Monday, December 11, 2006

Bible translation: "essentially literal" vs "dynamic equivalence"

I spent about an hour yesterday reading a book titled Translating Truth. It's about Bible translation.

A fascinating group of studies about what the authors call "essentially literal" as opposed to "dynamic equivalence" translation.

I am impressed with what I have learned, as a result of only about an hour's reading, concerning the implications of the choices translators--or, in the case of some, "interpreters" or, as I am beginning to think some are: "ostensible message-conveyers"-- . . . I am amazed at the implications for the reader of the choices these people make.

But the reason for my post here is not to pursue the full range of implications. Rather, I want to focus on one observation. I am struck by the observation that, by seeking to simplify the the process by which a reader may come to understand what the Bible says, dynamic-equivalence translator/interpreters impoverish--or, certainly, threaten to impoverish--the understanding, wisdom, and insight of their readers.

And that same impoverishment threatens consumers in many other areas of life.

Or [new thought as I wrote the last line] . . . does it?

Let me first illustrate the impoverishment associated with Bible translation.

C. John Collins notes some comments by A. J. Krailsheimer, a teacher of French at Oxford, who translated Pascal's Pensées.

One of the reasons Krailsheimer said he believed his translation was necessary had to do with something most previous translators had failed to do: "I know of no other author who repeats the same word with such almost obsessive frequency as Pascal, and failure to render this essential feature of his style makes a translation not only inadequate but positively misleading. Wherever possible, and especially within the same fragment or section, [therefore,] I have used one English word for the same keyword occurring in French."

Collins and other contributors to Translating Truth note that the dynamic-equivalence "translations" of the Bible fail on the very point about which Krailsheimer was so concerned. As a result, readers of these "translations" fail to see some of the very points that the original authors were obviously concerned to convey.

Example: "The verb [meno] ("abide") appears 24 times in 18 verses in 1 John. . . . Believers abide in Christ, in the light, in the Son and in the Father, and not in death; while God, or the word of God, or God's anointing, or eternal life, or the love of God abides in the believer. . . . This repetition is so prevalent that it must be part of the author's intended literary effect." (p. 97)

So, in 1 John 2:24, we read in the English Standard Version (ESV), an "essentially literal" translation,

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.
And in an extreme "dynamic equivalence" version (here, the New Living Translation (NLT))?

So you must remain faithful to what you have been taught from the beginning. If you do, you will continue to live in fellowship with the Son and with the Father.
"The connection that the Greek repetition establishes," Collins notes, "does not come through at all."

The New International Version (NIV) is generally recognized as relatively moderate when it comes to dynamic equivalence v. essential literality. So what happens with the NIV?

See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.
"At least here the repetition comes through," Collins says.
But just a few verses later (2:27-28) we find:
(27) As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in him. (28) And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.
Point of all this?

You lose something in a loose translation.

Collins and other contributors to Translating Truth note that, over the course of an entire Bible translation, loose translation means you lose, among other things,

  • Literary allusions--or, as Collins refers to them, "literary evocations," references to Old Testament concepts and passages not by way of direct quotes but, rather, by use of specific words. When the words "aren't there"--because the "translator" has provided no consistent referent to which one can point--the reader is truly impoverished. S/he cannot acquire the literary knowledge necessary to recognize the allusions . . . because they aren't there. They don't exist.

  • Ambiguities. Where the Scriptures are truly unclear--in 1 John 2:5; 4:9; and 5:3, for example, does hé agapé tou theou ("the love of God") refer to God's love for us or our love for him?--"essentially literal" translations will leave the ambiguity intact. But dynamic equivalence versions make decisions in our behalf. --The decisions on the part of the translator/interpreters make reading easier, but do they mislead? Collins, Grudem, Ryken, and the other authors are in rather strong agreement that the elimination of ambiguity does mislead.

  • Important meaning--the specific words upon which important meanings might rest. Because dynamic equivalence translators say it is the intention and meaning of the author and not the specific words themselves that are important in a translation, the dynamic equivalence translation, shockingly, actually fails to convey meaning.
As Wayne Grudem notes in his opening essay, the Scriptures speak rather forcefully of their faithfulness down to individual words and, if you will, even to individual letters. Thus Proverbs 30:5 says, "Every word of God proves true." And in Matthew 4:4 we read that Jesus said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Moreover, we find
Jesus and the New Testament authors make arguments from the Old Testament that depend on a single word of Scripture. . . . For example, notice Jesus' use of the Old Testament in the following dialogue between himself and some Jewish leaders:
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 'the Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet'"? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" (Matt. 22:41-45).
Grudem also references Matthew 5:18, in which Jesus says, "For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished"; and Galatians 3:16, where "Paul bases an argument on the difference between singular and plural forms of a word:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings,"referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring," who is Christ.
"In this argument Paul depends not on the general thought of an Old Testament passage but on the specific form of one word in the Old Testament."

He then follows Roger Nicole in listing some 20 places "where the argument of Jesus or the New Testament author depended on a single word in the Old Testament . . . : Matthew 2:15; 4:10; 13:35; 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 4:8; 20:42, 43; John 8:17; 10:34; 19:37; Acts 23:5; Romans 4:3, 9, 23; 15:9-12; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Galatians 3:8, 10, 13, 16; Hebrew 1:7; 2:12; 3:13; 4:7; 12:26."

But dynamic equivalence translations, by design, specifically and intentionally "ignore" specific words.

So what does this mean to the reader in practice?

Consider Romans 13:4, in which the Greek word machaira ("sword") appears. A literal translation: "But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [the civil authority] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."

The New Living Translation (NLT) says, "But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong." And the New Century Version: "But if you do wrong, then be afraid. He has the power to punish; he is God's servant to punish those who do wrong." And The Message: "But if you're breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren't there just to be admired in their uniforms."

Grudem comments:
Perhaps supporters of dynamic equivalence translations would respond that "he has the power to punish" is stating the same idea as "he does not bear the sword in vain," but doing it in a contemporary way of speaking about government authority. But is it the same idea? This is one of the primary verses appealed to by Christian ethicists who defend the right of the civil government in the New Testament era to carry out capital punishment. The right to "bear the sword" involves the authority to do exactly what the sword was used for--to put someone to death. . . .

Those who oppose capital punishment argue that Paul mentions the "sword" here only as a symbol of governmental authority and this does not imply the power to take life. People may or may not find this a persuasive explanation of the "sword" in Romans 13:4, but readers of the NLT, NCV, CEV, and The Message cannot even follow the argument. They could never even think of such an argument from this verse, because there is no mention of bearing the sword. "Punishment" might mean only jail time. Or community service. Or a fine.
Grudem concludes, "When I teach ethics, I could never use these dynamic equivalence translations to argue for capital punishment from this verse because they have not translated all the words."

There is more in this relatively thin volume, Translating Truth. But I wanted to give some of the central points I acquired in my hour of reading.



I want to note that, despite comments of various reviewers on the Amazon website, it seems to me the authors of Translating Truth are very careful to note potential positive values for the dynamic equivalence translations. Writes Collins, for example:
We cannot answer the simple question, which is the best approach to translation? We must instead qualify it: best for what purpose? I have argued that the essentially literal translation, carefully defined, is the kind of translation that best suits the requirements for an ecclesiastical translation, and for family reading and study. This is because . . . it . . . aims to provide a translation that perseveres the full exegetical potential of the original, especially as it conveys such things as text genre, style, and register, along with figurative language, interpretive ambiguities, and important repetitions. Of course this lays a heavier burden on the reader to learn about the shared world and its literary conventions, and we might decide not to lay this burden on the outsider to the Christian faith in our outreach (though we should make it clear that the burden exists). (p. 105)
Or Grudem:
[I]n actual practice every dynamic equivalence translation still has a lot of "word-for-word" renderings of individual words in the biblical text. And every essentially literal translation has some amount of "paraphrase" where a woodenly literal translation would be nearly incomprehensible to modern readers and would hinder communication rather than helping it.
[Grudem illustrates this latter point by reference to the difficulty of translating splagchma--"which refers to the inward parts of the body, especially the stomach and intestines . . . [and can be used] metaphorically to [refer] to the seat of inward emotions or to the emotions themselves, especially love, sympathy and mercy."

So Philemon 7, in the King James, reads, "For we have great joy and compassion in thy love, because the [splagchma] of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother."

Should a modern translator do as the King James translators and make it sound as if Paul was referring, somehow, to Philemon's wonderful colonic irrigation system: " . . . the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee"?

Grudem suggests not:
The word "bowels" is not appropriate because it has come to be used in modern English almost exclusively to refer to the intestines and the discharge of bodily waste, a sense readers in 1611 would not have given it in a verse like this. Even translating it as "the intestines of the saints have been refreshed by you," or "the internal organs of the saints have been refreshed by you," would not help modern readers, because these highly literal renderings would seem more physiological or medicinal than emotional. For that reason nearly all modern translations (including some current printings of the KJV itself) have changed to "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you" (ESV). This still talks about an internal origin (the heart) but does so in terms of an image that modern readers easily understand. (p. 24)]
And so, as Grudem notes (and as I prefaced this section), "every essentially literal translation has some amount of 'paraphrase'" in it.


There are a number of practical implications of what I have noted in this post. I hope to address them in the future.
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