“Linguistics” sounds like a cookbook of creative linguini dishes, right? Something like “The Logistics of Linguini.”

Linguistics Teaching Moment

Linguistics is the study of language and the way language works, in form, in meaning, and in context.

“Linguistics” is similar in sound to linguini and logistics—sounds are an important part of the study of language.

“Linguistics” and “logistics” also have similar sounds and are partly related in meaning.

  • Logistics is the complex detail of a plan.
  • Linguistics is the complex detail of language.

Meaning, and its relation to other words either in part or in whole, is also part of the study of language.

And of course, context—using logistics and linguini to describe linguistics would make no sense except in the context of this paragraph.

And even that is questionable.

Man Perceives The World Through Language

Edward Sapir, considered one of the most important figures in linguistics, suggested that man perceives the world principally through language.

The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

Ok, read that again. It’s a lot to take in at once.

Something I read in Helmut Thielicke’s African Diary (Word Books, 1974) helps me to understand Sapir’s statement. During an extended trip to Africa, Dr. Thielicke spoke with a German anthropologist living in Africa. The anthropologist shared that the tribal peoples did not understand abstractions, squares, right angles, etc. And he added “Where in the jungle or the hills would they come across a right angle or straight line? On the other hand, they are very good at circles. It is not accidental that their huts are built round.” This doesn’t speak directly about language, but it is about perceiving one’s world differently. And this helps me understand Sapir. Distinct worlds. Same things. Different labels. Different meanings behind the labels.

And a word is nothing but a label for something.

RDRD Bible Study Bible Versions 103 Butler Blackbird Linguistics

Here’s a poem by Samuel Butler that elucidates language differences.

Linguistics Is Essential To The Translation Of The Bible

In our distinct worlds where “…the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation,” it is understandable why linguistics is essential to the translation of the Bible.

Sapir also brings to light another important point: Translation of the Bible is not merely vocabulary, parsing verbs, grammar, idioms, etc., but linguistics also help us understand how the biblical writers saw and perceived their world.

“Dashing babies against rocks” (Ps. 137:9) sounds hideously evil to modern ears. But the Hebrews who lived in a world governed by retribution, i.e. eye for an eye, watched their ruthless enemies dashing Hebrew babies against rocks. When the Hebrew people cry out for God to do the same to their enemies, it is essentially a plea for God’s quick justice. If the same prayer had been “bring us justice against these enemies,” some modern ears would be less appalled. But for the Hebrew community the prayer would not have had the same force and urgency. The language used helps us understand this important aspect of the Biblical text.

Bible Versions Series Recap

Bible Versions 101: Why Are There So Many Bible Versions discusses the difference between translation and interpretation.

Bible Versions 102: Textual Criticism discusses the original text.

This post, Bible Versions 103: Linguistics, discusses the language used in a Bible translation and the theories of translation.

The Science of Translation

Translation is a science which involves two kinds of choices—

  • Textual
  • Linguistic

Bible Versions 102 discusses the textual aspect of translation, in particular, the science used to make textual choices—Textual Criticism.

Bible Versions 103 discusses the language aspect.


In dealing with language, two choices present themselves:

  • Verbal
  • Grammatical

This involves rewording words and ideas from one language to another, i.e. French la Maison-Blanche to English the white house.

Recall from Bible Versions 101 the example of the Chinese missionary. He reworded a Chinese version into English. The older gentlemen heard/interpreted this as the missionary “messing up” or misquoting the English. To the missionary’s defense, he wasn’t concerned with only rewording word for word, but also rewording the ideas expressed using Chinese words in such a way as to convey the same ideas using English words that make sense to an English audience.

Theories of Translation

Several technical terms are used to discuss the theories of translation used in modern Bible translations.

Terms used to discuss translating:

  • Original language–for the Bible it is Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; so the language that is being translated from
  • Receptor language–the language that the original language is being transferred into, i.e. English, Chinese, Russian, German (for this post we will assume English)
  • Historical distance–the differences between the original language and the receptor language, i.e. words, grammar, idioms; historical distance also considers culture and history

Terms to describe translation theories:

  • Formal equivalence
    • Stays close to the form of the original, words and grammar, but still understandable in English
    • This theory of translation is often called “literal
    • Historical distance is kept intact at all points
  • Functional equivalence
    • Keeps the meaning of the original but translates it into a “normal way of saying the same thing in English”
    • The more functional equivalence over formal equivalence is a theory of translation called “dynamic equivalence
    • Historical distance is maintained on all historical and factual matters
    • Historical distance is “updated” for language, grammar, and style
  • Free translation
    • Translates the ideas from one language to another
    • Less concerned about using exact words from the original
    • Sometimes called a “paraphrase
    • Eliminates as much historical distance as possible and still faithfully rewords the text

Example using Hebrews 1:1-2:

  • Formal Equivalence – NASB

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, (2) in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.

  • Dynamic Equivalence – ESV

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

  • Free – The Message

1-3 Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end.

RDRD Bible Study Bible Versions 103 Linguistics Theories of Translation

These runners capture the essence of the theories of translation.

The NASB, in an attempt to translate literally, has a somewhat awkward rendering, yet the ESV and NASB have pretty much the same words–both stay close to the form of the original.

The ESV has smoothed out some of the English without changing the meaning. It is more readable.

And The Message gets the idea across, but the words used are not anything like the original.

Theory of Translation

One of these theories—formal equivalence, functional equivalence, free—will control the translator’s basic approach to the task of creating a Bible translation/version.

A Theory of Translation basically controls the following: 

  • Is emphasis put on formal or functional equivalency?
  • To what extent does the translator go to reducing differences between the two languages, either in words and grammar, or in historical distance by using modern equivalents, i.e. 2 denarii or 2 pennies.
  • Should the translator bridge the language gap or let the reader?
  • Should translators reword something that may be culturally offensive?
  • Should a formal equivalent term meaningless in English be translated into what it actually means?

Historical Distance Challenges

Historical distance offers some translational and interpretational challenges to the translator. In general, these will also be directed by the theory of translation.

  • Translating weights, money, and measures
  • Euphemisms for matters of sex and toilet
  • Choosing a word that connotes the correct original language word, but that has not changed meanings over time in the receptor language. For example, the word “gay”; the U.S. use of this word has completely changed since the first half of the twentieth century
  • Wordplays; wordplays serve a major role in making a point (cf. Jer. 1:11-12), but are difficult to maintain in the receptor language
  • Grammar and Syntax – translated word for word from an original language may sound awkward in a receptor language, i.e. most Hebrew sentences start with an article, but the article is not always part of the spoken language
  • Gender – Hebrew and Greek both have masculine and feminine forms, and Greek also has neuter forms; A masculine plural form, depending on context, may mean “a group of people” or “the men.” “Man/men” is used as a default gender when referring to both genders. In the Luke 6:45 example below, NIV translates “man” literally from the Greek word used for man; ESV translates the same word “person” since Jesus clearly means either a man or a woman; in a language with masculine and feminine forms, the masculine is a default. The translator must decide, as in Luke 6:45, to use man (implied woman too), person, or man and woman/his and her, etc. (Note the pronouns in both.)

(ESV) Luke 6:45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

(NIV) Luke 6:45 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

Theory of Translation Categories

Not all Bible translations fit nice and neatly under the theory of translation categories, but some  blur the lines as seen in the chart below[1]. Line 1 has the original translations. Line 2 has the revised translations.

Formal Equivalence
Functional Equivalence
2 NKJV NASU      NRSV       ESV TNIV NJB    REB    NLT         The Message

Notice that the revisions of the RSV, NRSV and ESV, have moved closer to dynamic equivalence from the formal side, while the NJB, REB, and NLT (revision of the LB) have also move closer to dynamic equivalence from the free side.

What Is The Best Theory?

The best theory of translation is one that remains faithful to both the original and receptor languages. With the caveat that if something has to “give” it should be in favor of the receptor language without losing the meaning of the original language.

After all, the purpose of any translation of the Bible is so you and I can hear God’s revelation to mankind.

Summary of Bible Versions 101, 102, and 103

At this point you know:

  • The difference between translation and interpretation (Bible Versions 101)
  • Original Language involves Textual Criticism (Bible Versions 102)
  • “Translated Into” Language involves verbal and grammatical choices controlled by a theory of translation. (Bible Versions 103)

Which Bible Translation(s) Should Be Used?

So, which Bible translation(s) should you use? Be sure and read the final post in the Bible Versions series, Bible Versions 104: Choosing a Translation for things to consider when making this important decision.


Until next time –

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14 (ESV, dynamic equivalence; NASB, formal equivalence is the same, can you guess why?)

The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you. 2 Corinthians 13:14 (The Message, free)


[1] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2003), 42.