Has the Word of God Been Watered Down?

by Ted Kyle

It is not often that truly landmark books appear on the scene. One cluster of such books-for instance, Eugene Nida's [with Charles Taber] The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969) championed "dynamic equivalence" in Bible translation. In the intervening years, his principles have largely swept the field, leaving the New International Version (NIV) and other "thought for thought" translations victors over the King James Version (KJV) and other "essentially literal" translations.

Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College, now feels with other scholars that the ascendancy of dynamic equivalence has resulted in the impoverishment of God's Word for a multitude of general readers. The chief cause for this impoverishment lies in the dynamic equivalence technique of choosing one of the often multiple possible meanings of each text and presenting it to the reader as his only choice. In his book, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation, Ryken notes that the reader is never informed that these choices are being made for him, nor that other possible understandings have been ignored.

Consequently, the reader is left with only the "simplified" text, and a great many of the "deep things of God" have been turned into shallow ponds. "Readers of English translations operate on the premise that they are reading what the original text says," the author comments (p. 291). "With some translations, they are frequently misled and in some cases virtually deceived."

So serious does this situation seem to Prof. Ryken that he charges dynamic equivalence translators "have themselves become the counterparts to medieval Roman Catholic priests" (p. 78). How? By taking to themselves the mantle of commentators as well as translators. "The reader is just as surely removed from the words of the text as the medieval Christian was."

Also lost in many cases from the original, he asserts, are metaphors and other figures of speech, the "exalted language" of earlier translations, the beauty of poetic utterances, and the layers of meaning inherent in the original languages. Virtually everything, which enriched the older translations, has been "simplified" into bland, pedestrian statements.

The author also takes to task dynamic equivalency's basic assumption that modern readers cannot or will not be able to read the Bible if it is left in essentially literal form. People, he says, are capable of "rising to the occasion," provided they want to. He notes, in this connection, that the King James Version was intended to make it possible for every plowman in England-certainly less well-educated than most Americans-to read the Word for himself. And if readers need help to understand certain passages, that is the proper role of preachers and commentators.

Prof. Ryken does not argue for the inviolability of the King James Version, but he does give it very high marks. Other "essentially literal" versions which earn his respect are the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which was reissued in 1995, and the newest version, the English Standard Version (ESV). (Prof. Ryken served as literary stylist for the ESV.)

Ryken meets one of the principles of dynamic equivalency head-on when he asserts, "the whole premiseis faulty."

The preface to the Good News Bible claims that the first step in translation is to "understand correctly the meaning of the original: and then to render it in "language that is natural, clear, simple, and unambiguous." But when the meaning of the original is multiple, ambiguous, and complicated, to render it "simple and unambiguous" is precisely not to understand correctly the meaning of the original (page 237).

(By "ambiguity" Prof. Ryken means "a refusal to limit an utterance to just one meaning when the experience entails more than that; open endedness of meaning or application; and preservation of a degree of mystery." He agrees that lack of ambiguity is a virtue of ordinary expository writing, but stresses that the Bible is a literary work, which must be treated accordingly-just as all classic literature deserves to be handled. )

Among the high costs of wholesale adoption of dynamic equivalence Ryken lists these:
Memorization has become a casualty, since there no longer is a "standard" translation.

Expository preaching has taken a major hit. Who can tell which is the "right" translation to expound?

The authority of the Word has been brought into serious question, for the same reason.

Picking on the most radical of current dynamic equivalent translations, The Message, Ryken quotes its translation of Ps.32: 1,2:"Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be-you get a fresh start," contrasted with the KJV's "Blessed is he whose transgressions is forgiven, whose sin is covered." Ryken wryly comments:" Forgiveness of sins has degenerated into getting lucky with God."

While The Message radically departs from the original words, Ryken notes it is only developing a freedom opened by the NIV and others of the genre.

The Bible, Ryken asserts, is the Word of God. We received it as words, and these words are important. "There is no such thing as disembodied thought." Certainly, the original languages need to be translated into understandable English for English-speaking readers. What we do not need, he stresses, are translations to the lowest common denominator of comprehension.

For countless generations, the Bible has helped readers raise themselves above the barely-literate level, and we do them no favors by stooping to this level in translation.

It is my belief that The Word of God in English has the potential to be another watershed book. It has proved such for me, for Ryken has taken all my uneasy but formless fears about what has happened to our Bible in English and given them form.

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