Saturday, November 23, 2013

Translating Truth: A review–Part 2

TranslatingTruth I started with a multi-part review of “Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation” in Part 1.

In Part 1, I looked at the foreword of the book written by J.I. Packer, in which he explained what it means to speak of an “essentially literal” or “word-for-word” translation, what I called ELT (Essentially Literal Translation). Packer also wrote about “thought-for-thought” or “dynamic equivalent” translations, what I called DET (Dynamic Equivalent Translation).

I also looked at chapter one, written by Wayne Grudem. In this chapter Grudem argues (1) that the Bible repeatedly claims that every one of its words (in the original languages) is a word spoken to us by God, and is therefore of utmost importance; and (2) that this fact provides a strong argument in favor of ‘essentially literal’ (or ‘word-for-word’) translation as opposed to ‘dynamic equivalent’ (or ‘thought-for-thought’) translation.” (p19)

Chapter 2

This chapter, entitled FIVE MYTHS ABOUT ESSENTIALLY LITERAL BIBLE TRANSLATION, is written by Leland Ryken. After explaining what an ELT is, Ryken jumps straight into the five myths he wants to clear up.

The first myth is that advocates of ELT are guilty of word worship and idolatry. Ryken writes:

“Questions arise at this point. What makes it either more or less idolatrous to assign priority to the words of the original as distinct from the ideas or meaning? All translation theorists assign priority to something. Nida, for example, evolved the rule that gave ‘the priority of the needs of the audience over the forms of language,’ and further decreed that ‘the use of language by persons twenty-five to thirty years of age has priority over the language of the older people or of children,’ and that ‘in certain situations the speech of women should have priority over the speech of men.’ While I believe that this ascribes an unwarranted and dangerous priority to the audience, surely it would be a strange polemical maneuver for me to say that Nida has made an idol of that audience.” (p59)

Ryken then lists a few passages that “assign primacy to the words of Scripture rather than the thoughts:” Jer 1:9; 1 Cor 2:13; Gal 3:16; Jn 6:63.

Christians are, or at least should be, very sensitive about idolatry in their lives. We want to please God, and we want Him as the ruler on the throne of our lives. That is why this myth, or the claims by people like Nida concerning word worship and word idolatry, is such a cheap shot. In fact, in a boxing match, it will be counted as a low blow! These kinds of comments are usually thrown around by people that have run out of arguments. They are simply mythtaken!


The second myth is that ELT theory and practice are naive. What does this charge of naiveté really mean? Once again, is this simply a putdown of an intellectual opponent? Is sophistication the opposite of naive?

“. . . the goal in Bible translation is truth. If the truth is what some would call naive, then naivete is what we want.” (p61)


The fact that ELT is a simple theory not based on complicated linguistic theory, is a strength, and not a weakness for Ryken. Ryken is “skeptical of a discipline that is encrusted in as highly technical and obscure a vocabulary as linguistics is.” (p61) He writes that the fact that DET “theory has been surrounded by a complex linguistic framework has obscured the simplicity of its actual practice.” (p61) According to Ryken, DET practice isn’t less naive in its actual procedures, considering the technical linguistic framework that DET theory is based on. Further, ELT is simple in conception since it refuses to add “the functions of interpretation, exegesis, and editing to the task of translation.” (p62) Ryken writes that DET regularly resorts to practices that go beyond translation. Ryken lists these practices: (p62)

  • changing vocabulary that is considered difficult or old-fashioned into vocab that is contemporary or colloquial;
  • changing figurative language into non-figurative language;
  • changing a statement that the translator considers not immediately understandable into a statement that uses different words from the source to match what the translator regards as fitting the needs of a contemporary reader;
  • eliminating words that are regarded as technical theological terms and replacing them with plain, non-technical language;
  • reducing the vocabulary level of the source;
  • changing gender references to match the editor’s ideas on proper language for gender in our own culture.

Ryken call DETs hybrids, since they combine features of a translation, a commentary, and a text with the translator’s preferences. All of this geared towards a given audience.

Ryken then questions whether this “naive” epithet is because it is some type of code language to scorn the levels of expertise of the translators of ELTs. he concludes that translation committees of DETs are not more educated that the committees that produce ELTs. This charge of naiveté is used to marginalize adherents of ELT as insignificant within the Bible translation fraternity. However,

“[i]n terms of the history of English Bible translation, therefore, essentially literal translation is the dominant tradition, not a lightweight view held by a few ignorant people.” (p63)

The fact is that DET as a theory is a very new theory that has been around since around the 1950s. It is within the long tradition of ELT that words such as intercession and atonement have been coined.

Ryken reckons that DET is also naive (if that is the word that others want to use). DET operates on the premise that its readers are stupid! Okay, the word “stupid” is my interpretation of what Ryken wrote. He says that DET operates on the assumption of a naive or uneducated reader. Based on this assumption, DET translation committees then produce simplified Bibles to cater for the lowest common denominator. Kind of like a Bible for Dummies (my phrase)! DET also assume that readers battle with figurative language. As a result, they translate figurative language away.

Another way that Ryken says DET is naive is its refusal to differentiate between the language of the original and what the translator believes it means.

“There remains a demonstrable difference between English translations that give us the equivalent English word and English translations that do not give us the equivalent English word, either by changing the words of the original or by adding words that are not present in the original.” (p65)

A further naiveté of DET is its reductionistic tendencies. While ELT has “a high goal to preserve the full exegetical potential of the original text,” the tendency of DET is to eliminate ambiguity, figurative language and to produce a one-dimensional Bible geared towards “guiding” the readers toward the “correct” interpretation.

“The people who are placed in the ultimate position of naivete are, of course, the readers of a dynamic equivalent translation. These readers, have no clue as to hat has been removed from sight, or what interpretive decisions have been made for them by the translation committee. The typical reader operates on the premise that what Psalm 90:12 says is (for example) ’teach us how short our life is,’ oblivious to the fact that the original uses a metaphor and that, furthermore, this metaphor has been interpreted in half a dozen legitimate ways.” (p68)

The final point on which Ryken finds DET naive is its presupposition that the meaning of the original text can be retained without retaining the words from the original. He points to modern literary theory, in which is said that form is meaning and the medium is the message. In my opinion, this has become very apparent in our day.

As an example, the following words:

We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain
We jumped never asking why
We kissed, I fell under your spell.
A love no one could deny

Don't you ever say I just walked away
I will always want you
I can't live a lie, running for my life
I will always want you

I put you high up in the sky
And now, you're not coming down
It slowly turned, you let me burn
And now, we're ashes on the ground

I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in
And instead of using force
I guess I should've let you win
I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in
I guess I should've let you win

Now, think in your mind what it means to you. What is its message to you?

Once you have made up your mind about the message of the words above, I would like to put these words in context. What is that context? It is the latest hit song by Miley Cyrus, Wrecking Ball. What is the medium of the song that everybody is trying to watch on Youtube The medium is video, and what does Miley Cyrus portray in this video? She appears naked, riding a wrecking ball from side to side. See how the medium has changed the message?

Ryken emphasizes that DET’s fail in its logic of meaning-based translation in the fact that even meaning is based on words. Without words we can have no meaning. Also, by changing the words, we change the meaning.

yoda_transcriptionThe third myth says that ELT is simply transcription or transliteration. I simply do not know how Ryken can keep a straight face here. Does anyone really believe this about ELT? If any detractors of ELT believe this about ELT, they are simply ignorant of ELT. The fact is, opponents to ELT use this as a put-down of ELT rather than actually deal with ELT. Ryken then goes into testing this claim. Simply, a transcription of Ps 32:1 reads as follows:

Blessedness of forgiven of transgression, covered of sin.

Which of the following actual translations are transcriptions?

Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! (NLT)

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! (NASB)

Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. (GNB)

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (ESV)

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be-- you get a fresh start, your slate's wiped clean. (MESSAGE)

Out of this list of translations that Ryken selected, which of these are actually transcriptions? Two of them are supposed to be, as claimed by some ELT detractors. The claim is patently false! Let’s look at a NT example by Ryken. A transcription of 2 Tim 1:13 would look like this:

pattern of sound words of which from me you heard in faith and love the in Christ Jesus.

Which of the following actual translations are transcriptions?

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. (NIV)

Hold firmly to the true words that I taught you, as the example for you to follow, and remain in the faith and love that are ours in union with Christ Jesus. (GNB)

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. (NLT)

Did you notice the transcription? Yip! Neither did I!

“The charge that essentially literal translations are mere transcriptions should be labeled for what it is—frivolous and irresponsible.” (p71)

The fourth myth that Ryken handles is that essentially literal translators do not understand that all translation is interpretation. Essentially literal translators do not deny that that there is a sense in which all translation is interpretation. The difference is that ELT translators are more discerning that DET translators in applying the principle. This is a greatly abused principle by DET translators.

“There is one sense—and in my view only one sense—in which the commonly invoked cliché is accurate. All translation require linguistic  or lexical interpretation of what word in the receptor language best expresses the meaning of the word in the source language. Were the Israelites led through the desert or the wilderness? Translation requires continuous interpretive decisions at this linguistic level. For all the disparagement of the idea that good translation involves, at some level, a word-for-word correspondence, I myself believe that virtually all words in the original Old and New Testaments do have a corresponding English word or combination of words by which to express the words of the original. All translation is lexical interpretation, but this is the least of what excites dynamic equivalence advocates.” (p72)


Image courtesy of Digital Photography School

The final myth that Ryken deals with is that essentially literal translations are obscure and opaque. One of the assumptions, according to Ryken, regarding English translations, is that when an English translation is difficult or unclear, the fault must be with the translation, and not the original text. Also, it is assumed that when “easier” translations are judged by reading tests to be easier to grasp by a population, that it means that translations that require a higher reading level therefore must be obscure. Ryken feels that all  modern translations are clear and readable.

“I will state my critique of the readability fallacy very succinctly: what good is readability if what the reader reads is not what the original text of the Bible says? If it is not  what the original text says, a so-called readable translation has actually removed the Bible from a reader, not, as is claimed, brought the Bible close to the reader.” (p74)

I am just thinking here of what Peter wrote in 1 Pet 3:15-16:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Even Peter found some things difficult to understand. Was that the problem of an ELT translator, or the original itself? In my opinion, DETs try to hard to remove difficulties for the reader, and should rather concentrate on translating the truth as written by the source.

Ryken closes out the chapter with 5 points that correct the misconceptions regarding ELT (p75-76):

  • Preserving the words of the original is not word idolatry, but instead it is practicing what the Bible says about the importance of words in God’s revelation within Scripture.
  • ELTs are naive in two ways: being uninterested in complex linguistic theory, and in concentrating on translation rather than mixing it with commentary.
  • ELTs are proper translations and not transcriptions or transliterations.
  • ELTs make an essential distinction between linguistic or lexical interpretation and other types of interpretation.
  • ELTs are completely readable, and where their translations are difficult or do not portray all of the original’s meaning readily, they are being true to the original text.

That brings us to the end of this chapter. Next, we will look at chapter 3 by C. John Collins, WHAT THE READER WANTS AND THE TRANSLATOR CAN GIVE: First John as a Test Case.

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