Tuesday, August 2

Book Review: Choosing a Bible

Understanding Bible Translation Differences by Leland Ryken, reviewed as part of a program at The Diet of Bookworms.

This booklet is a short argument for the superiority of translations of the formal equivalence type, or as Ryken prefers to call them, essentially literal translations, over the dynamic equivalence type. I share Ryken's preference for more formal equivalence in translation, so as a whole I agree with the conclusion he comes to in this book.

However, I believe that Ryken often overstates his case and his argument is weaker for it. It may be that this overstatement results because only thirty pages are used to make an argument on a subject as complex as translation differences, and as a result the issues are oversimplified so that shades of grey appears to be only black and white.

For instance, while it may be true that for most people a formal equivalence type of translation is the best choice, there are cases in which I'd recommend the use of one of the better dynamic equivalent translations. When I study a particular Bible passage in depth, for example, I use two dynamic equivalent versions along with several of the more formal equivalent type, and sometimes a dynamic translation will get at what I believe to be the author's intended meaning of a statement in a way that the formal ones can't. Used like that, a dynamic translation is a helpful Bible study tool.

I've done some work with young people with reading difficulties, too, and I know that there are those who will never reach the point where they can read and comprehend one of the formal equivalent versions of the Bible, and this is another case in which I would have no qualms about recommending the use of the NIV* or even the children's NIV. I'm convinced that more strange teaching is put forward by people who don't have the comprehension skills to understand the text in the more formal translation they're reading than by those whose thought-for-thought translation leads them off in the wrong direction.

The other difficulty I had with the way Ryken makes his case is that in several instances (and in such a short book, several instances counts for a lot), his examples don't show what he wants them to show, or at least I couldn't see that they did. As a case in point, one of the strengths of formal equivalence translations that Ryken lists is that they preserve "the dignity and beauty of the Bible." This is probably a fair statement, although I might argue that my personally preferred translation, the trusty NASB, is just a little choppy in places. However, the illustrations Ryken has chosen to use to show that the formal translations are more dignified and beautiful than the dynamic equivalent ones aren't particularly convincing.
In an essentially literal translation you will find the awe-inspiring lead-in, "Truly, truly, I say to you" (ESV), not a translation that has scaled the voltage down to "I tell you the truth" (NIV), or "I tell you for certain" (CEV)....
I love awe-inspiring phrases as much as anyone (Try messing with the phrase "in the fullness of time" and you'll find that out!), but I don't see much of a drop on the voltmeter in this particular example.

All that said, it does bother me that so many people think there are no differences of consequence between the various versions and even paraphrases of the Bible. Choosing a Bible is a useful summary of the arguments for the superiority of formal equivalency over dynamic equivalency. Since most people wouldn't take the time to read something more in-depth and thorough on the subject, there are cases where I might recommend this booklet as a useful tool in alerting people to the issues involved when choosing a Bible translation.

You'll find more reviews of this book at the Diet of Bookworms.

You can read J. Mark Bertrand for a little more on the tension between reading accessibility and formal accuracy in Bible translation.

[Update 2: Wayne Leman comments on this subject, too.]

*Ryken considers the NIV to be a dynamic equivalence translation. I think I agree with him on that, but there are some who disagree with this assessment.

Update: I've put a Bible version poll in the sidebar. Vote your preference there. The list comes from Choosing a Bible. The first six are translations Ryker would consider essentially literal. The next 4 would be ones he considers dynamic translations. The last one is a paraphrase.

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