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.
When you realize who's funded the many "translations" of the Bible, a pattern emerges.
Blur and bleach.
"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.
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 !!!
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.
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.
Sounds like Democrates.
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.
< coffee spraying all over monitor >
At the same time, the Psalms were written in a consciously archaic style, and the Gospels were written in a style that would have sounded clunky and alien to native speakers of Greek.
The "what to you and to me" doesn't sound much smoother in Greek than it does in English.
Pure literalism is impossible because there is no word in English that perfectly corresponds to many Hebrew words in their full nuance and connotation. At the same time the concept of "dynamic equivalence" is taken as license to for many liberties.
All in all, I would prefer a translation to err on the side of literalism, with footnotes explaining idioms, etc. rather than one which erred on the side of smoothing or easing the Scripture for the modern ear.
Thus, when you compare it to something like the NIV, they say the same thing, but often with very different sentence structure, and often with other valid translations of certain words.
What this points out is that "literal" translation is a fiction -- as has already been noted, it's impossible not to inject some element of colloquial language into the text, if only because sentence structures differ between languages. Not to mention that large group of words which "have no precise English equivalents."
The ESV is in many ways very similar to my REB, and thus very different from the NIV. This weakens Ryken's point to some extent -- if "literal" translation can result in so many different choices of words and sentence structure, then one has to wonder in how much "dynamic equivalence" he himself engaged.
The larger point is still valid: there are folks who are actively changing words and meanings to match up with current (secular) sensibilities. That is, of course, out of bounds.