoned your pact. Your altars they’ve torn down; your prophets they’ve killed with the sword. I alone am left, and they’ve been seeking my life, to take it.’

“He said: ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.’ There was Yahweh passing, and a great, strong wind, splitting mountains and breaking up cliffs before Yahweh (Yahweh was not in the wind), after the wind an earthquake (Yahweh was not in the earthquake), after the earthquake a fire (Yahweh was not in the fire), and after the fire a low murmuring sound (1 Kings 19.9-12).”

There are surprises here: the repeated “there”, the names — Yahweh, Eliyyahu, and Yisra’elites — no longer in their conventional English forms; “pact” for covenant; the parenthetical insertions about God’s absence from wind, earthquake, and fire; and the translation “Armies” for “Sabaoth” (traditionally “hosts”).

All these are a faithful and transparent representation of the Hebrew, and hence required, on formal-equivalence principles. This is a version that definitely “takes the reader to the text” rather than bringing the text to the reader. It pulls us up short, challenging us to remember that Elijah’s world was, in important ways, not ours, and that we need to confront that.

Wright’s commitment to functional equivalence, by contrast, offers this: “So, as we work together with God, we appeal to you in particular: when you accept God’s grace, don’t let it go to waste! This is what he says:

“I listened to you when the time was right,

“I came to your aid on the day of salvation.

“Look! The right time is now! Look! The day of salvation is here! . . .

“We have been wide open in our speaking to you, my dear Corinthians! Our heart has been opened wide! There are no restrictions at our end; the only restrictions are in your affection! I’m speaking as though to children: you should open your hearts wide as well in return. That’s fair enough, isn’t it? (2 Corinthians 6.9-13).”

The colloquial style is meant to remind us that this is a real letter, meant to convince an actual audience when it is read aloud. Wright even suggests that such texts come as if from the discussion after the end of a lecture — informal, in daily speech, even “unliterary” (despite having been written out, presumably, by a professional scribe).

More literal versions can obscure all this, producing a translation that fails to communicate with a modern reader as the letter did with its original recipients, whereas functional equivalence makes it a living work.

Goldingay and Wright are not significantly divided theologically in their renderings of scripture. They are simply providing different, but equally viable (and accurate) types of translation, which have their place in different settings and for different readers. Neither is “right”, let alone obviously right, as against the other.

The King James Version and the Good News Bible, to take extreme cases, are both effective translations: one in formal- and the other in functional-equivalence mode. But they have different goals and audiences in mind.

Children’s Bibles, using functional equivalence to ensure communication with their young readers, are another obvious case where a rendering may be ideal for the intended readership, but might well seem inappropriate for others. We probably wouldn’t read from a children’s Bible during a service at Westminster Abbey — although it might administer a useful jolt to any tired and jaded members of the congregation, even there.

The ideal “Bible for all seasons” does not and could not exist, because translation of its nature can never deliver a definitive version of any text in another language. Bible-readers in the English-speaking world, however, are lucky enough to have many translations available.

I’ve tried to show that these come in two basic types, and that there is wisdom in using both, rather than simply rejecting one in favour of the other. Only so can the Bible be brought to the reader, as well as the reader to the Bible.

John Barton is a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford. His book The Word: On the translation of the Bible will be published by Penguin/Allen Lane on 3 November at £25 (CT Bookshop £20); 978-0-24144-881-6.

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