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The Word of God in English

Category Articles
Date July 13, 2004

In the first edition of the excellent six monthly journal, Reformed Baptist Theological Review, Robert P. Martin, the author of Accuracy of Translation (Banner of Truth), writes the following review of The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation by Leland Ryken (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002):

This book is the product of Dr. Ryken’s considerable expertise as a literary critic and of his service on the translation committee for the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001). The former is the source of the book’s greatest strength, while the latter may be its only weakness. When my Accuracy of Translation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989) was published, one reviewer discounted it on the ground that it obviously had been written as a piece of propaganda to promote the New King James Version. That was my first clue that the reviewer had never read my book. Readers of Dr. Ryken’s book, however, may come away with the idea that it was produced with the promotion of the ESV always in view. That was not the case, for he says that in the beginning

“Having served on the translation committee for the English Standard Version, I gradually came to a deeper understanding of why I found most modern translations lacking. . . . I did not set out to defend the essentially literal theory of translation. I began with the question of what principles should govern what we do with written texts. On the basis of that inquiry, I ended with a belief that only an essentially literal translation of the Bible can achieve sufficiently high standards in terms of literary criteria and fidelity to the original text. Concomitantly, I have ended with a deep-seated distrust of how dynamic equivalent translations treat the biblical text.” (The Word of God in English, 9-10)

Dr. Ryken should be taken at his word. But even if one of the reasons for the publication of this book is the promotion of the ESV, discounting it on that basis is a serious mistake. The work stands on its own merits, regardless of its relation to the ESV. I do not share Dr. Ryken’s enthusiasm for the ESV per se, but he has written a masterful work in defense of "essentially literal" Bible translations. He has done a great service in skillfully opening up the criteria by which the excellence of a Bible translation should be judged.

Dr. Ryken sets the stage by describing the influences which defined the general direction of Bible translation in the past half century. He notes the influence of Eugene Nida’s championing the theory of dynamic equivalence and cites cultural forces that paved the way for the triumph of dynamic equivalent Bibles in the 1970s. The remainder of the introduction is given to tracing the beginnings of the current debate over Bible translation and to defining terms commonly used in this debate.

Part One examines "Lessons from Overlooked Sources.” Especially helpful are the chapters on lessons from literature and lessons from ordinary discourse. The chief lesson is that Bible translators take liberties with the biblical text that would never be tolerated were they dealing with other great works of literature or even with ordinary "texts" like legal documents, jokes, or marriage vows.

Part Two treats "Common Fallacies of Translation." Dr. Ryken cites five fallacies about the Bible: (1) the Bible is a uniformly simple book;
(2) the Bible is a book of ideas rather than concrete particulars;
(3) The Bible is a modern book;
(4) the Bible needs correction;
(5) the Bible is a book devoid of mystery and ambiguity.

He further cites seven fallacies about translation:
(1) we should translate meaning rather than words;
(2) all translation is interpretation;
(3) readability is the ultimate goal of translation;
(4) the important question is how we would say something;
(5) koine Greek was uniformly colloquial;
(6) if biblical writers were living today;
(7) any difficulty in reading the Bible is the fault of the translation.

Then eight fallacies about Bible readers:
(1) contemporary Bible readers have low intellectual and linguistic abilities;
(2) the Bible is read mainly by people unfamiliar with it;
(3) Bible readers cannot handle theological or technical terminology;
(4) figurative language is beyond the grasp of Bible readers:
(5) modern readers require short sentences;
(6) Bible readers cannot be educated beyond their present level of ability;
(7) the Bible is more difficult for modern readers than for the original readers;
(8) readers, not authors, determine meaning.

All of these fallacies in thinking which profoundly influenced Bible translation in the Twentieth Century, are like the emperor’s new clothes. We are supposed to acknowledge them, no matter how gauzy they may be. Dr. Ryken rightly tells us that the emperor is naked, or largely so.

Part Three treats "Theological, Ethical, and Hermeneutical Issues." On the subject of theological and ethical concerns, Dr. Ryken says. "The theology of translation concerns the obligations of translators to the text of the Bible, while the morality of translation relates to the obligations of translators to their readers.” (The Word of God in English, 123, italics his). He goes on to show that these concerns should profoundly shape the translator’s work. He brings to bear such facts as the Bible’s verbal and plenary inspiration and its unique authority as the foundation of Christian faith and practice. Therefore, in order to reflect what is true about the Bible, translators must consider its very words (and not just its ideas) as the basic unit of translation and the resultant translation must be such that theology can be accurately based on it. Further, a translation must adhere to the ordinary ethics of publishing and place before the reader what the author wrote as accurately as possible. “It hardly needs to be added that this ethical claim has unique weight when the author in question is God" (The Word of God in English, 137). In the chapter entitled "Translation and Hermeneutics," Dr. Ryken briefly traces out the relation between the work of the translator and the interpretation of the text being translated. He says:

“My thesis in regard to the impact of translation on interpretation is simple, and it underlies this entire book: A good translation preserves the full exegetical potential of the original biblical text. Conversely, a translation is inadequate to the extent to which it diminishes the interpretive potential of the original text. (The Word of God in English, 140, italics his)

In Part Four, “Modern Translations: Problems and Their Solution,” Dr. Ryken groups four concerns about modern dynamic equivalent translations:

(1) their tendency to diminish the literary quality of the Bible, resulting in “an emaciated Bible that on the score of literary qualities has fallen far short of a standard of excellence” (The Word of God in English, 171):

(2) their proneness to obscure the world of the original text, i.e., by producing Bibles that are not "transparent to the world of the original text” (The Word God in English, 185) but restrict their readers to the present:

(3) their contribution to the destabilizing of the biblical text, i.e., they have "undermined people’s confidence in the reliability of the Bible” (The Word of God in English, 187):

(4) their reductionism, i.e. their diminishing of the fulness that the Bible possesses in its original form" (The Word of God in English 199). His treatment of these concerns is compelling.

Part Five, "Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation" takes up the book’s subtitle and plunges us into the world of literary concerns, which is the area of Dr. Ryken’s greatest contribution to the debate over Bible translation. Should Bible translators be concerned about such things as the diction, rhythm, exaltation and beauty of the language that they use to represent God’s word? Dr. Ryken’s answer is a resounding yes. In the conclusion he says:

“The language of colloquial everyday discourse does not command the attention and respect that language on its best behavior does. . . . Reading the Bible should be an elevating experience at all levels – affectively, aesthetically, and theologically. (The Word of God in English, 293)

Dr. Ryken’s book will be read widely, and deservedly so. It is an important contribution to the debate on Bible translation. Many will appreciate it. Some will not. When my Accuracy of Translation was published, it received many kind reviews; however, I learned that this is a very touchy subject with some and that brethren who differ can be hostile – not only to one’s ideas but to one’s person and even to good manners. I hope that Dr. Ryken is treated well by his reviewers, even when they disagree with him; but if not, I hope that he remembers that vilification (depending on the source) may in fact be vindication. I thank him for his good work.

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