Book Review: The Word of God in English

Book by Leland Ryken

Review by Stephen Hong

Does it really make a different what Bible translation you use? Differences in a few words here and there can’t be very significant as long as they all retain the same meaning, right?

According to Dr. Leland Ryken, in his book The Word of God in English, not all translations of the English Bible are created equal. In fact, many of them come from very divergent philosophies of translation. The central focus in the book is the tension between an essentially literal translation and a dynamic translation. Until the last fifty years, the overarching principle in Bible translation was to reproduce the words of the original to the words of the receptor language. At that time, Eugene Nida introduced the theory of dynamic equivalence, which, briefly summed up, is the emphasis of the reaction of the reader to the translated text, rather than the translation of the words and phrases themselves.

He outlines various fallacies of the dynamic equivalence principle, including fallacies about general translation theory, about the Bible and about the Bible’s audience. As he does so, it became increasingly clear to me how significant it is to hold to an essentially literal text.

Ryken does a great job of fleshing out these principles to actual translation texts. At one point, he focuses on Luke 10:42 and lists the different translations:

“Mary hath chosen the good part” (KJV)

“Mary has chosen the good part” (NASB)

“Mary has chosen the good portion” (ESV)

“Mary has chosen what is better” (TNIV/NIV)

“Mary has chosen what is best” (CEV)

“There is really only one thing worth being concerned about” (NLT)

The first three are from essentially literal texts, which aim to reproduce the original language, word for word (but adjusting syntax to modern English, which is why it is essentially literal). The second three are from dynamic equivalent texts. Notice that the second three makes the comparative element explicit, whereas the first set makes no explicit remark about Martha’s work, or leaves it implicit at best. It may well be the case that the translators of the first set agree with the second set in meaning, but the issue is that the dynamic equivalent translators, at this point, are moving beyond translation to interpreation. By doing so, it is preemptively excluding any possibility for alternative interpretations. Ryken suggests, though, that dynamic equivalent translations do serve as good commentaries or gloss texts, but are not reliable as primary translations.

Ryken, who is a professor of English at Wheaton College, served as a literary scholar on the council working on the English Standard Version several years ago. He gives a decent overview of the history of English translation, but does a more thorough job of dispelling wide-spread fallaceies, and getting into the nitty-gritty of translation principles and theories that must be considered in modern and future translations.

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