The Meaning and Task of Translation

One of the greatest travesties in Biblical translation extends from the basic belief in Fee’s statement, “The goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of the text, not the form.”    (Fee and Strauss 25)   This statement alone intimates two flaws in Biblical teaching leading to many of the great heresies against God and Christ.

The first of these two flaws is the assumption that to achieve the goal of Biblical translation one must reproduce meaning, not form.  Is functional equivalence, in essence, “dumbing-down” the text for the lay reader?  In the oral tradition and for the majority of the 1500 years following Christ, there was very little translation and so the original text was preserved.  This is not to say that the original text has a sacredness of its own that must be preserved.  However, it is to say that the men and women who attempted to understand the text in those ages past did so with great effort.  And through their effort, they journeyed deeper into the text than most could dream.  The text is and should be free, but free text does not necessarily mean easy text.  Functional equivalence has made the text easy, not just free; the journey that the lay reader goes on is diluted and worse, delegated.

The second flaw, and unquestionably the greater crime, stems from the goal of Biblical translation as “meaning.“  In CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the meaning is what is relevant, and so a transcultural paraphrase preserving meaning is sufficient.  However, the goal of Biblical translation should not and should never be “meaning.”  The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to man, God’s revelation of Himself to the author and recorded in the understanding of the author in the writing of the text.  In this sense, the parallel is not CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, but Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man or Tagore’s Gitanjali Collection or Homer’s Illiad.  Poetry is a step into the mind of the poet and an attempt to understand the perspective of the poet through the lens of the story and verse.  In poetry, “form” is equally if not of greater value than “meaning.”  The Bible is poetry.  Not every line may rhyme, but it is poetry in the sense that it is meant as an attempt to understand the mind of the author revealing the character of God.

It is the quest for meaning, not authorial perspective, that has damaged the Christian religion.  Paul’s letters, the Deuteronomic Law, even the story of Jesus taken only as meaning result in the righteousness checklists and self-serving teachings rampant in the church.  If the Bible is meant solely as God’s revelation, we must not hide that revelation under the pretext of “meaning.”  For this reason, I am in favour of formal equivalence both in my personal journey and in ministry.  It is the role of the teacher in ministry to aide the student, church member, flock, etc… in seeking God’s revelation in the text.  It is the role of the individual to doggedly pursue God’s revelation by whatever means available to them.


Fee, Gordon D., and Mark L. Strauss. How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

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