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Friday, October 16, 2009


Recovering Respect For Holy Scripture


Dethroning The Dynamic Equivalence Theory

A review of

Leland Ryken Understanding English Bible Translations: The Case For An Essentially
Literal Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009)
208 pp $12.99 ISBN-13: 978-1-4335-0279-8 ISBN-10: 1-4335-0279-8

Reviewer: Forrest Schultz

One of the greatest needs of our time is recovering respect for Holy Scripture. One of the primary factors contributing to the loss of respect for the Scriptures is the dynamic equivalence theory of Bible translation. This cause-and-effect relationship is the thesis of the book under review here. The evidence for this thesis has mounted over the years to the point where it is now conclusive. If anyone is still in doubt about this, I invite him to read Ryken's book. This book clearly shows that in order to recover the appropriate reverence for the Word of God we need to dethrone the dynamic equivalence theory and return to the principles of English Bible translation which were propounded and followed from the beginning up until the d.e. theory began its ruinous reign.

The principles of English Bible translation formerly followed led not only to a great respect for the Bible but to a transformation of the English language itself, which made it into an appropriate vehicle for the production of the great works of English literature we have enjoyed since then. The same thing happened in Germany -- Luther's translation not only produced a magnificent Bible in German, but also revitalized the very German language, which, likewise produced a flowering of great German literature. Now in both these cases, the Bible translators were leaders : they set the standard -- a high standard -- which then was followed. But the dynamic equivalence theory reverses this: instead of leading by setting a high standard for others to follow, it translates the Bible into the most mediocre English it can find. It is not a leader but a follower. What Mortimer Adler said in regard to the Great Books is applicable here: we need something over our heads to lift us up!

Ryken shows that the grandeur of the English formerly used in Bible translations is not only commendable from the literary perspective, but is also essential for communicating the grandeur of the Biblical message. And he shows that the dynamic equivalence translators actually have a disrespect for the words of Scripture, which is clear from the fact that they often produce a translation which does not say what the original text said. As people become aware of this, they no longer can trust the translation if it is produced by a d.e. translator. Ryken also shows how these translators are going beyond translation and into interpretation, i.e. they actually put into their supposed translation the sort of things which are only appropriate for a commentary.

Ryken provides many examples of this, which really need to be read to appreciate the forcefulness of his thesis. He also shows that changing a metaphor into an abstraction, which the d.e. translators often do, can actually change the meaning of the text or cause it to lose its potency. Again, you need to read his book to really feel the impact of this.

And he has some especially good discussions of the fact that, unlike the notion of many d.e. translators, the Bible is NOT a simple book. Therefore there are, of necessity, passages of Scripture which will NOT be easy to understand. The faithful translator will not try to change this difficulty into something easy to grasp, but will translate the verse in such a way that this difficulty is maintained -- he has to do this if he is to translate what is there. The d.e. translators seem to have adopted the preposterous notion that everything in the Bible is intrinsically easy to understand, so that the only reason for a lack of understanding is the translator's fault! One wonders if they have ever read what Peter said about Paul's writings, namely that some of them are hard to understand!!

Ryken quotes from many authorities to substantiate his thesis, with many of these quotes appearing in boxes. Ryken bends over backwards to be fair and not nasty and the sources are likewise polite. One exception, though, from a very sophisticated English poet and playwright, is included: T.S. Eliot minces no words in summarizing the disaster produced by the d.e. fellows: "a sympton of the decay of the English language"..."an active agent of decadence". That is very nasty but, alas, very true and needs to be said.

While I agree with Ryken's thesis and with the principles he sets forth, I personally do not like the term he uses for these principles, namely the "essentially literal" translation philosophy. As a Professor of English he should be able to come up with a better term than that!!


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