WATERED DOWN WORD
It is not often that truly landmark books appear
on the scene. One cluster of such books—for instance, Eugene
Nida’s [with Charles Taber] The Theory and Practice of Translation
(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969) championed “dynamic equivalence”
in Bible translation. In the intervening years, his principles have
largely swept the field, leaving the New International Version (NIV)
and other “thought for thought” translations victors
over the King James Version (KJV) and other “essentially literal”
Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College, now feels
with other scholars that the ascendancy of dynamic equivalence has
resulted in the impoverishment of God’s Word for a multitude
of general readers. The chief cause for this impoverishment lies
in the dynamic equivalence technique of choosing one of the often
multiple possible meanings of each text and presenting it to the
reader as his only choice. In his book, The Word of God in English:
Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation, Ryken notes that the
reader is never informed that these choices are being made for him,
nor that other possible understandings have been ignored.
Consequently, the reader is left with only the “simplified”
text, and a great many of the “deep things of God” have
been turned into shallow ponds. “Readers of English translations
operate on the premise that they are reading what the original text
says,” the author comments (p. 291). “With some translations,
they are frequently misled and in some cases virtually deceived.”
So serious does this situation seem to Prof. Ryken that he charges
dynamic equivalence translators “have themselves become the
counterparts to medieval Roman Catholic priests” (p. 78).
How? By taking to themselves the mantle of commentators as well
as translators. “The reader is just as surely removed from
the words of the text as the medieval Christian was.”
Also lost in many cases from the original, he asserts, are metaphors
and other figures of speech, the “exalted language”
of earlier translations, the beauty of poetic utterances, and the
layers of meaning inherent in the original languages. Virtually
everything, which enriched the older translations, has been “simplified”
into bland, pedestrian statements.
The author also takes to task dynamic equivalency’s basic
assumption that modern readers cannot or will not be able to read
the Bible if it is left in essentially literal form. People, he
says, are capable of “rising to the occasion,” provided
they want to. He notes, in this connection, that the King James
Version was intended to make it possible for every plowman in England—certainly
less well-educated than most Americans—to read the Word for
himself. And if readers need help to understand certain passages,
that is the proper role of preachers and commentators.
Prof. Ryken does not argue for the inviolability of the King James
Version, but he does give it very high marks. Other “essentially
literal” versions which earn his respect are the New American
Standard Bible (NASB), which was reissued in 1995, and the newest
version, the English
Standard Version (ESV). (Prof. Ryken served as literary stylist
for the ESV.)
Ryken meets one of the principles of dynamic equivalency head-on
when he asserts, “the whole premise…is faulty.”
The preface to the Good News Bible claims that the first step
in translation is to “understand correctly the meaning of
the original: and then to render it in “language that is natural,
clear, simple, and unambiguous.” But when the meaning of the
original is multiple, ambiguous, and complicated, to render it “simple
and unambiguous” is precisely not to understand correctly
the meaning of the original (page 237).
(By “ambiguity” Prof. Ryken means “a refusal
to limit an utterance to just one meaning when the experience entails
more than that; open endedness of meaning or application; and preservation
of a degree of mystery.” He agrees that lack of ambiguity
is a virtue of ordinary expository writing, but stresses that the
Bible is a literary work, which must be treated accordingly—just
as all classic literature deserves to be handled. )
Among the high costs of wholesale adoption of dynamic equivalence
Ryken lists these:
• Memorization has become a casualty, since there no longer
is a “standard” translation.
• Expository preaching has taken a major hit. Who can tell
which is the “right” translation to expound?
• The authority of the Word has been brought into serious
question, for the same reason.
Picking on the most radical of current dynamic equivalent translations,
The Message, Ryken quotes its translation of Ps.32: 1,2:“Count
yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start,”
contrasted with the KJV’s “Blessed is he whose transgressions
is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Ryken wryly comments:”
Forgiveness of sins has degenerated into getting lucky with God."
While The Message radically departs from the original words, Ryken
notes it is only developing a freedom opened by the NIV and others
of the genre.
The Bible, Ryken asserts, is the Word of God. We received it as
words, and these words are important. “There is no such thing
as disembodied thought.” Certainly, the original languages
need to be translated into understandable English for English-speaking
readers. What we do not need, he stresses, are translations to the
lowest common denominator of comprehension.
For countless generations, the Bible has helped readers raise themselves
above the barely-literate level, and we do them no favors by stooping
to this level in translation.
It is my belief that The Word of God in English has the potential
to be another watershed book. It has proved such for me, for Ryken
has taken all my uneasy but formless fears about what has happened
to our Bible in English and given them form.
The Word of God in English : Criteria for Excellence in Bible
Translation by Leland Ryken is published by Crossway Books (Good
News Publishers), c. 2002, $15.99, softcover. ($11.99 at Christian
For those who are KJV Only believers, see the other article on this web site about how the KJV came to be and you will no longer be a believer in the infalibility of the KJV. The Great Ecclesiastical Conspiracy