Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bible Translations

With the TNIV (Today's New International Version) recently published and back in the news, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some principles drawn from Leland Ryken's excellent book, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. Here is a summary of Ryken's main points:

Five Fallacies About the Bible
  1. The Bible is a uniformly simply book.
  2. The Bible is a book of ideas rather than concrete particulars.
  3. The Bible is a modern book.
  4. The Bible needs correction.
  5. The Bible is a book devoid of mystery and ambiguity.


In this chapter I have looked chiefly at prefaces and surrounding documents of modern translations to show that these translations reveal attitudes about the Bible that I believe to be fallacious. …I believe all of this to be the reverse of what is actually true. The truth is that the Bible is sometimes simple and sometimes difficult and complex. It is a book of stories and poetic images more than a book of abstract propositions. Furthermore, the Bible is an indisputably ancient book. As such, it is the book that in its original form is the book that God wants us to have, including much that is mysterious and requires careful pondering and unpacking. (p. 78)

Seven Fallacies About Translation

  1. We should translate meaning rather than words.
  2. All translation is interpretation.
  3. Readability is the ultimate goal of translation.
  4. The important question is how we should say something.
  5. Koiné Greek was uniformly colloquial.
  6. If Biblical writers were living today…
  7. Any difficulty in reading the Bible is the fault of the translation.


The positive counterpart to the fallacies I have delineated are as follows: The only way to keep a translation from wandering into subjective variability and to remain subject to verifiable criteria of reliability is to render the words of the original into English. There is a decisive difference between linguistic interpretation and thematic interpretation of meaning, and a reliable translation sticks to the main task of translation—namely, determination of linguistic meaning. An English Bible translation should strive for maximum readability only within the parameters of accurately expressing what the original actually says, including the difficulty inherent in the original text. The crucial question that should govern translation is what the original authors actually wrote, not our speculations over how they would express themselves today or how we would express the content of the Bible. The fact that the New Testament was written in koiné Greek should not lead translators to translate the Bible in a uniformly colloquial style. Finally, a good translation does not attempt to make the Bible simpler than it was for the original audience. (pp. 100-101)

Eight Fallacies About Translation

  1. Contemporary Bible readers have low intellectual and linguistic abilities
  2. The Bible is read mainly by people unfamiliar with it
  3. Bible readers cannot handle theological or technical terminology
  4. Figurative language is beyond the grasp of Bible readers
  5. Modern readers require short sentences
  6. Bible readers cannot be educated beyond their present level of ability
  7. The Bible is more difficult for modern readers than for the original readers
  8. Readers, not authors, determine meaning


The fallacies that some translation foster have resulted in a chaotic and inconsistent picture. On the one hand, these translations are embarrassingly patronizing toward their readers. They make it clear that the translators have accommodated their translation to readers characterized by low linguistic abilities, impaired comprehension and thinking skills, deficient theological capabilities, inability to read poetry, and impatience with any piece of writing that is not immediately understandable. Yet is these very readers that modern translations have regularly elevated over the biblical author and text to the role of determining what is put forward as the meaning of the original text.

There is only one way out of this morass, and that is to expect the same standards from Bible readers that we expect of readers in other contexts of life, to lend at least the same authority to the biblical authors and their texts that we expect of our own utterances, and to let the writers of the Bible (and ultimately God) say what they said. That is tantamount to saying that the antidote to the fallacies I have outline in this chapter is to produce an essentially literal translation of the Bible and to educate (or simply expect) English readers to understand what they read and hear preached. (p. 118)