Optimal Equivalence and the HCSB

Optimal Equivalence and the HCSB

It has been some time since I complained about something in a Bible translation, so here goes! In this case it’s not the translation itself, but rather the description of the translation in the introduction.

I used the HCSB in church today, and I noticed something interesting about the way the name of God is used. In most cases, they use LORD for YHWH, but in one case they used Yahweh. According to the introduction, they use Yahweh if there is an emphasis on the name and what the name is. I haven’t looked at how they make this determination, but it would make an interesting study. I’m using the Nook edition, which loses the small caps on LORD, so it comes out as Lord in the edition. The print edition uses the long standing conventions for indicating the name of God.

This was not, however what got on my nerves. Translations handle the name of God in a variety of ways. I just wanted to know how they justified their approach. On the way to finding this explanation I found their description of their translation philosophy. They reject both “dynamic (or functional) equivalence” and “formal equivalence” in favor of “optimal equivalence.”

So what is optimal equivalence? Amongst the various things that seem to characterize it are an acknowledgement that neither formal nor functional equivalence can be followed absolutely, that form cannot completely be separated from meaning, and that the text should be exhaustively analyzed at all levels. Then using “the latest and best language tools and experts, the nearest corresponding semantic and linguistic equivalents are used to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text with as much clarity and readability as possible.”

That, of course, is completely contrary to the intention of other translators who ….

Well, actually, that’s pretty much how translators describe their work. Naming it “optimal equivalence” is just marketing speak. In fact, I think the HCSB has failed in these goals in a number of cases, as do most translations (see my notes on the HCSB). Doubtless were I to put my best effort into accomplishing those goals in a translation, I would fail numerous times. So claiming these ideas as a distinguishing feature of a particular translation is, to put it mildly, a bit misleading. The point is not that the HCSB, contrary to other translations, wants “to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text … as possible.” Rather, they tend to approach that goal in their own particular way, and you can find a statement on that in their introduction as well: “… form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed (for example, nouns to verbs or third person ‘they’ to second person ‘you’) unless comprehension demands it.” That suggests that they lean toward formal equivalence, and indeed, my own analysis, done a couple of years ago, supports my initial impression.

I don’t want to be too negative about this particular translation. I actually find it overall quite readable. It’s a credible and usable translation, though not my favorite. The issue is that it is not some sort of break through in translation theory or practice. Everybody tries to accurately convey what’s in their source text via the target language. The question is just what information is regarded as most important (you’re going to lose something) and how that information can best be conveyed.

And that is where the very legitimate differences in translation philosophies occur.

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