Usually I try and keep the book reviews that I do on this blog limited to newer books, or books that a lot of people have not already written on. However, today I am breaking the rules. Today I want to take a look at The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken. I want to do this for a couple of reasons. First, I have the review on file. Second, I think it is important that we all re-think our views on English Bible translations. It is so easy to get caught up in the marketing tactics that publishers use to try and get us to by the version that they print (by the way I don’t blame them, they are trying to run a business). We need take a step back and think critically about what English Bible we are using. Ryken, although I don’t think he gets everything right, helps us to critically think through this issue.
Leland Ryken’s purpose for writing The Word of God in English is straight forward. The very first line of the preface states that “this book has as its purpose to define the translation principles that make for the best English bible translation.” (9) Ryken articulates these principles in part by evaluating the plethora of English bible translations currently available. From the beginning he makes it clear that in his opinion “only an essentially literal translation of the bible can achieve sufficiently high standards in terms of literary criteria and fidelity to the original text.” (10) This statement contains the two primary criteria that Ryken looks at when evaluating English translations: literary excellence and fidelity to the original text.
The primary impetus for this book was “a seismic shift in translation theory and practice [which] occurred in the middles of the twentieth century. Up to that point, most English bible translations had operated on the premise that the task… was to reproduce the words of the original in the words of the receptor language.” (13) This all changed with “Eugene Nida, who championed his theory of ‘dynamic equivalence.’” (13) This new theory was quite a bit different than the former emphasis of accuracy to the original text. Ryken defines it as “a theory of translation based on the premise that whenever something in the native-language text is foreign or unclear to a contemporary reader, the original text should be translated in terms of a dynamic equivalent.” (18)
As Ryken shows at length, the transition that occurred moving toward a dynamic equivalence approach to English Bible translation has created quite a few problems. As Ryken states, the chief problem with dynamic equivalent Bibles is that “they arrogate to translation something that should be left to interpretation and commentary.” (26) Or, to put it another way, they often interpret the original text for the reader instead of conveying it for the reader to interpret.
The thoroughness and straightforwardness of this book make it an important contribution to the field of English Bible translation. With rare exception Ryken thoroughly defines his terms, makes his argumentation clear, uses a vast number of vivid illustrations, and consistently provides specific examples. Additionally, he is straightforward and pointed in his criticism of specific bible translations and the entire dynamic equivalence theory. In chapter seven Ryken makes it clear that how one translates the original text is ultimately and ethical issue. “A translation is not exempt from ordinary ethics of publishing, with its cornerstone of putting before the reader what an author wrote as accurately as possible. It hardly needs to be added that this ethical claim has unique weight when the author in question is God.” (137)
One weakness in this book is Ryken’s tendency to emphasize literary excellence over fidelity to the original text. This does not necessarily mean that Ryken values one over the other, however there are times in the book when he certainly emphasizes one over the other. For instance, in chapter 17 Ryken speaks quite a bit about “tone” and “memorability.” His point is that most modern day translations are lacking in both and for this reason “have given us a Bible that is less exalted than the original.” (270) The problem with this is twofold. First, Ryken compares the modern day bibles to the King James Version rather than the original. He simply does not deal with the “tone” or “memorability” of the original. Secondly, tone and memorability are subjective criteria for evaluating translations. These are minor points that demonstrate a minor flaw in an excellent book.Leland Ryken.
The Word of God in English: criteria for excellence in bible translation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002. 336 pp.