Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wise words on Bible translations and translating

Craig Blomberg's review of Leland Ryken's The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation makes some excellent points about Bible translation in a short space. It contains interesting comments about the NIV and TNIV, including this:
But it is when Ryken attempts to make generalizations about a wide variety of translations that are all lumped together under the heading of dynamic equivalence that more serious problems result. Far more helpful are approaches that speak of a spectrum of translations from the most literal to the most free and then place each translation at its appropriate point on the spectrum.

Ryken does acknowledge early on that the NIV is the most conservative of the dynamic equivalence translations, but even that is not quite an accurate summary.

Independent analysts have more helpfully described it as attempting to carve out a middle position between the purer forms of consistently literal and consistently dynamic equivalent translations. As someone who most often uses the NIV for public ministry and has read the entire New Testament in comparison with the Greek, I can attest that it is closer to an "essentially literal" translation in far more instances than than those in which it resembles the "pure" dynamic-equivalence model of Eugene Nida, the Good News Bible and the United Bible Societies' numerous other modern-language translations (the real target of Ryken's book, it would seem).

By consistently citing the minority of places where the NIV is freer, Ryken creates a warped and unduly negative view of the translation overall. Sadly, Ryken falls prey to the common, recent misconception of the TNIV as freer still. Whatever one thinks about the use of inclusive language for generic masculine terminology in Scripture for humanity (and it is clear Ryken doesn't think very much of it), it remains a fact that more than 70% of the changes in the TNIV from the NIV have nothing to do with gender. In those changes, the TNIV moves back in the direction of a more essentially literal rendering three times as often as it moves in the direction of a more dynamically equivalent rendering. I know; I have counted them!

On the other hand, it is also a bit unfair to criticize versions at the freest end of the spectrum, most notably the old Living Bible Paraphrased (LBP) and Eugene Peterson's more recent "The Message." Neither of these versions even claims to be dynamically equivalent. The Old Living Bible was a paraphrase, pure and simple, based on the English ASV, authored by Ken Taylor, to make the Bible come alive for his kids.

It was, quite frankly, the only thing that got me regularly reading Scripture as a newly converted fifteen-year old in 1970. I was bright enough to manage the NASB or RSV (the only other more literal options apart from the KJV in those years); they just never "grabbed" me. Years later I relished the chance to work on the NLT (New Living Translation) team to convert the LBP into a truly dynamic-equivalent translation, but I never recommend it to anyone except to supplement the reading of a more literal translation to generate freshness and new insights, unless they are kids or very poor adult readers. My sixteen- and twelve-year old daughters have been weaned on the NLT and have loved it, but both already on their own are now frequently turning to the NIV. As for "The Message," it is freer even than a paraphrase--I think of it more as devotional literature than as a version of the Bible and wouldn't recommend it for any other role.

But repeatedly, in Ryken's illustrations, the NIV is lumped together with the LBP, NLT or "The Message," when it is overall in fact far closer to the more essentially literal translations Ryken commends than to these other three.

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