The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation

  • Leland Ryken
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Ryken, Leland The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. Wheaton: Crossway. 2002 $ 15.99. 336 pp. Pap. ISBN 1-58134-464-3.

Leland Ryken, long-time English professor at Wheaton College, has distinguished himself as one of evangelicalism's premier literary critcs, particularly with many books on understanding the Bible as literature. As a result of his work on the team that produced the recent ESV (English Standard Version), he has ventured into writing on Bible translation. His primary concern is the proliferation of "dynamic-equivalence" (more thought-for-thought) translations and the comparative lack of recent emphasis on "essentially literal" (more word-for-word) counterparts.

The book spreads seventeen chapters out over five parts. Part One presents "Lessons from Overlooked Sources." From literature one learns the need to reproduce as literally as possible original form as well as meaning. Ryken believes Bible translators promote a looseness of rendering that would never be tolerated in reproducing, even in contemporary idiom, classics from our own tradition of English-language literature. We expect the same accuracy in reproducing ordinary discourse, and the history of Bible translating shows that the current predominance of dynamic equivalence is a small minority position overall.

Part Two discusses "Common Fallacies of Translation," itemizing five about the Bible, seven about translation and eight about Bible readers. The Bible is not uniformly simple reading or always written in colloquial language. It is not just about ideas rather than concrete particulars. It is not modern, in need of correction or devoid of ambiguity. Translators should not render only meaning and not strive for equivalence of wording also; all translation is not equally interpretation to the same extent or in the same way; nor should our goal always be readability or how we would say something. Many contemporary American readers do not require the level of "dumbing down" assumed by many recent translations. And even when they do, they can be taught; the history of Bible reading has in fact played an important role in educating the linguistically or culturally illiterate as they wrestle with its challenging dimensions.

Part Three turns to "Theological, Ethical and Hermeneutical Issues." The more one believes in verbal, plenary inspiration, the more one should value essentially literal translations. Since speakers and writers determine meaning rather than readers, translators have an ethical obligation to render their texts as accurately as possible in a receptor language. And the task of translation should not be confused with that of hermeneutics. Whenever possible the same levels of ambiguity or metaphor should be preserved even in a new language, with interpreters and commentators discussing the meaning of unclear or potentially polyvalent statements rather than having translators foreclose on exegetical options by their univocal renderings.

The fourth part of Ryken's book sums up the state of "Modern Translations: Their Problems and Solution." The more dynamic equivalent a translation, the more likely it will not preserve the literary qualities of the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, as the King James Version so beautifully did and as the RSV and ESV in more modern English and with a better textual base often do. The more dynamic equivalent translations also more often obscure rather than illuminate historical-cultural data in the text, when they render them by modern equivalents. Without essentially literal renderings the text of Scripture is also "destabilized"--people do not see the commonalities of a text as they compare several quite different dynamic equivalent renderings and the contents of the text are less likely understood or even remembered.

The final main section offers "Criteria of Excellence in an English Bible." These include fidelity to the original words, effective diction that preserves the same level of clarity, vividness, connotation, and mystery as in the original, that translates poetry as poetry with respect to phrasing and rhythm (though meter is almost impossible to translate unchanged and biblical poetry does not employ rhyme), and that reproduces the exaltation and beauty of original texts where those features appear.

An appendix, by C. John Collins, Old Testament professor at Covenant Seminary, St. Louis, defends the thesis that "Without Form, You Lose Meaning."

I have deliberately summarized, in drastically abbreviated fashion, most of Ryken's main points abstractly, without reference to specific dynamic-equivalence translations. As such, there is very little that causes objection and much of great value. As one who teaches regularly from the Greek New Testament, I encourage students to compare their own translations with essentially literal translations such as the NASB, RSV or ESV. As one who has done a lot of work translating modern European languages and literature into English, however, I realize that the task becomes far more complicated than Ryken's discussion of updating ancient English texts might suggest.

But it is when Ryken attempts to make generalizations about a wide variety of translations that are all lumped together under the heading of dynamic equivalence that more serious problems result. Far more helpful are approaches that speak of a spectrum of translations from the most literal to the most free and then place each translation at its appropriate point on the spectrum. Ryken does acknowledge early on that the NIV is the most conservative of the dynamic equivalence translations, but even that is not quite an accurate summary. Independent analysts have more helpfully described it as attempting to carve out a middle position between the purer forms of consistently literal and consistently dynamic equivalent translations. As someone who most often uses the NIV for public ministry and has read the entire New Testament in comparison with the Greek, I can attest that it is closer to an "essentially literal" translation in far more instances than than those in which it resembles the "pure" dynamic-equivalence model of Eugene Nida, the Good News Bible and the United Bible Societies' numerous other modern-language translations (the real target of Ryken's book, it would seem). By consistently citing the minority of places where the NIV is freer, Ryken creates a warped and unduly negative view of the translation overall. Sadly, Ryken falls prey to the common, recent misconception of the TNIV as freer still. Whatever one thinks about the use of inclusive language for generic masculine terminology in Scripture for humanity (and it is clear Ryken doesn't think very much of it), it remains a fact that more than 70% of the changes in the TNIV from the NIV have nothing to do with gender. In those changes, the TNIV moves back in the direction of a more essentially literal rendering three times as often as it moves in the direction of a more dynamically equivalent rendering. I know; I have counted them!

On the other hand, it is also a bit unfair to criticize versions at the freest end of the spectrum, most notably the old Living Bible Paraphrased (LBP) and Eugene Peterson's more recent "The Message." Neither of these versions even claims to be dynamically equivalent. The Old Living Bible was a paraphrase, pure and simple, based on the English ASV, authored by Ken Taylor, to make the Bible come alive for his kids. It was, quite frankly, the only thing that got me regularly reading Scripture as a newly converted fifteen-year old in 1970. I was bright enough to manage the NASB or RSV (the only other more literal options apart from the KJV in those years); they just never "grabbed" me. Years later I relished the chance to work on the NLT (New Living Translation) team to convert the LBP into a truly dynamic-equivalent translation, but I never recommend it to anyone except to supplement the reading of a more literal translation to generate freshness and new insights, unless they are kids or very poor adult readers. My sixteen- and twelve-year old daughters have been weaned on the NLT and have loved it, but both already on their own are now frequently turning to the NIV. As for "The Message," it is freer even than a paraphrase--I think of it more as devotional literature than as a version of the Bible and wouldn't recommend it for any other role. But repeatedly, in Ryken's illustrations, the NIV is lumped together with the LBP, NLT or "The Message," when it is overall in fact far closer to the more essentially literal translations Ryken commends than to these other three.

If readers can keep these observations in mind as they work through Ryken and divorce his principles from his sustained attack on the NIV, they can benefit greatly from the book.

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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