Columnists > Voices

Lost in the translation

A literature scholar says words, more than meanings, are important

Issue: "America's best & worst," Feb. 1, 2003

Since it's still January, I know it won't impress you much to say that The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken is the most important book I've read this year. Even to call it my most important read of the century -or, for that matter, of the millennium-may be, in the year 2003, to damn it with faint praise.

But you get the point. If the Bible itself is the most important book ever to confront the human race, I will argue that the Ryken volume may do more to change how you view the Bible (and how you read it) than any book, preacher, professor, or other influence you have ever had.

The Word of God in English focuses on translation theory. It features the debate between so-called "literal" translation on the one hand, and "dynamic equivalent" translation on the other. Author Ryken comes down unambiguously on the side of the literalists. But his is not merely a technical treatment. It's possible (but not likely!) that you could read this book and end up disagreeing with the author's main thesis. What I don't think is possible is that you'd read this book and end up with a lower view of the Bible than you had before.

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Leland Ryken has taught literature at Wheaton College for many years, and he holds a very high view of the Bible. He thinks God chose the Bible's words, and not just its ideas, in a very purposeful way. And he thinks the Bible's very message is altered-and usually diminished-when people tinker and tamper with the words.

Ironically, of course, dynamic-equivalence translators argue the issue the other way. They claim that by asking the question, What was the main idea the author intended? and then expressing that idea in the idiom of the "receptor language," the reader will have a richer experience of the author's intention.

Leland Ryken devastates the dynamic-equivalent position. Systematically, comprehensively, repetitively, he argues in such convincing fashion that I predict you will never again be satisfied with a translation of the Bible that is even mildly "dynamic." You will know that any such "translation" denies you much of what is rightly yours. It does that by first denying you what is rightly God's.

Indeed, the core of the Ryken argument is that the dynamic-equivalence folks, thinking of and picturing themselves as those who democratically offer the Bible to the masses, in fact end up condescending to those very masses by decreeing what parts of God's Word they will get and what parts they won't. Repeatedly, by interpreting the original rather than translating it, they rob the reader of the right to wrestle with the words. The wrestling is over by the time the reader gets there.

Also gone, very often, he says, are the beauty, the rhythm, the cadence, the mystery, the wonder, and the ambiguity of God's Word. In a well-meaning effort to reach "down to the people," those very people have been insulted and demeaned as the exalted and elegant expression of God Himself is often reduced, defoliated, and gutted to the point of trivial chatter. What was supposed to sound important sounds trifling now. A colloquial Bible, he says, will naturally do little to impress its readers.

Three caveats are in order. First, when you read The Word of God in English, you may think the book is overly redundant. In some ways, it is. But if that is a weakness, it is also the book's marvelous strength. The argument is spun from so many dozens of directions that they begin to sound the same. They're not-and that will ultimately impress you.

Second, it's appropriate, but also too bad, that the Ryken book had to come from Crossway Books. Crossway deserves enormous credit (and we've given it here) for its new English Standard Version of the Bible, released last year. But since Leland Ryken served professionally as the stylist for that version, both Crossway and he subject themselves now to conflict of interest charges by working so closely together on this excellent volume-which is a frank cheerleader for the ESV.

And we at WORLD subject ourselves to the same possible charges, since the Ryken book is such a lofty and scholarly validation of the serious questions we have raised over the last five years about some modern Bible translations. I applaud him for restating some of our arguments-and doing it in such gentle, eloquent, and persuasive fashion.

We'll accept those criticisms if that's what it takes to get thousands of people to read this book. It will drive you back, as it has done for me, to more serious Bible reading. It will increase your wonder for the very words God has used. It will draw you into closer personal fellowship with God Himself as you reflect on the myriad of ways in which He has expressed His love and His mercy for His children.


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