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Lost in the translation - Bible Translation Questions
world magazine ^ | 1-24-03 | Joel Belz

Posted on 01/24/2003 7:34:07 AM PST by Brookhaven

Lost in the translation

A literature scholar says words, more than meanings, are important

By Joel Belz

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 millennium—may 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 altered—and usually diminished—when 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 not—and 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 volume—which 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 arguments—and 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.


TOPICS: Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: bible; godsgravesglyphs; translations
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1 posted on 01/24/2003 7:34:07 AM PST by Brookhaven
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To: Brookhaven
Interesting article.

makes the important point that dynamic equivalence is not a translation method, but a hermeneutic approach masquerading as a translation method.

2 posted on 01/24/2003 7:41:06 AM PST by wideawake
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To: wideawake
Bible translation by liberals. Sounds pretty Dangerous to me. Unless the "meaning" is translated directly, it is dangerous to speculate what what God really meant.
3 posted on 01/24/2003 7:48:24 AM PST by ColdSteelTalon
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To: Mr. Mulliner
This book sounds like a "must read"!
4 posted on 01/24/2003 7:55:43 AM PST by Molly Pitcher (Demolish the Criminal Party!! NOW!!)
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To: .45MAN; AKA Elena; Angelus Errare; Aquinasfan; Aristophanes; ArrogantBustard; Askel5; Barnacle; ...
Bible bump ......... your views?
5 posted on 01/24/2003 7:59:21 AM PST by NYer (Ever Faithful to the Magisterium.)
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To: RnMomof7
Mom. I think we should bump the usual suspects on this. :-)
6 posted on 01/24/2003 8:01:09 AM PST by P-Marlowe (Psalm 150 Crank up the Volume!)
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To: Brookhaven
"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."

I have been taking Precepts for the past few years and find that doing Greek and Hebrew word studies to get to the original intent of the writer deepens the meaning of the text.

The Living Bible paraphrase was great to get new Christians started in Bible reading and feeling like the Bible was written for them. When they want to really study though, they want a more reliable translation.
7 posted on 01/24/2003 8:02:20 AM PST by AUsome Joy
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To: Brookhaven
Very interesting read. Thanks for posting it.
8 posted on 01/24/2003 8:05:34 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: wideawake
If anyone has actually read this translation, could you possibly post a small sample of what it says?
9 posted on 01/24/2003 8:06:56 AM PST by Do Be
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To: Brookhaven
Check out my Help for Bible Students, along similar lines.

Dan

10 posted on 01/24/2003 8:09:59 AM PST by BibChr
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To: ColdSteelTalon
Bible translation by liberals. Sounds pretty Dangerous to me. Unless the "meaning" is translated directly, it is dangerous to speculate what what God really meant.

Dangerous to speculate? LOL. Here we go again. Same story, different angle.

11 posted on 01/24/2003 8:10:20 AM PST by Havoc ((Evolution is a theory, Creationism is God's word, ID is science, Sanka is coffee))
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To: Brookhaven
Jews have always stressed the importance of studying the Bible in the original language. There are many translations, and they are regarded as "commentaries" and "learning tools" rather than as definitive scripture.

An incorrect or inappropriate translation of even one word can drastically change the meaning of a passage.

12 posted on 01/24/2003 8:12:41 AM PST by Alouette
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To: NYer
I've always believed a literal translation is far better. However, to truly understand the Bible, I also believe that you should understand things about the cultures. For example, I would never have picked up on my own that when Christ was referred to as "Jesus, son of Mary," it was the equivalent of saying, "hey, you, the guy who doesn't know who his father is" if someone hadn't explained to me that people were always referred to as the son of their fathers. Dittoes for the fact that "father" meant any male from whom you were directly descended, including grandfathers, etc, all the way back.

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.

13 posted on 01/24/2003 8:13:52 AM PST by Richard Kimball
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To: wideawake
Most of these people just don't understand what is happening when you translate from one language to another.

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.

14 posted on 01/24/2003 8:15:03 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: ColdSteelTalon; wideawake; RnMomof7; the_doc; OrthodoxPresbyterian; Jerry_M; P-Marlowe; ...
Unless the "meaning" is translated directly... ~ ColdSteelTalon Woody.
15 posted on 01/24/2003 8:15:39 AM PST by CCWoody
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To: Do Be
I have read the whole NT and a fair bit of the OT. I have a partial review in the essay linked above, Help for Bible Students.

A searchable version is available at BibleGateway.com.

Dan
Biblical Christianity web site

16 posted on 01/24/2003 8:16:34 AM PST by BibChr
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To: BibChr
Help out all the "KJV only" folks by explaining the use of italicized words.
17 posted on 01/24/2003 8:21:13 AM PST by Eagle Eye
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To: fortheDeclaration; xzins; Jael
I thought you would like to read this
18 posted on 01/24/2003 8:23:56 AM PST by RnMomof7
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To: Taliesan
If a rendering is meaningless to the reader, it is not a translation.

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.

Dan
Biblical Christianity message board

19 posted on 01/24/2003 8:24:44 AM PST by BibChr
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To: Richard Kimball
I agree with your points, but they are not points about translation. They are points about cultural background.

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".

20 posted on 01/24/2003 8:24:48 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: BibChr
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).

If that is what he means, I agree.

21 posted on 01/24/2003 8:26:17 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: BibChr
I was asking for any actual quotes from "The Word of God in English" by Leland Ryken. Do you have any of those?
22 posted on 01/24/2003 8:26:47 AM PST by Do Be
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To: Do Be
English Standard Version:
http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/

Psalm 23:

23:1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. [1]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness [2]
for his name's sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, [3]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely [4] goodness and mercy [5] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell [6] in the house of the Lord
forever. [7]
23 posted on 01/24/2003 8:30:37 AM PST by PAR35
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To: Alouette
I do agree the only way to get the ENTIRE meaning is to read in the original. I had a pastor who encouraged all believers to learn Hebrew and Greek, and the church offered classes. I did both, then went on to do all the Greek my local university had to offer. This is not too large an effort to ask of Christians.
24 posted on 01/24/2003 8:31:02 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: Do Be
Sorry, my bad. Not yet!

Dan
25 posted on 01/24/2003 8:31:31 AM PST by BibChr
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To: Molly Pitcher
I don't know about it being a "must read". It might scare the hell out of some people.
26 posted on 01/24/2003 8:31:34 AM PST by abishai (Son of Zeruiah, nephew of King David.)
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To: Brookhaven
I usually prefer the New American Standard, but my preference really varies from verse to verse.
27 posted on 01/24/2003 8:32:16 AM PST by lds23
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To: Taliesan
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"?

I think you're confusing the concept of "word for word" and "literal" translation. In the example you gave, you're actually setting up a straw man. The two ideas that you are comparing are not the same.

No matter how careful and precise a translator tries to be, the job by its nature, requires some interpretation. This is the reason why churches used to require their pastors to have training in the original languages. However, after Charles Finney, many Protestant denominations experienced an anti-intellectualism that allowed anyone who was "led by the Spirit" to take the podium in their churches. This attitude still pervades many denominations (could name some but won't).

BTW, I went to do some research at a Roman Catholic university and couldn't find any Greek and Hebrew language tools in their library's Bible section, only Latin. don't know if this is typical, but it certainly was surprising and sad.
28 posted on 01/24/2003 8:32:26 AM PST by aardvark1
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To: Brookhaven
Does he also deal with which source texts are favored by the translators?
29 posted on 01/24/2003 8:33:00 AM PST by PAR35
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To: Brookhaven
Too bad the translators of the KJV had such inferior texts to work with. But they did do a pretty good job of translating what they had given the state of the art and their more limited knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. What's really cool about an actual translation into several different languages is that you can use your familiarity with the Bible translated into one language to learn to read another language. You can figure out the meaning of equivalent words and phrases in a way that's impossible with two different paraphrases of the same text into two different languages.
30 posted on 01/24/2003 8:33:27 AM PST by aruanan
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To: wideawake
makes the important point that dynamic equivalence is not a translation method, but a hermeneutic approach masquerading as a translation method.

Bingo... it is a way to stick a prefered reading in as "offical" I have pretty much all versions of Scripture from translations from Latin Vulgate to the TR ..I also have some dymatic translations

I work from 2 or 3 when I am studying..just to cross reference. I prefer the KJV for quotations..but NAS is a good translation...

I trust God to speak to the heart of the reader ..but Bibles have become BIG business so this is no surprise is it?

31 posted on 01/24/2003 8:34:55 AM PST by RnMomof7
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To: CCWoody
What I meant is that unless the translation is done by translating the meaning properly it is dangerous, because people will put their own feelings into the translation.
32 posted on 01/24/2003 8:35:05 AM PST by ColdSteelTalon
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To: P-Marlowe; JHavard; Havoc; OLD REGGIE; Iowegian; TrueBeliever9; Prodigal Daughter; Zadokite; ...
Agreed..interesting topic..
33 posted on 01/24/2003 8:35:56 AM PST by RnMomof7
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To: Eagle Eye
I think I explain them in Help for Bible Students (three links in one thread, that is a record).

Briefly, italics in the KJV and ASV and others that use them are not like they are in common literature. They do not mean "read louder." (c8

Rather, they represent words not in the original text, but necessary for English syntax. For instance, when you call someone in Hebrew, he might answer hinneni. Literally, that means, "Look, me!" But a KJV-ish way to render it would be "Behold, here I am."

That's the short version. (c8

Dan

34 posted on 01/24/2003 8:36:20 AM PST by BibChr
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To: Taliesan
read again later
35 posted on 01/24/2003 8:37:47 AM PST by LiteKeeper
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To: Alouette
An incorrect or inappropriate translation of even one word can drastically change the meaning of a passage.

You are correct..and also not understanding the writing styles of the culture at that time can cause major confusion in the reading.

36 posted on 01/24/2003 8:38:39 AM PST by RnMomof7
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Comment #37 Removed by Moderator

To: PAR35
That is such a well known (almost memorized ) psalm by all Jewish and Christian people they can not "play" much with it..but there are alot of obscure passages where changes could go unnoticed..
38 posted on 01/24/2003 8:41:15 AM PST by RnMomof7
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To: BibChr
Actually, Dan, that's a darn good essay.

I particularly appreciate your contention that pastors need to read the sacred languages. It amazes me that a man will get up in a pulpit and begin what appears to be an exegetical sermon with "now Mr. Webster defines faith as...". AAAARRRGGGHHHHH. Indescribable ignorance.

Thanks. I'll check out the ESV.

39 posted on 01/24/2003 8:44:31 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: aardvark1
No matter how careful and precise a translator tries to be, the job by its nature, requires some interpretation. This is the reason why churches used to require their pastors to have training in the original languages. However, after Charles Finney, many Protestant denominations experienced an anti-intellectualism that allowed anyone who was "led by the Spirit" to take the podium in their churches. This attitude still pervades many denominations (could name some but won't).

Let's focus on what we agree on. Amen to this.

40 posted on 01/24/2003 8:46:50 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: P-Marlowe; RnMomof7
Looks like an interesting read.

When you realize who's funded the many "translations" of the Bible, a pattern emerges.

Blur and bleach.

41 posted on 01/24/2003 8:46:58 AM PST by Dr. Eckleburg
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To: Brookhaven
"Dynamic Equivalence" = The Bible is a "living" document.

Sound familiar?

"Dynamic Equivalence" is the basic methodlogy of those who would destroy the Boible or the Consitution.

"Dynamic Equivalence" = words only mean what I want them to mean to advance my point of view.

"Dynamic Equivalence" = pure BS.

42 posted on 01/24/2003 8:48:09 AM PST by jimkress
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To: ColdSteelTalon
Like all those in the south that translate the word WINE into GRAPE JUICE?

Same think just a different agenda.
43 posted on 01/24/2003 8:52:05 AM PST by Karsus (TrueFacts=GOOD, GoodFacts=BAD))
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To: Taliesan
The pronoun "he" cannot be understood by anybody with a neuron as really meaning "she".

Turkish has an indefinite 3rd person singular pronoun, "o." So does French, "on." In English, the legitimate indefinite 3rd person singular pronouns is "he," and variations thereof. "If any man thirst, let him come unto me."

As a professional writer, I deeply resent the feminist bastardization of my incredibly rich and supple mother tongue, that seeks to use "they" as the indefinite singular. Yet if you listen to conversations around you, this is an ongoing process. "When the operator gets to the machine, they must turn it on using their key." BARF !!!

44 posted on 01/24/2003 8:52:41 AM PST by TomSmedley
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To: Taliesan
Thanks, I appreciate that. I so agree with you; it makes my flesh crawl.

People would never go to a doctor who'd only ever seen pictures of human anatomy — but they'll follow a pastor who depends on others to explain to him what he's reading. A pastor should be a voice, not an echo.

Dan

45 posted on 01/24/2003 8:54:27 AM PST by BibChr
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To: aruanan
you can use your familiarity with the Bible translated into one language to learn to read another language.

I'm struggling my way through the Italian NT for the 2nd time. The effort required does slow your reading down, but being forced to look more closely at the text flushes out nuances you'd overlooked before.

46 posted on 01/24/2003 8:56:52 AM PST by TomSmedley
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To: ColdSteelTalon
What I meant is that unless the translation is done by translating the meaning properly it is dangerous... ~ ColdSteelTalon Woody.
47 posted on 01/24/2003 8:58:59 AM PST by CCWoody
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To: Brookhaven
bump
48 posted on 01/24/2003 9:02:27 AM PST by VOA
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To: Brookhaven
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.

Sounds like Democrates.

49 posted on 01/24/2003 9:07:05 AM PST by farmfriend ( Isaiah 55:10,11)
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To: Brookhaven
Also gone, very often, he says, are the beauty, the rhythm, the cadence, the mystery, the wonder, and the ambiguity of God's Word.

This is a specious argument. It's worth pointing out that the NIV -- a very literal translation -- destroyed more beauty, rythm, and cadence than any interpretive Bible could ever get away with.

50 posted on 01/24/2003 9:10:45 AM PST by r9etb
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