Monday, September 19, 2005

Book Review: Bible Translation Differences

There are an incredible number of Bible versions available today. Everytime a new version comes onto the market there is debate about its quality and methods of translation. The latest version to hit the market is the Today's New International Version. Leland Ryken has written a short tract on Bible Translation Differences describing the difference between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations. He argues that the only reliable translations are word-for-word. The theory of translation behind thought-for-thought translations is called dynamic equivalence which is 'based on the premise that whenever something in the original text is foreign or unclear to a contemporary English reader, the original text should be translated in terms of equivalence rather than literally.' Ryken goes on to say that, 'In actual practice, dynamic equivalence goes far beyond this by frequently making integrity decisions for the reader and adding commentary to the text.' (p. 7) The author suggests five negative effects of dynamic equivalence translation. First, he claims that they take liberties in translation. Second, dynamic equivalence translation leads to a destabilisation of the text. By this he means that there are a proliferation of variant translations of many Bible passages, many of which, stray significantly from the words of the original. Thirdly, Ryken draws a distinction between what the Bible "means" versus what the Bible says. He argues that 'When dynamic equivalence translations remove what the original says from sight, they short-circuit the process of biblical interpretation.' (p. 16) In other words, by translating the original language into contemporary English concepts, the translation has done the task of interpretation that the reader should be permitted to do themselves. When reading a dynamic equivalent translation it is difficult to know whether one is reading an accurate rendition of the original and how far removed the final product is from that original. Fourthly, Ryken believes that the dynamic equivalent translation 'falls short of what the Bible reading public should rightfully expect.' Finally, the author suggests that the very task of dynamic equivalent translations is a 'logical and linguistic impossibility'. He argues that all the translator has available are the words of the author and that the idea of translating the thought of the author cannot be done without the words. So to claim that these translators are actually translating thought and somehow bypassing the words doesn't make logical or linguistic sense. Following this critique, Ryken provides 10 reasons he believes that we can trust essentially literal translations of the Bible:
  1. they are transparent to the original, i.e., we can see the original text via the translation except for places '... where it completely literal translation would have been unintelligible to an English reader...';
  2. they keep to the essential task of translation;
  3. they preserve the full interpretive potential of the original;
  4. they do not mix commentary with translation;
  5. they preserve theological precision;
  6. preachers do not need to correct the translation when they use them in preaching;
  7. they preserve what the biblical writers actually wrote;
  8. they preserve the literary qualities of the Bible;
  9. they preserve the dignity and beauty of the Bible;
  10. they are consistent with the doctrine of inspiration.

In his conclusion, Ryken suggests that 'English Bible translation stands at a watershed moment. For half a century, dynamic equivalence has been the guiding translation philosophy behind most new translations. Each successive wave of these translations has tended to be increasingly bold in departing from the words of the original text. Stated another way, we can trace an arc of increasingly aggressive changing, adding too, and subtracting from the words that the biblical authors wrote. The issues that are at stake in the current debate about Bible translations are immense.'

What should we make of this claim? In my view, Ryken overstates the case against dynamic equivalent translations. His point of view is largely determined by the beginning assumptions he makes about the nature of inspiration. Ryken believes in plenary verbal inspiration -- the idea that the very words of the Bible were inspired by God and should not be altered anyway. I do not hold to his view of inspiration. In my view, God inspired the ideas in Scripture but left it to the authors to work out the best way of describing those ideas.

Ryken also ignores the positive aspects of dynamic equivalent translation. Nor does he deal with the problems of literal word-for-word translation -- and there are some. And some of his reasons for supporting literal translations are quite subjective. For example, suggesting that literal translations preserve the dignity and beauty of the Bible completely ignores the fact that New Testament Greek was written in the common language of the day for ordinary people. Not only that, The King James Version was written in the English of the common person and contains street colloquialisms of the day. And yet people constantly point to the King James Version as being a translation of great beauty and dignity. Notions of dignity and beauty are subjective ones and are hardly any reason to reject a particular translation of the Bible.

Ryken also seems to ignore the role of interpretation even in literal translations of the Bible (although he does provide implicit hints of these). All translation involves interpretation and can even be seen in the most literal of translations.

Ryken also completely ignores the incredible benefit of having so many translations of the Bible available, both literal, dynamically equivalent, and paraphrased (strictly, not a translation). Instead of trying to convince people to reject certain types of translations, we need to be educating people in the different types -- their purposes, advantages and disadvantages, and how to use them effectively. The main piece of advice we need to be telling people is not to restrict reading or study to just one translation. All translation have their problems and the only safeguard is to read more than one and compare them. By doing so, it will raise questions of translation where they disagree. This should lead a person to resources that will take them behind the text and the discussions about what constitutes better or worse translations of particular passages Scripture.

Overall, then, Ryken's book is a one-sided argument in favour of his point of view. He does not engage with the actual arguments of proponents of dynamic equivalence, nor does he acknowledge the very definite advantages that Christians now possess as a result of a vast array of translations available. The book is worth reading to understand Ryken's point of view. But for a broad introduction to the issues related to translation of the Bible one will need to look elsewhere.

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