Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004. Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV). This post is part 2 of a series, evaluating Leland Ryken’s chapter, “Five Myths About Essentially Literal Bible Translation.”
The debate over Bible translation philosophy and methodology has been fierce, especially in recent years, as newer form-based translations threaten to knock dynamic equivalence from the throne where it has sat for the last several decades. Naturally, dynamic equivalence proponents have been eager to defend their position, and in the process they have leveled many charges against the essentially literal camp. In this chapter, Leland Ryken addresses five of these charges, which he has labeled “myths.” I will evaluate each of these in turn, although most of my attention will be on #2.
Myth #1: Advocates of Essentially Literal Translation Are Guilty of Word Worship and Idolatry
The essentially literal camp’s emphasis on the importance of individual words has led some dynamic equivalence proponents to accuse their opponents of being guilty of idolatry, literally worshipping the words of Scripture. Ryken illustrates with a few specific examples, including this quote from Nida: “As long as they worship words, instead of worshipping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, they feel safe.” According to Ryken, this is blowing things way out of proportion. Prioritizing words is not even close to worship of words. He says, “Advocates of the rival theory to one’s own might fairly be viewed as intellectual opponents, but we should not resort to charges of idolatry.” I fully agree with Ryken on this point. We need to be realistic and gracious in our debates with those who disagree with us, and accusations of idolatry go too far.
Myth #2: Essentially Literal Translation Theory and Practice Are Naive
Ryken takes an interesting approach to this myth. Unsure of what the critics actually mean by “naive,” he posits his own definition by providing some ways that essentially literal translations are naive, followed by some ways that dynamic equivalence translations are naive. His conclusion is that the latter are more naive than the former.
Ryken gives two reasons why essentially literal translations are naive:
1. They are not based on a complex linguistic theory. This is a strength in his view. He says, “I am skeptical of a discipline that is encrusted in as highly technical and obscure a vocabulary as linguistics is.” If I am understanding this statement correctly, Ryken is rejecting an entire field of academic study because it is too difficult to understand. Some of his statements that I will address later make me wonder to what extent he has even attempted to gain understanding in this area. This appears to be more than naivety. Naivety is when someone doesn’t know that they don’t know. Ryken knows that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t seem to care. After this surprising statement, Ryken proceeds to argue that despite the complicated theory they claim, the practices of dynamic equivalence are actually rather simple, not depending on any “complicated linguistic principle.” One of the principles that he cites is “mingling commentary with translation.” I doubt that any dynamic equivalence proponent would ever cite one of their translation principles in this way. Not only is he employing caricatures, something he decries in Myths #1 and #3, but he is also misrepresenting the principles underlying dynamic equivalence, and proving his ignorance of linguistic theory by missing the link between theory and practice.
2. “Refusal to add the functions of interpretation, exegesis, and editing to the task of translation.” I’ll have more to say about this when I get to Myth #4, as this brings up the same issue presented there.
Ryken moves on to give four reasons why dynamic equivalence translations are naive:
1. Translators cater to the needs of a naive audience. Ryken argues that not only is the audience naive in dynamic equivalence translations, but so is the “unstated and perhaps unrecognized assumption…that readers cannot be educated beyond their current abilities.” Despite their stated aim, he says, dynamic equivalence translations “ensure that readers will remain at a naive level of comprehension.” While I might debate whether this is an assumption most dynamic equivalence translators actually hold to, I think there is some validity to this point. For example, one strength of essentially literal English translations is their use of highly technical theological terms. Over time, readers can grow in their understanding of them. There is certainly a benefit and use for such translations. However, there is also value in a translation that avoids these kinds of terms for more immediate understanding, even though it might remove people from the weighty content and history associated with them. Both approaches have legitimate uses. Ultimately, Ryken’s criticism on this point speaks not to the naivety of dynamic equivalence theory, but to its different (but valid) approach.
I also want to point out that while Ryken is specifically addressing English translations, minority languages like the ones I work with often do not even have the option of using established technical theological terms. They must choose a rendering that will hopefully be meaningful right away, but that will become technical over time as people learn these categories by exposure to Bible reading and teaching. I point this out as an example that dynamic equivalence translations do not necessarily prevent people from learning and growing. Avoiding technical terms may be a weakness in the English context, but not in all situations.
2. “Refusal to make a valid distinction between what the original says and what the translator believes that it means.” Ryken argues that dynamic equivalence conflates saying and meaning, and this is why they have no problem changing what the text says. I would argue that to the contrary, most dynamic equivalence proponents have a very healthy understanding of the gap between “saying” and “meaning.” Underdeterminacy, the idea that the meaning encoded by words (what the text says) doesn’t fully articulate the proposition or thought being expressed (what the speaker means), is a fundamental principle in the theories of communication that drive meaning-based translation.
Ryken goes on to quote Ray Van Leeuwen in saying that dynamic equivalence translations “prevent the reader from inferring biblical meaning because they change what the Bible said.” The fallacy in this argument is the assumption that if a translation retains what is said, the modern reader will make the same inferences the original audiences would have made. In truth, the modern reader will often make wrong inferences from an essentially literal translation, while being completely unaware that they are doing so. Dynamic equivalence translations have the potential to ensure that the reader will infer biblical meaning by wording the translation in a way that the proper inferences will be drawn. In short, what motivates dynamic equivalence translations to change what the text says is not a denial of the difference between saying and meaning, but an appreciation of it.
3. “Reductionistic tendencies.” Essentially literal translations aim to “preserve the full exegetical potential of the original biblical text” by leaving ambiguities and other details open to interpretation. Ryken gives the example of Psalm 90:12, which says, “So teach us to number our days.” He points out at least six different interpretations of the phrase “number our days.” Because there are so many possibilities, he argues that an essentially literal translation keeps the interpretive possibilities open to the reader. The readers of dynamic equivalence translations, on the other hand, “have no clue as to what has been removed from sight, or what interpretive decisions have been made for them by the translation committee.”
To this I would ask, what will cue the reader of an essentially literal translation that there are so many interpretive possibilities in Psalm 90:12? “Numbering our days” has become a fairly common figure of speech in English, and I imagine most readers would assume the meaning of “counting them with a view to seeing how few they are” without realizing the exegetical potential. At least, that would be my own natural conclusion. I would guess that most of these other interpretations were derived by scholars through careful study of the type that many readers are not able to carry out themselves. Unless someone is reading the text with a commentary or sitting under a teacher explaining these options, the interpretive possibilities will be lost, and the text will not appear ambiguous at all. In other words, in Psalm 90:12 the ESV is unwittingly guilty of the same crime of removing exegetical potential.
As I said in my previous post, a good way for someone unschooled in the biblical languages to get a sense of interpretive possibilities is to consult various translations. Otherwise, the reader will be unaware of most places where interpretive decisions have been made for them, regardless of which translation they are reading. Another good way to learn about interpretive possibilities is to sit under good teaching and preaching, which I believe is very important in the life of the church. In such contexts, essentially literal translations can be very helpful.
4. “Assumption that we can retain the meaning of the original text without retaining its precise words.” Because dynamic equivalence proponents “support their practice with technical linguistic scaffolding,” a field we have noted he is very skeptical of, Ryken has decided to support his argument with some literary theory instead. (Note that he refuses to even engage with the linguistic arguments backing dynamic equivalence. He even dismisses Mark Strauss’ notion that words are “arbitrary and conventional symbols used to signify meaning.” This is a fundamental principle on which all modern linguistics is founded, and Ryken doesn’t seem to understand it properly.) From a literary standpoint, then, he invokes the formula, “The medium is the message.” Dynamic equivalence, he argues, attempts to bypass the medium (words) in an attempt to communicate the message. He says, “The fallacy…is in thinking that we can get the meaning correct if we do not retain the words of the original.” Rather, I would propose that the fallacy is in thinking that a translation can retain the words of the original at all. (See my previous post for more on that.)
Myth #3: Essentially Literal Translation is No More Than Transcription or Transliteration
Ryken provides the following example of a transcription of 2 Tim. 1:13 to prove this point: “Pattern of sound words of which from me you heard in faith and love the in Christ Jesus.” Obviously, the ESV is more sensible than this. Ryken’s argument is correct. The ESV is a translation, not a transcription or transliteration, and this is a caricature that we should avoid.
Myth #4: Essentially Literal Translators Fail to Understand That All Translation is Interpretation
Ryken’s argument in this section depends on a distinction between interpretation of words and of conceptual meaning. By “conceptual meaning,” I suppose he is referring to the meaning of a linguistic structure consisting of more than one word. He affirms that lexical interpretation is necessary in translation, and admits that at this level, essentially literal translations interpret. However, he denies that essentially literal translations interpret beyond the lexical level unless there is no way around it. At this point, I will refer again to my previous post on Wayne Grudem’s chapter, where I discuss the translation of orgē in Rom. 13:4. In this verse, the ESV made an interpretive decision that was not absolutely neccesary, thus violating their own stated priority of translating words rather than broader meaning. Essentially literal translations interpret far more than they tend to admit.
Myth #5: Essentially Literal Translations Are Obscure and Opaque
Ryken points out that dynamic equivalence’s goal of clarity and readability often ignores the fact that the biblical text itself was opaque in many ways. Essentially literal translations don’t make the Bible hard to understand, he argues. The Bible was already hard to understand, even in its original context. Instead, they “pass on the original text as it is.” Ryken’s presentation is far too black and white here. Sure, essentially literal translations do pass on difficulties, as do dynamic equivalence translations. Ryken points out technical terms, OT allusions, and borrowings from Hebrew in the New Testament. These certainly would have been difficult to understand to much of the original audience, especially Gentiles. But to suggest that the modern reader is on the same ground as the ancient one is, for lack of a better term, naive. Many figures of speech, customs, current events, and cultural values distinct to the Greco-Roman world would have been readily understood by anyone living in that place and time, but might well be lost on the modern reader. My conclusion is that while all translations pass on certain difficulties inherent to the original text, essentially literal translations often make the text more obscure to the modern reader than it needs to be.
In summary, of Ryken’s five myths, two of them can be defended as myths. He is correct that essentially literal translation proponents are probably not idolaters. Neither are they guilty of simple transliteration or transcription. However, their approach is in fact naive in some respects, even voluntarily so. In addition, they do regularly interpret beyond the lexical level, despite their stated philosophy. And they do make their text more obscure than it needs to be at times.
This is not to say that the essentially literal approach is useless. I believe it is does have benefits, but it is not perfect. Neither is dynamic equivalence, something Ryken is quick to point out, and in places he is correct. Ryken and others with their feet firmly planted in the essentially literal camp may need to recognize that no translation philosophy is perfect, and most have a unique value and contribution to make.