The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. By Leland Ryken. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002. 327 pp. Paper. $15.99.
As the subtitle suggests, this book deals with the issue of translation theory.
Ryken discusses this from his vantage point as a professor of English at Wheaton College. In his Preface, he states, “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” (p. 10).
He begins with an overview of the current debate in Bible translation and identifies Eugene Nida, “who championed his theory of dynamic equivalence” (p. 13). Ryken says Nida declared that equivalence emphasized the reaction of the reader instead of the translation of the words and phrases themselves.
He goes on to draw parallels from modern writing and speaking to show that we are cautious to find out what an author said, not thought, whether it is instructions on an appliance or a much-traveled joke. He then asks, “Is it likely to be more important or less important to preserve the original wording of the Bible than it is with everyday discourse?” (p. 46).
In his chapter “Lessons from the History of Translations,” Ryken gives a brief review of numerous Bible translations, pointing out that “literal” ruled the translation process until modern times. In this he cautions concerning the present quest for novelty rather than that which has been venerated in the past—“literal translations.”
He then devotes several chapters to “fallacies”—five fallacies about the Bible, seven fallacies about translations, and eight fallacies about Bible readers. I found this to be a most interesting section of his book. Fallacy seven about Bible readers declares, the Bible is more difficult for modern readers than for the original readers. Ryken states, “It is time to call a moratorium on instilling a stance of helplessness in modern readers of the Bible” (p. 115). He then quotes Robert Martin, “It is better to teach each new generation the meaning of the Bible’s technical terms than to eliminate them and produce a generation [of people who] are biblically and theologically illiterate from having suffered long-term exposure to inaccurate and imprecise versions of the Bible” (p. 115).
Ryken proceeds to discuss the theology and ethics of translating with a section on “How Some Translations Undermine Interpretation.” He proposes the value of ambiguity in translations—pointing out that modern dynamic equivalence translations err by minimizing the potential of the text because of its effort to make the text simple or more clear. Ryken (in the chapter titled “Reductionism”) believes an appropriate ambiguity is essential to appreciating the levels and colors of God’s Word. Dynamic equivalence proponents have caused there to be loss as a forced simplicity has drained the richness of the text.
It should be noted that early on, Ryken makes clear that he is discussing the translation of Scripture into English, not that which is done by missionaries in many other languages. Yet, it would appear his principles would need to be honored in those non-English languages as well.
Ryken also calls for translators not to attempt exegesis, but to do their job of translation. As a professor of English, Ryken is especially concerned about how modern equivalency translations deal with biblical poetry and the damage incurred by trying to modernize what is essentially language that intends to draw out our imaginations.
Overall, the book is worth reading for those who are seeking additional light on the question of literal versus dynamic equivalence. It should prove helpful to pastors who are dealing with a listening audience on Sunday morning that may have three to five modern translations from which they are reading and often ask, “Which is the best translation?” and “Why?”
Maranatha Bible Church
River Ridge, LA