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Understanding English Bible Translation

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When it comes to the Bible, we, in the English-speaking world, are profoundly blessed for we have at our disposal scores of translations of Scripture. While they range from excellent to abysmal, in many cases even the worst of them is far superior to the best available in any number of other languages. And, of course, we acknowledge that multitudes of languages remain which still have no access at all to God’s Word. Certainly we have little cause to complain and every cause to express gratitude to God. We have the luxury and responsibility even, of not just studying the Bible, but of first seeking out the best translation available. And that is increasingly becoming a daunting task as each seems to have its strengths and its weaknesses. Meanwhile, the translation philosophies that bring about such strengths and weaknesses remain hidden to most readers who prefer to leave such discussions in the hands of the academics.

In 2002 Leland Ryken wrote The Word of God in English, a book that laid out the criteria for a superior translation of the Bible into the English language. Though not quite an academic book, neither was it particularly easy reading. Still, it did a good of presenting arguments for what Ryken calls an “essentially literal” approach to translating the Bible. An essentially literal translation is one that strives to translate the exact words of the original-language text but not in such a rigid way as to violate the normal rules of language and syntax in the receptor language. The Word of God in English cemented in my mind the importance of selecting an excellent translation of Scripture and of having confidence that the words we read in the Bible are the words the Author intended for us to read.

Seven years later, Ryken returns with Understanding English Bible Translation. It is shorter and more streamlined than its predecessor and is written for more of a general audience. Also, it is updated, reflecting new realities that have come about even in the past seven years. It is a book that any Christian can read and understand, avoiding the more difficult nuances and focusing primarily on the big-picture. Ryken’s purpose is to show once more the superiority of the essentially literal approach to translation and to display the negative consequences of depending upon lesser translation philosophies such as dynamic equivalence or paraphrasing.

Ryken launches a five-pronged attack. In the book’s first part, he provides an overview of the issues related to translation and provides answers to common questions associated with translating the Bible. In part two he briefly tells the story of English Bible translation, starting with Wycliffe and continuing to Eugene Peterson and beyond. The third part looks to the two main genres of Bible translation, showing how the two genres are, foundationally, vastly different. They have divergent goals for translation, divergent views of the Bible, divergent views of the Bible’s authors, reader and translators, divergent methods of translation and divergent styles of translation. In the fourth part he provides a vision for the ideal English Bible translation before, in part five, showing how an accurate, high-quality translation of the Bible is of critical importance to the life of the church.

Throughout, he argues well. I must say, though, that a weakness remains that, in my mind, threatens to undo his argument and it is this: his definition of an essentially literal translation remains just a little bit too nebulous, a little too subjective. I realize that a brief definition can hardly capture all of the complexities of a translation philosophy, but still, I do wonder at times whether perhaps the lines are just a little too hazy. It seems that any translation is only as strong as its greatest compromise and every translation must in some way compromise the original words. Though this does not hamper the book itself or the issues it introduces, I do feel that it is often lingering in the background but that it goes largely unaddressed.

I am of the opinion that every Christian can benefit from reading a good book on the subject of Bible translation. When we understand the issues faced by translators, and when we then turn to a sound version of the Bible, we have renewed confidence that the words before us are the very words of God. And this, really, is the core of most of Ryken’s arguments. He wants Christians to have before them a Bible that accurately conveys the words that God has spoken–not a paraphrase of those words, not an interpretation of them, but simply a translation that, as much as possible, takes the exact words of the original and carries them over to English. One would think that this would not be difficult to come by, but the modern history of English Bible translation shows few versions that adhere to this philosophy.

In Understanding English Bible Translation Ryken argues persuasively that there is much to gain in depending upon an essentially literal translation of Scripture and he argues equally well that there is potential for great loss if we turn instead to dynamic equivalents or other less-stringent translations. The book is suitable for any Christian reader and whether you choose to read this book or another like it, I am convinced you will benefit from understanding the distinctions between the genres and from grappling with the larger issues. In the end I hope, I trust, you will have greater confidence in the Bible you read.

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