“Let it Go” and Bible Translation Philosophy

Many people are looking for a “formal equivalence” translation of the Bible, even if they don’t use that nerdy term. They want a Bible that translates the Greek and Hebrew into English as accurately as possible, following the original intent of the original words as closely as possible. That’s good.

But, how do you do this?

People have different philosophies of translation, and we see that in Bible translations. Some folks try to stick very close to the structure of the original language (e.g. the NASB), while others try to catch the flavor and meaning, even if they have to use a bit of creative license (e.g. NET, NEB, NLT).

Some well-meaning pastors and bible teachers passionately defend a “formal equivalence” translation philosophy. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t agree. But, first, here’s a good definition so we understand what we’re talking about:

Formal equivalence: a theory of translation that favors reproducing the form or language of the original text, not just its meaning. In its stricter form, this theory of translation espouses reproducing even the syntax and word order of the original; the formula word for word translation often implies this stricter definition of the concept.

Leland Ryken, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009; Kindle ed.), KL 186-188.

I like this definition. It has good motives. The main drawback is that this kind of translation philosophy will often produce cardboard English; a stilted, artificial, and extraordinarily formal text. That’s why the NASB isn’t very elegant.

I could go on … but I have an example for you. It’s not a Bible verse; it’s something entirely different. I want you to watch (and read) the subtitles for Disney France’s official version of the mega-hit single “Let it Go,” from the movie Frozen. The subtitle function in YouTube uses a formal equivalence translation philosophy when it renders the French lyrics into English. Listen, and tell me what you think!

You know the real lyrics to this song; they’re colloquial and make intuitive sense. When we speak and listen, real meaning isn’t so much in the individual words, but in the vernacular words, phrases and contemporary context which shapes and gives meaning to this speech.

You either know or hate this song. But, I know you’ve heard it. Read the subtitles, and learn what a formal equivalence translation philosophy can do to a poetic work. Here’s a preview of the first chorus:

Liberated! Delivered!
I will never lie again
Liberated! Delivered!
It’s decided! I’m leaving!
I left my childhood in Summer
Lost in winter
The cold is my price for freedom

Consider why some pastors, translators and bible students are less than sold on a full-throated, formal equivalence translation philosophy.

Here it is (if closed captioning isn’t already on, turn it on) …

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