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.