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Rules of Translation

There have been a couple of occasions on this site where I have written about the evangelical church’s apparent belief that unbelievers are really quite dumb. After all, we treat them as if they are unable to pay attention to anything for more than a few minutes, as if they are unable to enjoy any kind of music but what they hear on the radio and that they need pictures, excitement and multimedia to keep them interested in church. You can read more about this in my article Stupid Is As Stupid Does?.

I am currently reading The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken and he addresses this issue as it pertains to the Bible. He points out that the vast majority of Bible translations which rely on dynamic equivalence proceed from the belief that their targeted readers are essentially unintelligent. The translators pride themselves on writing at a level equivalent to junior high school or even lower. Some translations are aimed as low as a sixth grade reading level. He provides ample evidence that many magazines, books and newspapers write at a level significantly higher than that - many of them at a secondary or even post-secondary level. If the average North American is able to read and enjoy USA Today, Sports Illustrated and Christianity Today, why should Bible translations be targeted at a lower level?

Ryken believes it is a fallacy that most contemporary Bible readers have low intellectual and linguistic abilities, and if they read and enjoy magazines and newspapers, this must be true. He believes the average person is able to read, enjoy and understand text written at a late-secondary or even early post-secondary level. He also points out that people who are truly interested in a topic will allow themselves to grow so as to be able to further study. Many who are not at a sufficient skilled to read at a higher level, will make the effort to learn how to so they can enjoy what interests them.

Ryken’s comments are timely, for it was just the other day that I had a profound thought. Actually, to be honest it was not profound at all simply because it was so obvious. Here is the thought: the Bible is an ancient text. While on the one hand this is exceedingly obvious, on the other hand there are implications. If we truly believe in God’s sovereignty we must believe that He provided the Bible at the exact time and in the exact format He desired. He had the Bible written in ancient times in a way people living in an ancient time would understand. This begs the question: how are we to understand the Bible? Are we to understand it by understanding the people and culture in which it was written, or are we to attempt to fit it into our culture? Do we change our understanding, or do we change the Scripture to fit our understanding?

It seems clear that we should not seek to change the Bible. We have to believe that God’s Word, while it was meant to be translated, was not meant to be changed.

Bible translation is a difficult field and the job of a translator is not one I envy (though I would love to have such command of the Biblical languages). There are so many rules and nuances to those rules that must be considered. For example, are we to translate word-by-word or thought-by-thought? And beyond that, how do we translate idiom or metaphor? How do we translate cultural-specific language? These are questions that translators must face each time they look at the text. What I do know is that I would far rather have an exceedingly accurate translation of the Scripture and to the work to understand the culture myself than have a scholar or expert do this for me within the body of the Scripture’s text. When I read God’s Word I want to be sure, in so far as is possible, that what I am reading are His words, and not the interpretation of the meaning of those words.

Here is a relevant quote by John Skilton:

Far from pampering or patronizing the reader by reducing all things…the translator will not stand in the Bible’s way as it enlarges the reader’s horizon, acquaints him with a culture not his own, and challenges him to break the bonds of parochialism and insularity. He will not impede the Scriptures in their educative work; he will not try to bring the Bible down to where its readers may be; but will rather let the Bible bring them up to where it is.

I am enjoying Ryken’s book and it has been challenging me in many ways. I am reading it as part of the research I am doing for a series on different Bible translations this book will be invaluable for that purpose. Ryken served on the translation team for the English Standard Version and I must say that while I already respected that translation, I am even more intrigued by it now. I may have to add one to my ever-increasing Christmas/birthday list!