As I am writing this, Tyndale House is sponsoring a contest to promote the sale of their New Living Translation (NLT). Among the giveaways are several iPads, an iPod, a Kindle and a trip to Hawaii! This “Bible Contest and Giveaway” is called “Breakthrough to Clarity.” Of course, I entered. I may not be a fan of the NLT, but I am of Apple and Hawaii.
To various degrees marketing influences us all. How healthy an impact it has had on modern society is not for this discussion. However, marketing does enter into our consideration of the history of Bible translation. Marketing puts the emphasis on the consumer. It makes the audience supreme. It was this attention to the audience that led to the great divide between translation theories.
Next year, the King James Version (KJV) will celebrate its 400th birthday. For over 360 years the KJV reigned unrivaled. This changed in 1978 with the debut of the New International Version (NIV). The NIV quickly became a best seller. Leland Ryken, in his book Understanding English Bible Translation suggests the “NIV cornered the market because (a) it was the only viable alternative to the obsolete King James Bible, and (b) marketing and advertising made it irresistibly attractive to the masses” (p. 65).
The Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV had the audience in mind from the outset:
A sensitive feeling for style does not always accompany scholarship. Accordingly the Committee on Bible Translation submitted the developing version to a number of stylistic consultants. Two of them read every book of both Old and New Testaments twice—once before and once after the last major revision—and made invaluable suggestions. Samples of the translation were tested for clarity and ease of reading by various kinds of people—young and old, highly educated and less well educated, ministers and laymen.1
What the NIV did in moderation, later translations did in spades. Are all translations created equal? Obviously, translators take different approaches to the text. Are all these approaches of equal value?
In Understanding English Bible Translation author Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College since 1968, lays out (as the subtitle indicates) The Case For an Essentially Literal Approach. The book is a follow-up to his earlier book The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation . If you choose to read just one, I recommend Understanding English Bible Translation, a more enjoyable, though less in-depth, read. Be advised—having served as literary stylist for the ESV and as coeditor of the ESV Literary Study Bible, Ryken is not an impartial observer. He states right up front this “is a book about the theory and practice of English Bible translation. Its aim is to clarify the current English Bible translation scene and to present arguments in favor of an essentially literal translation philosophy as being better than dynamic equivalence” (p. 13). I believe he accomplishes what he set out to do.
In Bible translation work, there are two extremes. The King James tradition (starting with Wycliffe and Tyndale and including Coverdale, Rogers and the Geneva Bible) uses an essentially literal approach to translation known as “verbal equivalence or formal equivalence” (p. 49). This formal approach was continued with the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version and the English Standard Version. The other end of the translation spectrum is known as “dynamic equivalence” (p. 57). This approach began with the work of Eugene Nida and is seen first in the Good News Bible, then the New International Version, the New Living Translation, the New Century Version and other more recent translations.
One way Ryken sums up these two extremes is by asking whether the goal of translation work is allegiance to the audience or to the author.
One of Eugene Nida’s translation principles is “the priority of the needs of the audience over the forms of language.” Nida then caters to readers even more specifically: “the use of language by persons twenty-five to thirty-five years of age has priority over the language of the older people or of children”; “in certain situations the speech of women should have priority over the speech of men” (p. 74).
Here the audience reigns supreme. In a more literal approach, the translators instead strive to find an English equivalent for the actual words of the author (or perhaps we should say, “Author”).
Ryken clearly demonstrates this contrast between formal and dynamic equivalence throughout the book. The author builds a very strong argument for the formal approach, demonstrating that many dynamic equivalent translations are essentially paraphrases.
Ryken often backs up his statements by referring directly to the prefaces of the dynamic equivalence translations, thus avoiding putting words in their mouths. He also repeatedly provides examples of dynamic equivalence verse translations and how they differ from the original words of the authors. Using Matthew 6:22-23 as a test case, Ryken quotes from a number of dynamic equivalent translations. His conclusion:
Even a cursory reading of the passages leaves us with an accurate general impression: the translators are continuously nervous about the possibility that readers will be unable to handle the passage accurately and/or easily in its untouched form. As a result, the translators have become commentators as well as translators, constantly tugging at the original text to make it something different from what the original text says: “sunshine into your soul”; “plunges you into darkness”; “dark with sin”; “a window for your body”; “all the light you need”; “open your eyes wide in wonder and belief”; “pull the blinds on your windows.” (p.102)
Boxes scattered throughout the book contain informative quotes from others who have something important to add to the discussion.
Ryken believes that the reader ought to be able to trust a translation to give them an English version of what the original author wrote. An essentially literal translation labors to do just that. He agrees with biblical scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen who writes, “It is hard to know what the Bible means when we are uncertain about what it says” (p.28).
I recommend this book, especially to those who stand in the aisle at the bookstore agonizing over which translation to choose.
Greg Wilson was raised in a Christian home and was led to the Lord at a young age by his father. He has been in full-time Christian ministry since graduating from Midwestern Baptist College (Pontiac, MI) in 1981. He has been married to Sharon for over 26 years and they have two married daughters and a teenage son. He has been the pastor of the Community Bible Church (Palmyra, PA) since 1998. His website is fromthebook.org.