Translation: Theory and Politics

In their recent article in Sociology of Religion [81.3, 2020, 319-342], Samuel Perry and Joshua B. Grubbs probe into how translations mark Christian subcultures. I find this article fascinating for what it turns up.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Translations are divided into formal equivalence claims and dynamic equivalence claims – the former supposedly more word-for-word and, thus, closer to the original and the latter a thought-for-thought approach. Another axis for analysis is how inclusive the translation is: gender-specific [brother = brother, not brother and sisters] and gender-inclusive [brother and sisters is the sense].

There’s a proliferation of translations today and most are reading modern versions. Most evangelical-connected translations have been formally equivalent in theory and gender traditional (you know who they are) , while some today prefer more dynamic and gender inclusive translations (you know who they are too). The latter group, by the way, think their approach will get more Bible readers. (A surprise is coming so hang on.)

Do conservative Prots with a high view of Scripture prefer readability?

In the 1960s Eugene Nida contended there was an idolatry over formal equivalence, and he forged the response-shaped translation theory: meaning, not formal structure, matters most. It is often called functional or dynamic equivalence vs. formal equivalence.

The NIV is the exhibit of dynamic equivalence, along with the CEV and the NLT. They met with heavy criticism among the formal equivalence crowd, which led to the ESV. They appealed to inspiration of “all” the words and worried over liberalism.

Gender debates now have arisen but, noticeably, the NLT was ignored in this gender debate and so was the CEV and more or less the NRSV (only in part). The ESV, which makes the claim of being formally equivalent and therefore also gender-traditional and better.

This discussion of theory and gender leads the authors to what they refer to as “religious capital”: mastery of and commitment to a particular religious culture, and if there is a correlation between this religious capital and consumption. How does religious capital correlate with translations?

One would expect conservatives to be attached to formal equivalent translations and gender traditional ones. And, another issue: does Bible-fluency correlate with the same attachment? Do those who read the Bible the most want a more accessible Bible (that is, dynamic equivalence)?

Then the authors go all sociological on me. Which means a guy like me reads through their stats and studies but cannot begin to summarize the checks and balances so I find my way to the Discussion and Conclusion.

Stunningly interesting to me.

Read this carefully.

“Those Christians who affirmed the most conservative view of the Bible’s authority were not more likely to read formal correspondence translations than functional equivalence translations and conservative Protestants showed no difference from mainline Protestants in their preference for either formal or functional Bible translations” (338).

And this too:

“In fact, it is also important to note that those Christians who read their Bibles more often and report generally higher religious commitment are more likely to read functional equivalence and gender-inclusive translations” (338).

Such dynamic, inclusive translations attract people who value Bible mastery.

Traditionalist, literal translations are read more to signal conservative identity than to inform one’s faith. Just wow.

That is, they identify with conservative moral and political content (339).

We need this kind of study.