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Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach Paperback – September 2, 2009
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About the Author
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.
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Where Ryken falls short in this book, in my opinion, was in saying that the line between formal and dynamic equivalence puts all translations into one of two camps. I think a case can be made that the NIV and the HCSB walk a line between the two camps that is a third way in Bible translation. I certainly believe that there is more distance between the NIV and the Message (two dynamic equivalence translations according to Ryken) than between the NIV and the ESV (an essentially literal translation). I personally am more likely to use the NIV or HCSB than the NASB (which I find to be so grammatically unclear that I have trouble reading it). So all dynamic equivalent translations are not created equal and the same is true of essentially literal translations. I am not persuaded that there are two camps. I am convinced that, contrary to Ryken, there really is a continuum or range of translations which value accuracy and clarity to greater or lesser degrees.
With that said, Ryken is a thoughtful and skilled writer and I believe that whether one buys into all of his conclusions or not, this is a worthwhile book which will deepen one's understanding of English Bible translation.
Want to wade through the 50 English translations? Read this book.
Want to have confidence that the words you're saturating your mind with are found in the original manuscripts? Read this book!
I thought I had a firm grasp on translation differences, but this myth was quickly dispelled as incredible support was given chapter after chapter for essentially literal translations. I devoured this book as not only was the content incredible, but it was further worded in a manner that entertained this little brain.
In reviewing Ryken's book some may feel that I am opposed to his views so from the outset let me say that certainly is not the case. I affirm without any reservation that my sentiments are very much in line with his when it comes to literalness in translation. This review simply points out how easy it is to miss what I believe to be an example of "ambiguity," which he discusses on pages 143f, and a missed opportunity to illustrate that more literal translations have short comings too. Or, as I like to say, what one translation does, they all do--just some do it more often and more flagrantly.
On page 122 under the heading "From Woman of Worth to Fine Woman," he demonstrates his thesis stated in the leading paragraph that dynamic equivalent translations "scale(d) down" the lofty language of the original. Unfortunately, I believe he picked the wrong example (Ruth 3:11), perhaps by relying solely on literal versions without considering the Hebrew word. He praises translations like the RSV, ESV, NRSV and NIV, listing the rendering of each, basically with the general idea of worthy.
But a quick check of the various KJV renderings of this Hebrew word reveal that it is translated as "army" 56 times, "man of valour" 37 times, "host" 29 tims, "forces" 14 times, "valiant" 13 times, "strength" 12 times, "riches" 11 times, "wealth" 10 times, "power" nine times, "substance" eight times, "might" six times, "strong" five times and is translated miscellaneously 33 times. (Taken from the Enhances Strong's using Logos Bible Software).
The question then becomes, how in the world can one Hebrew word have all these diverse meanings? Part of the explanation, no doubt, can be attributed to the nature of the Hebrew language but it seems to me that the Theological Wordbook of the OT (TWOT) hits the nail on the head, declaring that the basic meaning of the verb and noun are "be firm," "strong," or "strength." Thus a king's army is his strength, a man of valor (and "valiant") is a man strong in character, and someone who has riches, wealth, or substance is a person with financial power or strength. For an explanation of "host" see the Oxford English Dictionary.
So if the verse in question were rendered as "thou art a strong woman," the ambiguity that he espouses would allow for a wider range of interpretations, not just virtuous, but strong in spirit, strong physically or maybe better, strong in wisdom as verse 10 might indicate. It is conceded that not all of the 243 examples of this Hebrew word in the OT could be rendered with some form of the word, or synonym of, "strong" but some could. Ryken would no doubt agree that the departure from ambiguity deprives us of the opportunity to meditation on the meaning of a word like "strong" in this passage. What can we glean from the entire book of Ruth to define a "strong woman?" Is her virtue the only point of strength?
My attention to this verse was occasioned by a note in the Cambridge Version of the KJV that the word "city" in this verse literally means "gate," just as the KJV 1611 marginal note reads. For those who believe the KJV does not have some dynamic readings, I suggest they purchase a copy of the KJV 1611 and check the marginal readings. You will be surprised.
My point in this review is that, even though we are in favor of literal versions, we should not be blind to the occasional dynamic renderings in versions like the KJV, NKJV, ESV, etc. Again, what one version does, they all do to some degree or other. I close with this. I grew up with the old KJV, have never taught a Sunday school lesson or preached from any other version but I cannot be blind to the facts. To fail to understand the full meaning of a word as Ryken has done is not the worst thing in the world; being willfully blind to reality tops it hands down.