The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation
Publisher: Crossway Books
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Translating Truth is a collection of essays on the subject of Bible translation written by leading Evangelical scholars. The essays were first presented as papers at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in November 2004. The publishers notes that "the purpose of publishing these papers now as a collection is to encourage the ongoing, careful reflection on methodology and issues in Bible translation—that necessary work, which the Christian church is called to undertake, with fear and trembling before our sovereign, holy God, for the sake of the gospel and the truth of God’s Word." It should be noted that each of the authors was also a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version. Thus while the thrust of this book is to examine the theory and practice of translating Scripture and to propose the superiority of an essentially literal translation over a dynamic equivalent translation, the book focuses primarily on the ESV. While, thankfully, it does not read as advertising for the ESV, it is clear that the authors feel it to be a superior translation.
The master of forewords himself, J.I. Packer, begins the book with a short foreword. Packer gets right to the point, suggesting three ways that dynamic equivalent translations fail through under-translating. First, he says, the focus of the text is blurred. "One begins to imagine wordsmiths like Ecclesiastes himself, and Isaiah, and Paul, looking down from heaven at our array of translations, and groaning again and again, “But that’s not what I wrote!” If translation means serving authors by making what they wrote fully available in other languages (and surely Bible translation, whatever more it is, is at least that), what is being done here is under-translating." Second, fidelity is restricted. "If translating means expressing in another language the full meaning and character of the original as exactly as possible, this is under-translating." And finally, cultural foreshortening is imposed. "Cutting corners here [in providing distance from the original culture to our own], in rendering literature from the past—the Judeo-Christian past no less than any other—is always under-translating."
Packer concludes that "the true verdict seems to be that for beginners in Bible exploration and study, the merits of the best dynamic equivalent versions outweigh their real limitations. But for lifelong personal reading, with meditation and memorization, just as for public reading and pulpit exposition in church, the better option will unquestionably be one of the essentially literal translations; and I hope I may without offense mention here the English Standard Version, which was deliberately crafted to fulfill all these purposes together and, I believe, does so."
The five essays that follow attempt to prove the verdict to be true. Largely, I believe, they do so. The five essays are as follows:
Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God?: Why Plenary Inspiration Favors "Essentially Literal" Bible Translations by Wayne Grudem. Dr. Grudem argues that an understanding of God’s plenary (full) inspiration of the Bible extends to the very words of Scripture. It is incumbent on the translator to realize the value of words and to translate each word whenever possible. Grudem does not propose a clunky translation that is literally word-for-word, but instead a translation that is essentially literal, capturing the meaning of each word. He provides several examples of good translating compared to poor translating, showing where words and concepts have been added, changed or omitted.
Five Myths About Essentially Literal Bible Translations by Leland Ryken. Leland Ryken received quite a lot of harsh criticism for his book The Word of God in English (my review) in which he argued for the superiority of essentially literal translations against the deficincies of dynamic equivalent translations. In this essay he answers his detractors by examining five common charges which he considers the myths of essentially literal translations. The five myths are: Advocates of essentially literal translations are guilty of word worship and idolatry; Essentially literal translation theory and practice are naive; Essentially literal translation is no more than transcription or transliteration; Essentially literal translators fail to understand that all translation is interpretation; Essentially literal translations are obscure and opaque. He responds to each one of these in brief but well-formed responses of a few pages each.
What The Readers Wants and the Translators Can Give 1 John as a Test Case by C. John Collins. Collins shows that a translation philosophy is directly related to how the translator understands what a translation is. He suggests a model of communication that clarifies some of the challenges faced in translation. He feels that before one can ask "what is the best approach to translation?" he must first settle the purpose for that translation. Collins suggests that an essentially literal translation is the kind of translation that best suits ecclesiastical study and both personal and family study. It may be wise to provide a less-literal translation for our outreach activities. So what is it that the reader wants and the translator can provide? "An opportunity to listen in on the original foreign language communication, without prejudging what to do with that communication."
Truth and Fullness of Meaning: Fullness versus Reductionistic Semantics in Biblical Interpretation by Vern Sheridan Poythress. In this chapter the author discusses complexity and richness in meaning. This is quite a technical essay in which he examines the development of structural linguistics. This leads into the translation theory of Eugene Nida, the man who pioneered dynamic equivalency.
Revelation versus Rhetoric: Paul and the First-century Corinthian Fad by Bruce Winter. In quite an interesting essay, Bruce Winter discusses the style of rhetoric that was popular during the first-century. He shows that the apostle Paul deliberately avoided this trend in order to write epistles that were clear and understandable. "While the ‘grand style’ and rhetorical flourishes were the fad of his day and his generation, he used plain style in all its simplicity and a word order that gave forcefulness as he conveyed the living oracles of God. That deliberate decision on his part to pursue clarity means that translating his letters demands a comparable plain style such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale so effective achieved in their rendering of his letters. It is beholden to their successors to do nothing more and nothing less." Do note that this chapter contained a small amount of Greek, much of which was not transliterated. This may make it moderately more difficult to understand than some of the other chapters.
The translation of Scripture is a hot topic in the Evangelical community, especially in the wake of the publication of Today’s New International Version. Christians would do well to make themselves aware of the issues and understand the differences between an essentially literal translation, a dynamic equivalent translation and a paraphrase. Authors, pastors, teachers and leaders need to be sure that they know the issues and are committed to teaching the great truths of Scripture in a way that is faithful to the words of God. While few people would argue that there is a perfect translation of Scripture available to us, even fewer would argue that all translations are equal. Reading a book like Translating Truth will help people understand what is at stake and aid them in finding a translation of Scripture that gives them confidence that what
they are reading are the very words of God.