Skip to comments.Lost in the translation - Bible Translation Questions
Posted on 01/24/2003 7:34:07 AM PST by Brookhaven
Since it's still January, I know it won't impress you much to say that The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken is the most important book I've read this year. Even to call it my most important read of the century or, for that matter, of the millenniummay be, in the year 2003, to damn it with faint praise.
But you get the point. If the Bible itself is the most important book ever to confront the human race, I will argue that the Ryken volume may do more to change how you view the Bible (and how you read it) than any book, preacher, professor, or other influence you have ever had.
The Word of God in English focuses on translation theory. It features the debate between so-called "literal" translation on the one hand, and "dynamic equivalent" translation on the other. Author Ryken comes down unambiguously on the side of the literalists. But his is not merely a technical treatment. It's possible (but not likely!) that you could read this book and end up disagreeing with the author's main thesis. What I don't think is possible is that you'd read this book and end up with a lower view of the Bible than you had before.
Leland Ryken has taught literature at Wheaton College for many years, and he holds a very high view of the Bible. He thinks God chose the Bible's words, and not just its ideas, in a very purposeful way. And he thinks the Bible's very message is alteredand usually diminishedwhen people tinker and tamper with the words.
Ironically, of course, dynamic-equivalence translators argue the issue the other way. They claim that by asking the question, What was the main idea the author intended? and then expressing that idea in the idiom of the "receptor language," the reader will have a richer experience of the author's intention.
Leland Ryken devastates the dynamic-equivalent position. Systematically, comprehensively, repetitively, he argues in such convincing fashion that I predict you will never again be satisfied with a translation of the Bible that is even mildly "dynamic." You will know that any such "translation" denies you much of what is rightly yours. It does that by first denying you what is rightly God's.
Indeed, the core of the Ryken argument is that the dynamic-equivalence folks, thinking of and picturing themselves as those who democratically offer the Bible to the masses, in fact end up condescending to those very masses by decreeing what parts of God's Word they will get and what parts they won't. Repeatedly, by interpreting the original rather than translating it, they rob the reader of the right to wrestle with the words. The wrestling is over by the time the reader gets there.
Also gone, very often, he says, are the beauty, the rhythm, the cadence, the mystery, the wonder, and the ambiguity of God's Word. In a well-meaning effort to reach "down to the people," those very people have been insulted and demeaned as the exalted and elegant expression of God Himself is often reduced, defoliated, and gutted to the point of trivial chatter. What was supposed to sound important sounds trifling now. A colloquial Bible, he says, will naturally do little to impress its readers.
Three caveats are in order. First, when you read The Word of God in English, you may think the book is overly redundant. In some ways, it is. But if that is a weakness, it is also the book's marvelous strength. The argument is spun from so many dozens of directions that they begin to sound the same. They're notand that will ultimately impress you.
Second, it's appropriate, but also too bad, that the Ryken book had to come from Crossway Books. Crossway deserves enormous credit (and we've given it here) for its new English Standard Version of the Bible, released last year. But since Leland Ryken served professionally as the stylist for that version, both Crossway and he subject themselves now to conflict of interest charges by working so closely together on this excellent volumewhich is a frank cheerleader for the ESV.
And we at WORLD subject ourselves to the same possible charges, since the Ryken book is such a lofty and scholarly validation of the serious questions we have raised over the last five years about some modern Bible translations. I applaud him for restating some of our argumentsand doing it in such gentle, eloquent, and persuasive fashion.
We'll accept those criticisms if that's what it takes to get thousands of people to read this book. It will drive you back, as it has done for me, to more serious Bible reading. It will increase your wonder for the very words God has used. It will draw you into closer personal fellowship with God Himself as you reflect on the myriad of ways in which He has expressed His love and His mercy for His children.
That's high praise, I know, for a book about translation theory. But at least you don't have to guess at my meaning.
makes the important point that dynamic equivalence is not a translation method, but a hermeneutic approach masquerading as a translation method.
Dangerous to speculate? LOL. Here we go again. Same story, different angle.
An incorrect or inappropriate translation of even one word can drastically change the meaning of a passage.
I never picked up on just how rough a cob King David was until I went back to the translation of one of his threats to a village. In most versions, it says "we will kill every adult man in the village." The literal is "we will kill anyone who can urinate on a wall."
My problem with feminists, for example, who want to create a "gender neutral" God, is that if the term used for God in the original text is masculine, the masculine should be used. If feminine, feminine should be used, if neutral, the neutral should be used. Unfortunately, Francis Schaeffer was correct, in that many churches no longer believe in God. They use Christian terminology because of the warm fuzzies associated with much of it, to advance a social agenda of their own designs.
I haven't read the book, but if this review is any indication, the argument is circular logic. The reviewer assumes the translator is choosing one "part" of the meaning over another, and giving the reader the part the translator thinks is the "main" one. This may be what the paraphrasers are intending, but it is not what the translators are doing.
I wonder if Dr. Ryken were to translate Shakespeare from English into Spanish. Would he take it word for word -- let's see, "to" "be" "or" "not" "to" "be" -- or would he render a Spanish phrase as close as possible to the meaning of the English PHRASE "TO BE OR NOT TO BE" ? If he did the first, he'd just be a simpleton, and prevent his Spanish readers from understanding Shakespeare. Only the second produces a Spanish version of what Shakespeare said.
This reminds me of those translations (good ones, like the NASV) which render Hebrew and Aramaic idiomatic expressions word for word -- Jesus, to his mother: "woman, what to you and to me?" Then, in a footnote, explain to the English reader what the idiomatic expression MEANT. So the translation is in the footnote -- the word for word rendering is meaningless to the reader. If a rendering is meaningless to the reader, it is not a translation.
Language doesn't function word-for-word. None of us speak, write, listen, or understand that way. It functions by building words together into a meaning.
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Nor is it a translation if an ambigous source is rendered unambiguously, nor if a "rough" original is "smoothed out" excessively (by tossing overboard conjunctions the translators "feel" make for rough English, for example).
This, I would take it, is the author's point.
I think I advocate "dynamic equivalence", but I also can't stand those translators who want to do my work for me. (And I think paraphrasing is an abomination, but that's a separate issue.) If David said "those who urinate on a wall" then the translator SHOULD NOT render it "men".
This is not the same as a translator, for example, rendering the Hebrew word traditionally translated "redeeming" with the English "buying back". There's nothing sacred about the English word "redeem" -- there is something sacred about the Hebrew word behind it.
And I think the whole inclusive language debate is beyond discussion for Christians. The pronoun "he" cannot be understood by anybody with a neuron as really meaning "she".