Saturday, October 10, 2009

Understanding English Bible Translation - A Review

Leland Ryken has been the most prolific writer in defense of an "essentially literal" philosophy of English Bible translation. Understanding English Bible Translation is his most recent contribution. In a previous post I listed his three previous books on the subject. This book is a "shorter, more streamlined book" than his previous book called The Word of God in English. (14)

Ryken is a lively writer and his passion for the subject is engaging. Out of the gate let me just say if you are looking for a response to Mark Strauss' criticism of the ESV you won't find it here. Strauss does get an occasional jab (as when Ryken says Strauss is being "frivolous and irresponsible" in alleging that "essentially literal translators 'forget that [the process involves] translation rather than transcription.'" (27) Ryken is referring to the work co-authored by Strauss and Gordon Fee entitled How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth. There is virtually no reference to the paper read by Strauss at the ETS meeting where he argued that the ESV should not become the standard English version. Though Strauss' paper covered a lot of territory I think at least an appendix would have been appropriate to respond to answer some of the most fundamental problems as William Mounce has begun to do with his "Mondays with Mounce" on Koinonia.

In an earlier review of The Word of God in English Craig Blomberg rightly observed that Ryken lumped too many "versions" together under the rubric "dynamic equivalent." Blomberg notes "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." On this score Blomberg is right but Ryken continues to classify The Message as "dynamic equivalent" (See the list on p. 165 where The Message is identified as "dynamic equivalent" as well as the chart on p. 106.) Ryken does refer to The Living Letters consistently as a paraphrase which was merely the beginnings of The Living Bible (i.e., 72, 80-81)

With these comments aside let me say Ryken does an admirable job of defending his topic. He clarifies a number of misconceptions especially some surrounding William Tyndale. Tyndale is often employed to show that a translation should use "plain" language. Ryken stresses caution here. He says, "The adjective plain can be 'clear,' or it can mean 'common; colloquial.' It is true that Tyndale's translation includes a few famous colloquialisms . . . But the English of Tyndale's New Testament is predominantly a dignified plain style. It is as informal or formal as the original requires." (39) Tyndale's comment about a boy driving a plough will know more Scripture than his antagonizers should be understood not as a "comment on Tyndale's English style; it is instead a comment on Tyndale's desire to see the English Bible permeate all of English society." (41) Ryken further notes that Tyndale refused to "capitulate to the linguistic and theological abilities of the least educated segments of his society." (42)

Ryken objects to the mantra of dynamic equivalent translators that the Bible should be translated "in such a way that it reads 'as we would say it.'" Or, in other words we should "reject renditions about which it can be said that 'no one speaking English in the real world would use an expression like [that].'" (81) Ryken asserts that since the Bible is an ancient book it should appropriately reflect that. To turn the Bible into a modern book is "to cut against the grain and create a false impression for readers." (81) It might seem harmless enough to change something like "tents of wickedness" into "homes of the wicked" but Ryken argues the "cumulative effect is drastic." (82)

Ryken also takes issue with the assumption that "a grade-schooler should serve as the norm for reading ability and comprehension." (94) He charges, "The dynamic equivalent movement is a massive experiment in capitulation to low levels of reading ability and comprehension." (94) Essentially literal translations educate modern readers even as Tyndale did when he "added words like intercession and atonement to the English language in an attempt to transmit the content of the Bible. (94) [NOTE: In this discussion Ryken cites the preface of the NLT as equating "the average reader" with "a junior high student." While this was true in earlier editions of the NLT this wording has been changed in current editions.]

There is much I enjoyed in this book even though Ryken's tone was, at times, harsher than it needed to be. He does paint with a broad brush and some of those generalizations open him up to criticisms that he would otherwise not be subject to. He does recognize and give credit to dynamic equivalent translations as rendering the Bible as "understandable to modern readers." (29) But this goal of readability, he says, "has been elevated to an importance it should never be accorded." (29) I agree with Ryken that the Bible "should not sound like a teenager's account of last evening's ballgame." (108) Rather it should contain a certain "formality, dignity, an appropriate strand of archaism and exaltation." (108) Maybe it's just my age speaking but I like to think that part of what counts in translating God's Word is crafting language in ways which exalt and honor the Scripture above the common and ordinary expressions I use everyday. I've heard it said countless times that the language of the New Testament was just common street language. A helpful article which counters this allegation is by Michael Marlowe, "Was the Bible Written in 'Street Language."

If you want a good introduction to the issue of Bible translation from the perspective of literal translation it is hard to do better than Ryken.


Scripture Zealot said...

I used to feel the same as Ryken but I've since changed my mind to a degree. If you haven't seen it this review is closer to how I see it now.

I can understand people liking the Bible to sound formal and that's why it's so great to have all the translations we have. I wonder how formal the Hebrew and Greek sounded to the original hearers. Probably a variety within the Bible I would guess.

I pray that God will comfort you in the time to come.

Louis said...


Thanks for the comment and congratulations on your recent win of the Mosaic Bible. I also want to thank you for your prayers for my family and me over these past few weeks. We are deeply thankful.

I gave all my kids NLTs as they grew up and they loved it. When I read Ryken I think his love for the English language influences his discussion though he never says so. I recommend and sell more NIVs and NLTs than I do ESVs because most of my customers want an easy-to-read translation and on that score NLT is my favorite. As I read Ryken I kept asking why he didn't address this or that objection raised by Strauss who, I thought, raised some excellent points. In some cases where he did I felt he was much too brief. I think your point about how the Hebrew and Greek "sounded to the original hearers" is very good I don't think Ryken adequately answers it.

Scripture Zealot said...

I love the Mosaic. And the price is great.

You're very welcome for the prayers.

I wonder if how the Hebrew and Greek "sounded to the original hearers" is answerable or not.