The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken

Leland Ryken is a professor of English at Wheaton College and a well-known literary critic and scholar. His interest in the translation of Scripture into English was enriched and heightened when he served on the translation committee for the English Standard Version. He writes, “On the basis of that inquiry, I ended with a belief that only an essentially literal translation of the Bible can achieve sufficiently high standards in terms of literary criteria and fidelity to the original text. Consequently, I have ended with a deep-seated distrust of how dynamic equivalent translations treat the biblical text” (p. 10). This thorough, well-written volume is a polemic supporting this conviction. As a literary scholar, Ryken’s interest lies with the English text rather than the handling of the original Greek and Hebrew. His concern is that, in an attempt by modern translators to provide a readable English Bible, they (those following the dynamic equivalence theory) have too often obscured the true meaning, unnecessarily “dumbing-down” the words and syntax and obliterating its beauty. The result is a Bible that is easier to read but is not always accurate to the actual God-inspired words or meanings and that loses the grandeur and majesty intended.

The dynamic equivalent translations most often addressed by Ryken are the New International Version, The Living Bible,Today’s New International Version, New Living Translation, New Revised Standard Version, Good News Bible, New English Bible, and Revised English Bible. The Message also gets occasional mention.

At the other end of the spectrum is what Ryken terms “essentially literal” (which is a better description than “word-for-word”) translations such as theNew American Standard Bible, King James Version, the New King James, the Holman Christian Standard Bible and his favorite, the English Standard Version.

Dynamic equivalent versions have won the day primarily due to common fallacies accepted by modern translators, so argues Ryken. He offers three excellent chapters to demolish these fallacies: chapter four deals with fallacies about the Bible itself, chapter five with translation, and chapter six with misunderstandings about modern readers. Rather than translation being controlled by these fallacies Ryken believes it should be controlled by theological, ethical and hermeneutical issues: the subject of chapters nine and ten. Theologically, it should be the authority and inspiration of the Bible that guide translators. Hermeneutically, it is the job of the translator to provide the biblical author’s meaning of the text, not to supplant it or interpret it. Ryken believes “dynamic equivalence is on a collision course with these hermeneutical principles” (p. 153).

As an English professor and literary scholar, it is not surprising that Ryken has much to say about Scripture as literature. He believes that “the beauty and artistry of expression are important to literature” (p. 163) and the same is true of the Bible as a literary work. Dynamic equivalent translations tend to obliterate, or at least diminish, these qualities. Much of the last half of the book tackles this issue in one form or another. I particularly enjoyed the author’s support of metaphorical language which, in the original, is found throughout the Bible and should be preserved in any translation. When modern translations attempt to reduce metaphor, mistakenly believing that today’s readers cannot handle it, the Bible is “impoverished (see pp. 201-211). Nor has the elimination of hard biblical terms, such as “propitiation”, served the reader well (pp. 206-207). And Ryken has strong words for those translators who turn poetry into prose (pp. 211-214), since the Bible is approximately one-third poetry (pp. 243-256).

“The implied thesis of this entire book is that an English Bible translation must be faithful to the original text of the Bible” (p. 217). Ryken’s argument is that dynamic equivalent translations have played fast and loose with this thesis. The Word of God in English is full of examples and comparisons drawn from the various translations showing the superiority of the essentially literal approach.

All in all Ryken has provided a very interesting, informative and thought-provoking book, well worth pondering for all who love God’s Word. One drawback is that the author is not a Hebrew or Greek scholar and thus lacks a full appreciation of the difficulty of the translator’s task. He is a literary expert and approaches his subject from that angle. I would encourage those who want to seriously pursue the understanding of translating the Bible into English to read Ryken but to augment his work with those by experts in the original languages.

The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 336 pp., paper $11.99.

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