Thursday, February 24, 2005

Bible Translation: Without Form, You Lose Meaning

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Leland Ryken’s excellent work, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. Ryken was the literary stylist for the publication of the English Standard Version (ESV). C. John “Jack” Collins of Covenant Seminary was the Old Testament chair for the translation. Collins contributes an excellent appendix to Ryken’s book, entitled “Without Form, You Lose Meaning.” It is a sane, calm, persuasive Christlike piece of writing. (Unlike, for example, this piece posted at World Magazine’s TNIV site.

He has four complaints about dynamic-equivalent translations:

  1. Such translations make interpretive decisions for the reader, and run the risk of deciding wrongly.
  2. Such a philosophy requires the translator to resolve ambiguities for the reader
  3. This philosophy urges the translator to interpret images and figures for the reader
  4. This philosophy generally leads to the loss of important repetitions.

What feature do these four defects have in common? “The reader is limited to what the translator allows him to see.”

Collins’s thesis is as follows: “My thesis is that, however capable the scholars—and that, mind you, is not under dispute—dynamic equivalence will almost certainly not represent the meaning more accurately than an essentially literal rendering. The very translation philosophy pushes the product away from accuracy.”

Here are some other helpful quotes from his chapter:

“The impulse to clarify . . . insists that the translator decide what it is and give that to the reader.” (p. 304)

“Old Testament wisdom works by giving you a concrete example and asking you to make the necessary changes in order to apply it to yourself.” (p. 305)

“I think the translation has overstepped a boundary: It is the job of readers and preachers to learn the rules for biblical interpretation and application, while translations should give an accurate idea of what the text says. Didn’t a daughter in the original audience have to do the same?

“This overstepping is the logical consequence of the requirement to clarify, combined with the discarding of the form of the original. That very form is the only thing that provided any constraints to clarification.

“These examples all share a common problem: They result from a translation philosophy that emphasizes “clarification” on behalf of the modern reader. The irony is that following this impulse has so often resulted in less accuracy in the end product.” (p. 306)

<>We ought not hide verbal parallels from the reader when those verbal parallels have a bearing on the same topic. (p. 311)

Losing the feel of an allusion leader to losing some of the message… (p. 312)

But in making it easier for the English reader they have actually deprived him or her or the chance to see something that is there. (p. 313)

My objective has been to discern whether or not dynamic equivalence (as it claims) does an equal—or even better—job of conveying meaning in comparison to the essentially literal approach. I find that it fails, and fails consistently, and the more dynamic the translation, the worse the failure. I think that the explanation for this lies in two main impulses that undergird the dynamic equivalence philosophy: the separation of form and meaning, and the desire to clarify the meaning of the text beyond what is actually present in the linguistic details of the text. (pp. 315-316)

I think that only an essentially literal translation philosophy has any hope of giving a Bible to the people that merits their regular use. (p. 316)

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I'd encourage you to keep an eye on Mark D. Roberts' excellent series on the TNIV. Mark is more open to dynamic-equivalent translations than Collins is (or than I am), but I'm certain you will learn something not only from what says, but in how he is saying it.