The Difference between Literal and Dynamic Translations of the Bible

How do I know which Bible versions are literal translations from the original text and which are paraphrased or based off a translation already in print—just updated?

Different Bibles are produced with different objectives in mind.

Generally speaking, for English Bibles, there are two dominant translation methodologies: formal-equivalence and dynamic-equivalence.

In formal-equivalence translations, translators attempt to translate each word in the original language into an equivalent English word.

These translations are generally considered more “literal.”

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In dynamic-equivalence translations, translators attempt to translate the message/meaning of the original-language texts into an equivalent English word or expression.

These translations are generally less literal on a word-for-word basis but still seek to capture the meaning of the original-language texts.

Having said all that, in actuality, all translations incorporate elements of both methods.

Even the most “literal” translations necessarily provide aids to the reader in the translation because certain concepts in the original languages would be nonsensical to most English readers.

Likewise, even those Bibles that tend more toward the “paraphrase” side of things are often quite literal for passages where the literal rendering gives a clear meaning in English.

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All translations seek in their own ways to be faithful as much as possible to the meaning of the original-language texts.

Regarding how to identify where a Bible falls on this spectrum, Bibles printed today generally include information in their preface and/or introduction (the material preceding Genesis 1) that outlines the history and translation philosophy of that particular translation.

This typically includes information about the purpose of that translation, something about the translation methods used, and information about whether or not it was based on a prior English translation.

You can also often find this information on the websites for the various translations.

For example, on the official website for the New Living Translation ( ), you can find a copy of the introductory material found in printed NLT Bibles, which includes this sort of information (see especially the tab “Discover the NLT”).

You can also find there a helpful chart comparing a number of English translations with respect to their “literalness.”

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Additional resources:

  • This is a helpful and somewhat detailed chart that distinguishes between major English translations; special note: this chart uses “verbal equivalence” to refer to what we’re calling “formal-equivalence.”

  • If you’re interested in doing more substantial reading on these issues, you’ll find here a four-part article on the history of English Bible translations, written by a New Testament scholar. It certainly doesn’t include all English translations in the discussion, but it does provide a lot of helpful background information.


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