God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

More on Bible Gateway’s new “Pespectives in Translation” Blog

Bible Gateway’s new Perspectives in Translation blog, a joint project with The Gospel Coalition, went live last week with the question “What Makes a Translation Accurate?”

So far, six answers to the question appear on the blog.

Unfortunately, reading the posts feels — at least to me — like joining a debate in the middle. And the conversation is largely a familiar one: which is better, formal or dynamic equivalence? As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think that’s a useful way to frame a discussion about Bible translation.

For example, James M. Hamilton, Jr., starts in an interesting direction: What makes a translation accurate is “[i]ts ability to preserve the way that later biblical authors evoke earlier Scripture.” (Surprisingly, he adds by way of elaboration that Moses was the oldest author of the Bible, even though there’s no historical evidence to support a Moses who authored any part of the Bible. To me, this seems like an odd mix of science and myth.)

But after an intriguing opening, Dr. Hamilton returns to familiar ground:

There is, of course, a spectrum of opinion about how best to translate. Those who present a dynamic equivalent may “accurately” communicate the meaning of a particular passage in the language into which the Bible is being translated. But what if the translator did not see a subtle connection the biblical author made to an earlier passage of Scripture?…

At the end he states: “Because the influence of earlier Scripture is so often determinative for the meaning of later Scripture, I prefer more literal translations.”

Similarly, after a general opening (“A translation is accurate if it is able to communicate the thought of the original into another language”), Tremper Longman III defends thought-for-thought translations against an attack that, while common in Bible-translation literature, wasn’t part of the original question:

Languages do not line up with one another in a word-for-word manner, so word-for-word translations are not as accurate as thought-for-thought translations. Of course, this means that the translator will have to make exegetical judgments about the meaning of a passage, but this is of the nature of all translation. Translations are commentaries…

Likewise, Denny Burk starts with a sweeping opening (“A translation is accurate when it faithfully renders the intended meaning of the biblical author into a receptor language”) and then specifically notes the nature of the now-familiar debate:

Biblical scholars differ over what approach to translation best achieves this goal. Those who favor a dynamic or functional equivalence approach argue for thought-for-thought translation. Those who favor a formal equivalence approach argue for word-for-word translation.

These give a flavor of the answers, which sadly seem to offer little new insight, instead treading on familiar (and, in my opinion, unhelpful) old ground.

The six answers on the blog are from Tremper Longman III, professor of biblical studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA; E. Ray Clendenen, associate editor of the HCSB; James M. Hamilton, Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY; Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO; George H. Guthrie, professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN; and Denny Burk, associate professor of New Testament and dean of Boyce College. Most of these people have also played roles in contributing to published Bible translations.

All of the contributors are men. I don’t usually find myself offended by gender imbalances, because I recognize that sometimes the most qualified people will by happenstance be all of the same gender. But I have to say that seeing six men and no women to represent diversity of opinion strikes me as too narrowly focused.

So in this regard, too, the site seems a little behind the times.

I was also surprised not to see BBB acknowledged in any way.

And Bible Gateway is still working out the technical kinks in the site. The posts are displayed three to a page, but, confusingly, the navigation links offer the reader only “previous posts” versus “older posts.” And from the individual post pages, I could find no way to move from one posting to the next or previous one. Also, when I tried to login to post a comment (yes — you need to create an account with Bible Gateway to join the discussion), I got an error message that “something went wrong.” [Update: Logging in seems to be fixed.]

It’s encouraging to have the combined resources of Bible Gateway and The Gospel Coalition invested in a blog on English Bible translation.

I hope that as the blog matures it will live up to its potential.


October 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, blog review, translation theory | , , , , | 7 Comments

Review: Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for An Essentially Literal Approach.

Understanding English Bible Translation

Understanding English Bible Translation

Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach. By Leland Ryken. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009. Pp. 205. $12.99.)

Understanding English Bible Translation is an important book. It is published by Crossway, which also publishes the popular English Standard Version (“ESV”) translation of the Bible. And it was authored by Leland Ryken, a consultant to that translation. So the book is as official a justification of the ESV and its translation philosophy as can be obtained.

Unfortunately, Ryken’s work is marred by a disdain for scholarship, rhetoric disguised as argument, and a lack of attention to the very biblical text he claims to be investigating.

On page 28, Ryken sets the tone for his book with the bold statement that “we should not allow the high-flown technical jargon of linguistics deter [sic] us from seeing what is plain to us.” In other words, if readers think one thing, and linguists think something else, readers should assume that the linguists are wrong.

One of the main thrusts of Ryken’s book is that the domain of translation should essentially be limited to the word. Ryken claims on pp. 23-24 that, “translators must decide what English word or phrase most closely corresponds to a given word of the original text” (my italics). He thus frames the issue of translation asymmetrically, assuming that each Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic) word of the Bible should be translated into English by itself, even though he recognizes that it may take an entire English phrase to do so. It is a bold and unorthodox suggestion, but when Ryken dismisses the mainstream counterclaim as mere “high-flown technical jargon” is it hard to evaluate his claim, let alone accept it.

Ryken’s term for this translation philosophy of his is “essentially literal translation,” by which he means (pp. 19-20): “a translation that strives to translate the exact words of the original-language text” (this is the “literal translation”) but “not in such a rigid way as to violate the normal rules of language and syntax in the receptor language” (this is where he gets the modifier “essentially”).

Language theorists such as Hilary Putnam and W.V.O. Quine agree that words in isolation do not have inherent meaning, and translation theorists from Horace to Vladimir Nabokov (who changed his mind on the matter) agree that word-for-word representations are not translations. Ryken disagrees with these scholars and practitioners.

But in place of solid argument in favor of his approach or even against competing theories, Ryken provides the reader with rhetoric, and in this regard Ryken excels. His statement on p. 91 that confidence in a translation comes “[w]hen essentially literal translators preserve the words of the original authors” demonstrates. Rather than convincing the reader that essentially literal translation preserve anything, he assumes the fact, and uses it in eloquent prose.

Similar though less subtle is his definition of “linguistic conservatism” (his approach), which offers (p. 20) “an implied contrast to the ‘liberalism’ of dynamic equivalence, which does not feel bound to reproduce the actual Hebrew and Greek words” (my italics). The snide slight “does not feel bound” contrasts with his praise for essentially literal translation, as for example on p. 131, where he states that committees that adopt the latter strategy, “keep their eye on what the original text says” (my italics). On p. 33, Ryken pits essentially literal translation against other approaches by what he calls, “[f]idelty to the words of the original vs. feeling free to substitute something in place of those words.” Even in the phrasing, we see Ryken’s bias.

We also see his rhetorical skill. The book is replete with well-crafted prose, as for example on p. 133. When readers learn that white garments and oil were signs of celebration in antiquity, Ryken suggests, they “experience a pleasant addition to their fund of knowledge and a salutary reminder that not everyone who has lived has done things the way we do them.” Ryken’s writing is clear and articulate, and is matched by the clear and careful organization of his book.

Nonetheless, in using rhetoric instead of evidence to frame the debate, Ryken makes it hard to focus on any real issues of theory.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, are Ryken’s examples of “success.”

On p. 58, Ryken condemns the Good News Bible (“GNB”) for changing “red pottage” in Genesis 25:30 into “red stuff.” Yet the original Hebrew does not contain any word that might be translated as “pottage.” It is not clear why Ryken’s own theory wouldn’t prefer the GNB here. (The translation “pottage” dates back to the 3rd century B.C., when the LXX added the word epsema to elucidate the passage.)

On the next page, Ryken laments the “change” in Psalm 1 from “Blessed is the man…” (RSV, my italics) to “Happy are those…” (GNB, my italics), noting that “[t]he RSV stays very close to its KJV model” while “[s]omeone reading the Good News Bible for the first time must have been shocked by the contrast.” Yet, the Hebrew word here, ashrei, is most naturally translated as “happy,” not “blessed,” and the KJV often translates the same word as “happy” elsewhere (Psalm 128:1, Psalm 137:8, Psalm 146:5, etc.).

And again on pp. 112-3, Ryken notes the felicity of the ESV translation of Psalm 192, commending the wording “You know when I sit down and when I rise up” in verse 2 and the wording “You search out my path and my lying down.” Yet all four of the phrases I italicize here are nouns in Hebrew. Ryken doesn’t tell the reader why “…my sitting down and my rising up” wouldn’t be better. (The KJV “my uprising” is clearly wrong in today’s English.)

Chapter 14 addresses “oral reading of the Bible,” and here Ryken praises the KJV as “incomparably the best English translation in regard to rhythm,” though he does “not have leisure to explain” why. He does give some examples, though, and while one might agree or disagree about the poetic and metrical merits of the translations he compares, Ryken doesn’t address the broader and more important question: Is the good or bad rhythm a good or bad translation?

Ryken values fidelity, as we read in the rhetorical question on p. 29: “What good is readability if the result is not what the biblical writers said?” The careful reader might equally ask, “what good is rhythm if it is not what the biblical writers wrote?” — particularly in light of what Ryken explains on p. 155: “Hebrew poetry was not based on regular meter as English poetry is.” There may be some good answers, but Ryken does not address the issue.

In general, one gets the impression that Ryken’s is a personal, impassioned defense of the KJV, rather than a discussion of its merits. The examples above (“red stuff” versus “red pottage” and “blessed” versus “happy”), and many others, show his preference for the KJV even over the original text. Ryken also includes two whole chapters on the history leading up to the creation of the KJV, even noting (p. 38): “For people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible was begotten in blood.”

On p. 61, Ryken repeats his plea to ignore scholarship, this time claiming: “We do not need to conduct a scholarly exploration…. We can hear the difference [in translations] immediately.” His point is that new translations are different than the KJV, so they must be wrong. His discussion there never refers back to the original language of the Bible. His point is that translations that are closer to the KJV are inherently better.

Still, Ryken offers three points that merit careful attention.

First, on p. 128, Ryken suggests that, “[t]he theological language of the Bible needs to match the language of our theology books,” and further suggests (without evidence, though I believe he is probably correct) that essentially literal translations do a better job.

The last chapter of the book offers two more non-accuracy-related reasons to favor Ryken’s approach: It may produce a more stable English translation (“the variability among English Bible translation [used to be] within the normal range of lexical tolerance,” p. 164). And — regardless of the original Hebrew and Greek — perhaps a translation needs to be exalted in order to be effective, or, as Ryken puts it (p. 172), “some translations preserve the commanding dignity of the King James tradition.”

In essence, these three points argue that an essentially literal translation may be desirable regardless of any (in)accuracies. It’s an interesting issue that deserves a fuller treatment, but, again, Ryken’s lack of attention to detail leaves the reader wanting more information.

In spite of these significant shortcomings, Ryken does a good job pointing out some specific and even systematic insufficiencies of translations such as The Message and the GNB. He also summarizes the misplaced goals of some of these translations: They translate into simple English even when the original is complex. They remove poetic imagery. They dumb down the text. They decide what the English should sound like without taking the original into account.

Yet even here, Ryken’s comparisons are to the KJV and to other translations in that tradition, so it is difficult for readers who have not mastered Hebrew and Greek to evaluate his claims. (And on p. 39 Ryken commends Tyndale for his “devotion to clarity.” The reader wonders why Tyndale’s devotion to clarity is beneficial, while the seemingly similar approach of the GNB is not.)

Ryken recognizes (p. 18) a continuum of “increasing boldness in departing from what the original biblical text actually says, starting with the NIV [New International Version] and culminating with The Message.” His inclusion of the NIV in this list is particularly unfortunate, and it is hardly an accident that in later parts of the book, he groups the NIV with his “good” translations.

Yet in spite of this misstep, Ryken correctly identifies a clustering of goals that are embodied by various schools of translation, which he collects in his chart on p. 33. As a general guide, for example, translations that tend toward gender accuracy also tend toward simplified language (though there are exceptions). With a more solid grounding in theory, this could have been a much more valuable presentation, but as it is, Ryken’s careful comparisons — like much of the book — are mixed with unsupported theoretical claims and inattention to accuracy.

So Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach summarizes some specific deficiencies in some Bible translations and offers a glimpse at their underlying philosophies, but it does not provide the larger framework the title promises, nor the evidence to support the subtitle. And even though it shows that the ESV is closer in nature to the KJV, it does not offer any convincing reason beyond personal preference to choose the ESV or any other essentially literal translation. This is a shame, because the ESV is one of the best-selling translations, and a solid exploration of its potential merits — one which takes careful note of the original Hebrew and Greek, and which incorporates rather than dismisses current translation theory — would be most welcome.

September 30, 2009 Posted by | book review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 11 Comments