Review: Leland Ryken, Choosing a Bible

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Leland Ryken's Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences is not really a guide to different Bible translations, as a the title might suggest, but a very short polemic against popular Bible translations that fall under the category commonly known as dynamic equivalence translations (e.g. the New Living Translation and to a lesser degree the New International Version) and in favor of what he calls essentially literal translations (e.g. the New American Standard Bible or Ryken's preferred translation, the English Standard Version). Dynamic equivalence translations are less concerned about matching every word with a word in English (or some smaller unit of meaning) and more interested in capturing the sense or basic meaning of each sentence (or some larger unit of meaning).

I'm generally in agreement with Ryken on some of the issues that drive his arguments in this book, but I think he way overstates his case far too often to give this book a good recommendation. Here is where I agree with Ryken. We ought to be more careful in translating the Bible than some of the more dynamic translations often are. When there is an ambiguity in the text that scholars do not tend to agree on, we should seek to preserve the ambiguity in the translation. When translators can avoid working too much interpretation into their text without sacrificing genuine English language grammar and semantics, they should do so.

However, Ryken does not stop at such moderated claims. He argues that it is always wrong to interpret the text when translating, which is impossible. English words are usually not exactly equivalent in meaning to Greek or Hebrew words, and any translation will be inexact. Sometimes inexactness in one way is better than inexactness in another, but Ryken seems to disallow any interpretation at all, which strikes me as ignoring the fact that translators must interpret before figuring out how to translate. How do you know which words to translate in which ways unless you know what they mean in the particular context? That takes interpretation.

Ryken elevates word meaning over sentence meaning, when the primary unit of meaning in a sentence is the sentence's meaning. He says that we ignore the meaning of words when we concern ourselves with how the syntax or context of a sentence contributes to the meaning of the sentence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Word meaning is part of what determines sentence meaning, but translating word-for-word often obscures the meaning of the sentence.

Consider the difference between "people of color" and "colored people". The former is a positive term adopted by people who wanted themselves referred to that way, after the latter had become tied to negative connotations. Yet they are the same words. In normal English, there is no difference in semantic content between saying someone is a person of courage and saying they are a courageous person. The same is true here, when you just focus on the semantic content of each word. But the two expressions mean very different things, and it isn't because of any grammatical rule about how the words are put together. It's because there's a lot more to the meaning of expressions larger than one-word units than just the meanings of the component words given certain grammatical rules of word-combination.

Ryken's language is often over-the-top. He usually doesn't impugn the motives of those who have different opinions on translation philosophy, but he does misrepresent those different views as leading to inaccuracies in translation. Even if there are cases when they do, he treats all dynamic translation as inaccurate, when sometimes it is much more accurate than an essentially literal translation, because it actually conveys the meaning of the original, when strict word-for-word translation does not.

Often I will agree with his particular examples, but then he generalizes to overarching statements that I find way too far to be justified by the examples he gives. He regularly cites more dynamic aspects of the NIV, giving the misimpression that these cases are standard rather than the more extreme ones. He perpetuates the myth that the TNIV (Today's New International Version, a recent revision of the NIV) is even more dynamic than the NIV, which is actually the opposite of the truth. Over 70% of the changes in the TNIV New Testament go in a more formally equivalent direction, according to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, who actually counted them. (See his review of a longer book by Ryken on the same issue.)

I cannot recommend this book. Even though I appreciate most of the fundamental points he makes, he just goes way too far with them. If I took seriously most of his conclusions and considered their logical implications, I would be left thinking that translation itself destroys the Bible. Most of the things he complains about in dynamic translations are necessary elements of any translation, including those he calls essentially literal such as the ESV. I repeat: every translation does these things regularly. Even the most literal translation of our time, the NASB, does this sort of thing from time to time.

Other translation techniques he critiques are not necessary for translation but will sometimes be the best option even if they will not always be a good idea. His absolutism against any dynamic translation seems to me to be well overstating what the examples he's chosen should show. There are things dynamic translations have to offer, and the best attitude seems to me to recognize a place for the different translations out there based on the different purposes for different translation philosophies, to criticize the particular examples of dynamic translation that are problematic, recognizing the problematic aspects of disguising the sense of the text to retain the form, and to pursue making both kinds of translations better and more accurate for the purposes that each is for.

It's radically unfair to call something inaccurate simply because it focuses more on translating the meanings of idioms rather than preserving dead metaphors that mean little to English speakers who did not grow up in the church. For this reason, while I agree with Ryken's general desire to avoid some of the excesses of dynamic translations in particular cases, and I agree with him on the particulars of translating in many of his particular examples, I cannot conclude that his arguments show anything in principle wrong with dynamic translation, and I cannot see that his general conclusions follow from his arguments. This book, if more moderated in tone and less wide-ranging in its conclusions, could have been a nice, balanced critique of particular problems with dynamic translations that I may not have agreed with in every detail but might have been able to recommend as in the right spirit. But that is not what it is. I don't think it ends up counting as a good book at all, especially for the untrained audience it was designed for.

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Yesterday Jeremy Pierce of the Parableman blog reviewed the book Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences. Jeremy's review is fair, balanced, and temperate in tone. I recommend it for your reading. Jeremy points out that Ryken dimi... Read More

Jeremy Pierce's review of Leland Ryken's book Choosing a Bible, has me thinking about degrees of literalness in Bib... Read More

20 Comments

Thank you for giving such a clear exposé of the poor arguments in this book. But I am puzzled by one point on which you seem to agree with Ryken:

When there is an ambiguity in the text that scholars do not tend to agree on, we should seek to preserve the ambiguity in the translation.

This is a bit like saying that we should give up doing any hard work and seek a free lunch every day. For the cases where it is possible to preserve ambiguity in a translation are about as common and dependable as a free lunch. Just occasionally we can avoid the hard work of providing a proper and meaningful translation by enjoying a free lunch; and when we get a chance this is a good thing to do. But we cannot hope to rely on free lunches on a regular basis.

The problem is that in general different languages are so different that it is simply impossible to preserve the same kinds of ambiguities, except in a few more or less chance cases. This may not quite seem to be true in translating from Greek to English, and indeed there may be a few more cases that in the average translation because English is related to Greek, although rather distantly. But on closer examination many of the supposed cases of preserved ambiguity only seem to work because they have become half-familiar because of past Bible translations; they are only ambiguous because we more or less know what the Bible is supposed to mean. Also in many cases a rendering which supposedly preserves the ambiguity is in fact so unclear and generalised that it allows readers to understand it in far more than two ways, including ways which cannot possibly be the intended meaning of the original text.

Furthermore, preservation of ambiguity in a translation can never be an accurate translation unless the original was ambiguous, in other words it was a deliberate word play. There are a few such cases in the Bible, such as "born again" in John 3:3 which can also mean "born from above" and is probably deliberate word play. But in the great majority of uncertain cases the Bible passage was surely intended to be clear and unambiguous. So if we translate it with ambiguous and unclear wording, our translation is automatically inaccurate by giving the wrong impression that the Bible is unclear and ambiguous. Surely that cannot be the right thing to do!

No, the best thing to do when we come to an uncertain passage is to translate it according to the best exegetical understanding of it, and if there remains a real uncertainty to put the alternative in a footnote.

I know of lots of places where ambiguity can be preserved, and some translations manage to do it while others don't. The NIV sometimes unpacks one element of participles by making them imperatives, but sometimes there are other senses that those participles can have, and you often lose something in the process in terms of the participial connection with the antecedent, especially in the long strings of participles (e.g. in the Eph 5 "filled with the Spirit" passage).

Another example is the very important justification-language in Paul, which the NLT usually interprets as either "made righteous" or "treated as righteous", depending on the context. I prefer a translation that preserves the ambiguity of the original so that I can then do that interpreting work. It's not because I want the free lunch but because I'd like to do some of that work myself. As I said in the review, I have no problem with translators interpreting before giving a translation, but isn't it possible to minimize that to some degree, at least in the most contentious passages?

Keep in mind that this is just one among many preferences, and lots of other preferences, including things you've said, will come into play to outweigh its importance in many cases. But I do want to agree with Ryken that it's sometimes a good thing. Also, I think it's worth saying that the cases I especially have in mind are not the ones the translator is confident about but the ones that a particular translation committee can't agree on or even more importantly when individual translators can't even decide which translation is best.

Personally I find the NET (New English Translation) which has 60,000 translation notes, and can be printed online for free. The translation notes are anywhere, absolutely anywhere scholars disagree they have a note, and even where everyone agrees, but explanation is needed, they give it. For instance the first page of Genesis is two lines of scripture in then like 50 lines of notes. Check it out bible.org

I am in agreement with you on this one Jeremy, I think that when there is disagreement on the meaning of a text preserving the ambiguity is best.

I think that if people want opinions on a text they should look to a good commentary which will explain the possible interpretations and expose the reason for the ambiguity.

If you simply interject your undestanding of the text then the unknowing reader ( who seems to be the one that this kind of clarifying is supposed to help) will accept this as a clear rendering of a clear text. I would rather force those readers that are looking for a free lunch to search out their own than to rely on the lunch that the translator cooked and didn't bother to tell me the ingredients.

Actually, as I've been bringing the NET to Bible study with me it's been surprising how often the notes have nothing at all to say about many of the questions that come up. It's still wonderful to have so many notes with actual reasons given sometimes, but it's certainly nowhere close to the amount of information you can find in a good commentary.

Another place where it's reasonable to preserve ambiguity is in the case of pronouns that have more than one possible antecedent. I've written about 3 examples from the book of Genesis at

http://graceandknowledge.faithweb.com/pronouns.html

Jeremy, I, too, appreciate your review. You have been fair with Ryken's book, pointing out both its pros and cons.

The NIV sometimes unpacks one element of participles by making them imperatives, but sometimes there are other senses that those participles can have

I accept that there are multiple interpretations of the Greek in such places. But translating the Greek participles as English participles is usually highly unnatural in English and is unlikely to allow for all the meanings which a Greek participle might have.

Another example is the very important justification-language in Paul, which the NLT usually interprets as either "made righteous" or "treated as righteous", depending on the context. I prefer a translation that preserves the ambiguity of the original...

What English wording would you suggest that preserves this ambiguity? And don't suggest "justified" because in modern English this word cannot mean "made righteous" although it can just about mean "treated as righteous". I don't believe there is any suitable ambiguous wording.

the cases I especially have in mind are not the ones the translator is confident about but the ones that a particular translation committee can't agree on...

Understood. But if a translation committee can't agree they shouldn't look for a way out in ambiguity but should put one alternative in the text and the other in a footnote.

dmcintos, you have mixed up my "free lunch" metaphor, which is your privilege, but (now following your version of the metaphor) if anyone really wants to know the ingredients of their lunch they can look at the Greek text for the raw ingredients, or at a very literal translation for a half-baked and unpalatable version in which the ingredients might still be more recognisable. But most readers are more interested in a tasty, easily digestible and nourishing lunch than in knowing the exact ingredients.

Doug, you wrote on the page to which you gave us a link: "The sentence should be rewritten to remove this ambiguity." In my opinion this is just as true of a Bible translation as of your example sentence in English. Your biblical examples may only seem to be ambiguous because no proper study has been done of participant references and pronouns in biblical Hebrew. But if a Bible translation team judges them to be truly ambiguous, and the difference to be a significant one, the correct thing to do is to put the alternative in a footnote. It helps no one to attempt to preserve the ambiguity in a translation, even to the limited extent that this is actually possible.

Peter,
I know that I took your free lunch metaphor in a different direction but couldn't resist.
I just see so many preachers,(I am a Pastor) use a combination of translations to present many things that are not nearly true. The blend of dynamic and formal equivalence in both preaching and translations, without making any distinctions can be misleading and even used to deceive.
When we have all these differing methods of translation of the same text in comparing them sometimes we end up with more ambiguity to the readers than the original text contained.
Forgive me for not presenting my arguements in a more disciplined way I am more of a conversationalist than a debator. But if you will let me I will take another lunch metaphor, this one from the scripture in the sense that sometimes we learn something by chewing on the "strong meat" that we will never get from that which has already been chewed up by a translator.

I accept that there are multiple interpretations of the Greek in such places. But translating the Greek participles as English participles is usually highly unnatural in English and is unlikely to allow for all the meanings which a Greek participle might have.

I strongly disagree. I think it's perfectly fine English and not awkward at all. It even makes more sense to me, since it more accurately conveys the grammatical relationship between the words. The atomistic NIV rendering strikes me as something that can genuinely be called inaccurate.

What English wording would you suggest that preserves this ambiguity? And don't suggest "justified" because in modern English this word cannot mean "made righteous" although it can just about mean "treated as righteous". I don't believe there is any suitable ambiguous wording.

In English it can mean both, although in common English at the level of the uneducated, working person it does not. English is much broader than working-class vocabulary allows for, though. This is why I recommend different kinds of translation for different kinds of people. For someone like me who knows the theological debates, which use the English word 'justified' as an English word, thus demonstrating that English contains the word, something like the NASB or ESV is better in one respect (even if it is worse in another respect).

if anyone really wants to know the ingredients of their lunch they can look at the Greek text for the raw ingredients, or at a very literal translation for a half-baked and unpalatable version in which the ingredients might still be more recognisable. But most readers are more interested in a tasty, easily digestible and nourishing lunch than in knowing the exact ingredients.

I think you underestimate how many people want to know the bits, and some of them don't know the original languages well enough to use those kinds of tools. The very popularity of the NASB and ESV is testament to this, even if some of that popularity is for other reasons. I've read enough accounts of people who like those translations for this reason that I think it justifies their existence.

Peter,

I have to conclude that you're right. I wouldn't object to what the NIV did with Gen. 9:27 if the translators had included a footnote alerting the reader that it might actually be God rather than Japheth who would dwell in the tents of Shem.

OK, dmcintos, I accept that chewing on strong meat can be a good thing. There are bad pastors who prepare bad lunches (sermons) from a bad mixture of ingredients of different sources. There are bad cooks who take ready meals and try to make them look like their own creations. Does that mean we should ban ready meals and force people to prepare everything from raw ingredients? Just because there are bad pastors who mix bad sermons out of various translations, does that mean we should ban helpful translations and force everyone to read the raw text?

Jeremy, you wrote "I strongly disagree. I think it's perfectly fine English and not awkward at all."

What exactly are you saying this of? All of the participles in Ephesians 5? Would your translation of vv.18-22 (adapted from RSV) be something like "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives being subject to your husbands, as to the Lord."? To be consistent with the Greek participles and in an attempt to avoid ambiguity, you would have to use English participles all the way through here. And I can't really believe that you would consider this to be good clear and natural English.

"In English it can mean both, although in common English at the level of the uneducated, working person it does not. English is much broader than working-class vocabulary allows for, though."

I strongly disagree. The only people who understand "justify" as "make righteous" are those who have been specifically taught the meaning of the biblical word, as having a sense which you admit is used only in theological debates. The only translations I am interested in are ones which can be understood by those who are not Christians or have recently become so - and by no means only in English. I strongly object to your elitist attitude that English speakers ought to know what a word means even when they don't; English is as she is understood, not as someone thinks she ought to be understood. Anyway if you do render the Greek as "justify" you are not in fact preserving the ambiguity at all for the vast majority of your readership, you are simply giving them an unclear wording which if understood at all means something rather like one of the possible interpretations and not at all like the other one you mentioned. Your option just might work if your target audience is people who already know the Bible backwards and so don't need another translation. But for those who actually need a Bible translation, your attempt at preserving ambiguity completely backfires because it is appreciated only by those who have already studied the theological debates about this word!

I accept that there is a place for translations like NASB, and there would be for ESV if its gender related inaccuracies and persistent abuse of the English language were corrected. But I object to the implication of what you said which seems to be that this is the only proper method of translation, or at least very much the best one.

Peter, on the first issue, I'd leave out the last participle since it isn't in the Greek. The rest sounds pretty good to me and was in fact the very thing I was saying the NIV has failed miserably at capturing. Not only is it perfectly grammatical English, but it captures the meaning of the Greek far better than the atomistic NIV translation that shows no connection between these verbs and simply makes it sound like an unrelated series of commands. Paul is fleshing out what being filled with the Holy Spirit means, and the NIV makes it sound as if he's just telling people to be filled with the Holy Spirit in addition to all these other things.

Now maybe your concern is style, but is there any reason to think such a long string of participles is easier to follow in the Greek than it is in the English? I very much doubt it. It's a difficult sentence to follow in English when translated properly, but that's because it's difficult to follow in the original. How is it bad translation to capture that?

As I've said, my translation preferences vary depending on the kind of translation you're doing, and a translation designed for people learning English as a second language or small children should break things up into smaller sentences. So the NLT, which is designed for a younger age group or lower level of education, might be fine to do something like this. But it's not what I like my primary translation to be like.

The only translations I am interested in are ones which can be understood by those who are not Christians or have recently become so - and by no means only in English.

I think that's your obstacle to understanding what I desire in my primary translation, then. I am a Christian and have not recently become so, and therefore the things I might want in a translation designed for someone in those categories may be vastly different from what I want in the translation I would use the most.

strongly object to your elitist attitude that English speakers ought to know what a word means even when they don't

If you're going to insult me, at least base it in something I said. Since I don't hold the view you are here attributing to me, I think you have failed to support your insult adequately. I've made it very clear in almost all of my discussions of Bible translation that I think different kinds of translations are best for different kinds of people. Since I recommend the NLT for younger children and people learning English as adults and the NIV or TNIV to many adult nonbelievers or new believers (depending on the situation), I'm not sure why I would think such people should learn everything required to understand the ESV or NASB.

But I object to the implication of what you said which seems to be that this is the only proper method of translation, or at least very much the best one.

Again, I do not hold the view you are attributing to me, and so I'm not sure why you're objecting to me about this rather than to someone else who might hold the view in question. Why does preferring my favored translation to be a certain way require seeing that as the best method of translation? I didn't even really argue in all of the cases I mentioned that it is my preferred method of translation, just that there is something lost if you don't do it (even if there's something lost if you do it).

Yeah, well that makes sense. It would make sense that a commentary would have more specific answers to questions. Still, for an accurate idea of what the scripture says, its pretty good. For an explanition of what the heck it means, thats another thing. Haha. :)

Jeremy, thank you for your clarification. I suggested you were elitist on the basis of your comment that "English is much broader than working-class vocabulary allows for, though." I thought you were making the common suggestion that Bible readers should learn a broader vocabulary so that they understand Bible translations, which in conjunction with "working-class" would be an elitist sentiment. I also thought that you were promoting this kind of Bible translation as generally best. But since you have now clarified that you were talking only about translations for your own personal use, I would like to withdraw the word "elitist" with my apologies.

For me the biggest problem is when a translation falls into the hands of a new Christian or an uneducated person.
They have no way of knowing all the reasons for the variations in the translations. I hear all these comments sounding as if we are arguing for someone other than ourselves, which is true.
I went to the trouble of learning Greek, which I did by purchasing college text books and recorded lectures, following a couple of workbooks, and memorizing words while I drove to work.
I by no means am qualified to debate over some of the ambiguities in the text, but I along with everyone else that has posted here did not mind the effort involved in order to acheive the most accurate understanding of the text. But not very many are willing to put out nearly as much effort.


I know that you have alot more people buy bibles than read them, but for those who read casualy I think something like the Message is best since it discribes and follows for the most part the same translation philosopy throughout. For the more formal equivalent their are translations that make claims to such. It is those who are in the middle which has a little of each that are troubling to me.

It is those translations that bounce from formal to dynamic without distinction that I feel misleads the uninformed reader. I know Pastors don't handle the text accurately many times, but then again they don't publish their sermons in a book and call it The Holy Bible.

Peter,
I do not think we should ban translations but to follow your metaphor;
I think we should force translators to list on the outside of the book what recipe they used when they prepared it.

Maybe we need the FDA to look at our translations and force the publishers to list all the ingredients, both the all natural and the artifcial fillers.

dmcintos, most translators do explain their recipe in some detail in the introductions to their translations. But who reads them? Yes, I suppose a summary could be written on the cover, and in some cases it is. But I would hope that most people who buy a Bible will look at a bit more than the cover.

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