Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach
Author: Leland Ryken
Publisher: Crossway (www.crossway.org)
A line of reasoning from Proverbs highlights the importance of Understanding English Bible Translation by Leland Ryken: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17 ESV). After reading the Essential Guide to Bible Versions (2000) by Philip W. Comfort, I was persuaded about the merits of the translation method known as dynamic equivalence or functional equivalence. Eugene Nida defines this as “the reproduction in a receptor language [i.e. English] of the closest national equivalent of the source language [i.e. Hebrew or Greek] message, _first in terms of meaning_, and second in terms of style (italics added).”
The difference between dynamic equivalence and the essentially literal philosophy advocated by Ryken is the former seeks to translate “meaning” while the latter is concerned with translating “into something that corresponds to or is identical with the words of the original (subject of course to the changes required by translation from one language into another.)” Whereas the former finds meaning in phrases (thought-for-thought translation), the latter is concerned with preserving the meaning found in the actual words (word-for-word translation).
This may seem rather technical, but it marks a significant change in translation philosophy. As Ryken points out, “The mid-twentieth century saw a paradigm shift in the theory and practice of English Bible translation.” Prior to this, the publication of the King James Version, marked “the culmination of nearly a century of profuse Bible translation activity in England.” Not only did the KJV translators build upon previous work, they “strove to find an English equivalent for the actual words of the original Hebrew and Greek texts.”
Thankfully, the author does not assume a King-James only position, but he does extol it as one of the finest examples of an essentially literal translation. Though it is not the author’s primary intent, this is the best defense of the King James Bible that I have read.
The shift in theory from translating words to translating meaning is the foundation of many modern Bibles. What makes this book essential reading is that Ryken shows clearly and convincingly what is lost. It stems from what dynamic equivalent translators do, “consisting of such things as changing syntax and word order, adding exegesis and interpretive commentary to the text, simplifying the content of the original text, removing figurative language from sight, producing a colloquial style for the English Bible, and adapting the translation to the expectations of a target audience.”
Ryken does a masterful job of concisely going into detail. His arguments are scholarly but readable. He illustrates changes with specific examples.
He is also charitable to the point of recognizing common ground and recognizing that dynamic equivalent translations have value as commentaries.
This should be required reading for translators and all in Christian leadership. Anyone interested in this subject will profit from this volume. If those on the other side want to defend the thought-for-thought theory of translation, they must convincingly answer the issues raised here.
This has given me new respect for the King James Version and other essentially literal translations. I also see the limitations of translations based on functional equivalence. I welcome the opportunity to read further on this important and fascinating subject, remembering the importance of weighing both sides of an argument.