Review of Understanding English Bible Translation

April 30, 2010

Understanding English Bible Translation
©2009 by Leland Ryken
Published by Crossway Books
205 pages

As I am writing this, Tyndale House is sponsoring a contest to promote the sale of their New Living Translation (NLT). Among the giveaways are assorted ipads, an ipod, a kindle and a trip to Hawaii! This “Bible Contest and Giveaway” is called “Breakthrough to Clarity.” Of course, I entered. I may not be a fan of the NLT, but I am of Apple and Hawaii.

To various degrees marketing influences us all. How healthy an impact it has had on modern society is not for this discussion. However, marketing does enter into our consideration of the history of Bible translation. Marketing puts the emphasis on the consumer. It makes the audience supreme. It was this attention to the audience that led to the great divide between translation theories.

Next year, the King James Version (KJV) will celebrate its 400th birthday. For over 360 years, the KJV reigned unrivaled. This changed in 1978 with the debut of the New International Version (NIV). The NIV quickly became a best seller. Leland Ryken, in his book Understanding English Bible Translation suggests the “NIV cornered the market because (a) it was the only viable alternative to the obsolete King James Bible, and (b) marketing and advertising made it irresistibly attractive to the masses” (p. 65).

The Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV had the audience in mind from the outset.
“A sensitive feeling for style does not always accompany scholarship. Accordingly the Committee on Bible Translation submitted the developing version to a number of stylistic consultants. Two of them read every book of both Old and New Testaments twice—once before and once after the last major revision—and made invaluable suggestions. Samples of the translation were tested for clarity and ease of reading by various kinds of people—young and old, highly educated and less well educated, ministers and laymen.” (from preface)

What the NIV did in moderation, later translations did in spades. Are all translations created equal? Obviously, translators take different approaches to the text. Are all these approaches of equal value?

In “Understanding English Bible Translation” author Leland Ryken lays out “The Case For An Essentially Literal Approach”. He has been professor of English at Wheaton College since 1968. He is also the author of The Word of God in English. Understanding English Bible Translation is a follow up to that book. I have read both books, this one is a more enjoyable read, but not as in-depth. If you are only going to read one of them, read this one. Ryken is not an impartial observer. He served as literary stylist for the ESV and as coeditor of the ESV Literary Study Bible. He states right up front “This is a book about the theory and practice of English Bible translation. Its aim is to clarify the current English Bible translation scene and to present arguments in favor of an essentially literal translation philosophy as being better than dynamic equivalence” (p. 13). I believe he accomplished what he set out to do.

In Bible translation work, there are two extremes. The King James tradition (starting with Wycliffe and Tyndale and including Cloverdale and Rogers and the Geneva Bible) uses an essentially literal approach to translation known as “verbal equivalence or formal equivalence” (p. 49). This formal approach was continued on with the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version and the English Standard Version. The other end of the translation spectrum is known as “dynamic equivalence” (p. 57). This began with the work of Eugene Nida and is seen first in the Good News Bible, then the New International Version, the New Living Translation, the New Century Version and other more recent translations.

One way Ryken sums up these two extremes is whether the goal of translation work is allegiance to the audience or the author. Eugene Nida is the developer of the dynamic equivalence theory of Bible translation. “One of Eugene Nida’s translation principles is ‘the priority of the needs of the audience over the forms of language.’ Nida then caters to readers even more specifically: ‘the use of language by persons twenty-five to thirty-five years of age has priority over the language of the older people or of children’; ‘in certain situations the speech of women should have priority over the speech of men’” (p. 74). Here the audience reigns supreme. In a more literal approach, the translators instead strive to find an English equivalent for the actual words of the author (or should we say Author?).

This contrast between formal and dynamic equivalence is clearly demonstrated throughout the book. Ryken builds a very strong argument for the formal approach. He demonstrates that many dynamic equivalent translations are actually paraphrases.

Ryken often backs up his statements by referring directly to the prefaces of the dynamic equivalence translations, thus not being guilty of putting words in their mouths. He also repeatedly provides examples of dynamic equivalence verse translations and how they differ from the original words of the authors. Using Matthew 6:22-23 as a test case, Ryken quotes from a number of dynamic equivalent translations. His conclusion:

Even a cursory reading of the passages leaves us with an accurate general impression: the translators are continuously nervous about the possibility that readers will be unable to handle the passage accurately and/or easily in its untouched form. As a result, the translators have become commentators as well translators, constantly tugging at the original text to make it something different from what the original text says: “sunshine into your soul”; “plunges you into darkness”; “dark with sin”; “a window for your body”; “all the light you need”; “open your eyes wide in wonder and belief”; “pull the blinds on your windows.” (p.102)

Scattered throughout the book, set apart in boxes, are very informative quotes from others who something important to add to the discussion.

Ryken believes that the reader ought to be able to trust a translation to give us an English version of what the original author wrote. An essentially literal translation labors to do just that. He agrees with biblical scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen who states “It is hard to know what the Bible means when we are uncertain about what it says” (p.28).

I recommend this book, especially to those who stand in the aisle at the bookstore wondering which translation to choose.

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