The Translation Debate

Posted: February 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

Currently I am taking a class called “The History of the Bible” with Dr. Charles Draper.  I am excited about the class for a number of reasons.  One, the Bible is the book that God uses to direct my life.  He is my King and Lord, His commands and wisdom are contained in those pages.  I am excited to learn more about its history and origin.  I am also excited to learn how to better speak to the issue of inspiration and preservation of the biblical text.  It is a sad reality that most believers today know little to nothing about how the greatest book ever written came into existence, its nature, or how it was preserved through the centuries.  How can one be confident in something that they know little to no history about?  Finally, I am excited because I love history.  Studying/reading historical facts and accounts fascinate me.

To make sure I make the most of my classes I usually read some supplemental resources alongside the required course texts.  For this class I thought Leland Ryken’s book, “Understanding English Translation:  The Case for Essentially Literal Approach”, would be a good choice.  I was right.  I couldn’t put the book down and finished it in a day and a half.  In the book Ryken critically evaluates the dynamic equivalent translation philosophy (thought-for-thought) and makes the case that it is found wanting.  The essentially literal approach, he argues, is by far the best and most faithful approach to translating the Bible.

The list of arguments are too many to list.  What I want to mention is just one point that I found particularly interesting.  The issue is denoted by using the phrase “transparency of the text.”  Both the dynamic equivalent camp and the essentially literal camp use this phrase to convey what they want to do in their translation efforts.  What the two camps mean by this phrase are totally different. 

The dynamic equivalent camp is hoping to produce a translated text that is transparent to the “modern reader.”  “The goal was that an English translation would not call attention to itself as being different from everyday discourse and, further, that the text would be easily and immediately understood by a modern reader with modest reading abilities” (Ryken, pg. 72).  This sounds great.  But if one digs deeper into how this is accomplished we find that many modern translations go to such lengths as to remove theological, or overly biblical, language.  Conveying the form (the actual words) is not the concern, making sure the meaning is conveyed is.  Ryken argues that what you have at that point is not a translation but a commentary.  The translator has become the interpreter for the reader and thus the meaning is transparent for the modern reader and not necessarily what the Greek or Hebrew actually said.

The essentially literal approach stands in direct opposition to this approach.  Ryken argues that a translator must be concerned with making the Greek and Hebrew transparent to the reader, not the meaning.  This isn’t to say that everyone is open to determine their own meaning or that meaning is subjective.  It is only to say that a translator is not a commentator and that the “goal is to remove anything that would obstruct a reader’s seeing what the original Hebrew and Greek text says” (Ryken, pg. 73).    Stephen Pricket put it this way, “readers who are given a transparent text (in the dynamic equivalent sense) see least…while those who wrestle with the difficulties of the original text discover most” (Ryken, pg. 72).  Here the concern is on conveying the form (or actual words) and asking the reader to study and determine the meaning themselves.

So, having a transparent text is the goal of both schools of translation.  What is meant by that phrase, however, places the two camps on different sides of a proverbial mountain.  It is my feeling that the dynamic equivalent approach gives me their interpretation of a passage and not so much the actual translation.  John Piper, writing in the end of Ryken’s book, put it this way:

“Don’t interpret for me.  Let me do this and let my people decide if I can prove it to them.  Don’t decide for me.  I am going to exposit this to my people.  I am accountable to explain the word of God to them.  You are not accountable to explain it.  You are accountable to give it to me so that I can determine what it means.  Don’t give me a commentary.  Give me a version.”–in an imaginary declaration to dynamic equivalent translators.

In the end I acknowledge that I have much to learn in this debate.  I am anxious to do so.  Till then, my personal desire is to have a translation that gets me as close as possible to the original Greek and Hebrew text.  A Bible such as the ESV, NASB, NKJV, and others that take the essentially literal approach seem to do this the best.  When someone asks me how to choose a Bible, I think I will point them to looking at what philosophy a translation follows.  Find one that is going to give you the text, then wrestle with it and let God illumine your mind and change your heart.

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