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Book Review – The Word of God in English

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Since the middle of the twentieth century, dynamic equivalency has become standard practice and the vast majority of Bible translations since then have eschewed a literal format in favor of the less-literal approach. The most popular of these is the New International Version, but other popular translations such as the Contemporary English Version, The Message and the New Living Translation have also been guided by these principles. One does not have to look far to find a book that is critical of the translation techniques and principles that have come to be known as dynamic equivalency. The bulk of the books written to defend literal translations are written by theologians, many of whom are convinced that the King James version is the only pure English translation. That is where The Word of God in English stands apart, for it is written not by a theologian but by a Professor of English, Leland Ryken, who is a literary critic and a professor at Wheaton College. Having devoted his life to studying and teaching the English language, he is able to approach the subject with a fresh perspective.

The book begins with a variety of definitions that will be relevant to the discussion that will follow and then turns to a short history of English Bible translations. We are taught some lessons from the history of translation and even from ordinary, everyday discourse. The author then discusses some fallacies about the Bible, about translation and about Bible readers. For example, he shows that the Bible is not always a simple book – one that is easy to understand – which puts it at odds with dynamic equivalent translators who would seek to make it so. He speaks about the fallacy of translating meaning rather than words and shows how it is not the translator’s job to discern the meaning but to accurately translate his words so that the reader can be left with an accurate representation of the Author’s words.

Following discussion of each of these fallacies, Ryken moves to theological and hermeneutical discussions and then to various problems inherent in modern translations and proposes some possible solutions. Perhaps the most interesting section here is the one that deals with destabilization of the text where he shows that as texts are interpreted and dynamically translated, they become destabilized so the true meaning is no longer transparent to a person reading the translated version.

The book closes with a length discussion of the literary merits of the Bible in its original languages and the necessity of ensuring these merits extend to translations. He speaks about diction, poetry, rhythm and even the actual words that are used.

The author’s conclusion is obvious: modern dynamic equivalent translations of the Scriptures are deeply and irrevocably flawed. Only with a literal translation and one that gives heed to more than simply words but also the literary qualities of translation, can we have the Bible as God intends for us to have it in a translated form. While Ryken does not recommend one translation above others, he served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version and clearly considers that his translation of choice, and with good reason, it would seem.

I found this book fascinating as it spoke to my loves both of the English language and of the Bible. Ryken makes a very strong argument and one that could not easily be refuted. While I have always leaned towards literal translations for my times of study, I now know why I must continue to do so. The author makes a complex topic readable and enjoyable and ultimately leaves the reader with very compelling evidence. I highly recommend this book.

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