Understanding English Bible Translation
- Tuesday, December 15, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from "Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach" by Leland Ryken (Crossway).
Overview of Issues
The issues underlying Bible translation have always been momentous, technical, and complex. But until the mid-twentieth century, English Bible translators worked within a consensus regarding the goals and methods of Bible translation. Translators had a clear and relatively simple picture in their minds of what they wanted to achieve. Certainly they did not operate in a context of two rival translation philosophies that prevails today.
Everything changed with the advent of dynamic equivalence as a theory and practice of English Bible translation. Part 1 of this book provides initial clarity to a complex field.
Chapter One: Understanding English Bible Translation
The translation scene has been in a state of flux for at least a decade. Important developments have occurred since the publication of my first book on English Bible translation, The Word of God in English, and this book takes those developments into account.
With a suddenness that remains a mystery, in the middle of the last century principles of translation that had been virtually unchallenged for centuries suddenly became passé for a majority of translators. A new "orthodoxy" swept the field, and much of what I say in this book will be a critique of that philosophy.
With the dawn of the current century, the new "orthodoxy" itself lost its position of unquestioned dominance. To many Bible readers it is no longer self-evident that translators should feel free to give English readers a substitute for the actual words of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The premise that readers and market research should determine how the biblical text is translated has become highly suspect for many Bible readers. Even readers who continue to prefer dynamic equivalent translations are generally better informed about what kind of Bible they hold in their hands than they were a decade ago.
The translation scene is not only in transition; it is also highly splintered. On one side, dynamic equivalent translations can be plotted on an arc of increasing boldness in departing from what the original biblical text actually says, starting with the NIV and culminating in The Message. This family of translations is itself so diverse that it has produced the phenomenon of a destabilized Bible.
On the other end of the continuum, several essentially literal translations have recently appeared and have together diminished the stature that the NIV had enjoyed for three decades. D. A. Carson has correctly identified the rise of linguistic conservatism as one of the new developments of the past quarter century.
Defining the Terms of the Debate
The best quick introduction to the issues involved in English Bible translation today is a listing of the concepts that underlie translation, accompanied by definitions of the key terms. Virtually all of these terms originated in the last half century, a fact that signals the degree to which English Bible translation entered a new era in the middle of the twentieth century.
Receptor language: the language into which a text written in a foreign language is translated.
Donor language: the original language in which a text is written.
Native language: synonymous with donor language—the original language in which a text is written.
Dynamic equivalent: a meaning in the receptor language that is equivalent to (but not identical with) a meaning in a native-language text; for example, the "heart" as the modern way of denoting the essence of a person, especially the emotions, which for the ancients was situated in the kidneys.
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