Leland Ryken, Wheaton College
Prior to 2001, Dr. Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, served on the translation committee as their literary stylist for the 2001—English Standard Version. He has penned numerous books on the different theories of Bible Translation: such as The Word of God in English and Understanding English Bible Translation. Christian Publishing House has posted several articles in defense of the literal translation being the preferred Bible for study and research, as well as daily reading and memorization, has often referred to Ryken’s books. In fact, he has penned numerous articles for our magazine. In the last seven decades, dynamic equivalent (thought-for-thought) translation advocates have flooded the market with easy to read Bible translations that focus on the reader, not the text, which has literally threatened the integrity of God’s Word, and Ryken, has been at the forefront of defending the arguments the dynamic equivalent advocates have raised. Critics have accused him of misleading the reader by not giving all the facts—being unbalanced or subjective in his views—as he is clouded by his personal opinions. Others claim that his reasoning is not rational. Bible Translation Magazine has interviewed Professor Ryken to learn why his books and articles have caused such a stir.
Below is the conversation Bible Translation Magazine (BTM) had with Dr. Ryken:
CPH: What is the goal of Bible translation?
Leland Ryken: The goal of Bible translation is to take readers as close as possible to the actual words that the biblical authors wrote. The translation process that this viewpoint produces is called verbal equivalence, which means that every word in the original Hebrew or Greek text is rendered by an equivalent or corresponding English word or phrase. The goal of Bible translation is: be transparent to the original text—to see as clearly as possible what the biblical authors actually wrote.
CPH: What is the process of Bible translation?
Leland Ryken: Bible translation starts by ascertaining what Hebrew or Greek manuscript family comes closest to what the biblical authors wrote. Since no copies of the original manuscripts exist, this first step is not as easy as one would hope. Secondly, there is the lexical question of what the words in the Hebrew and Greek texts meant when the authors wrote. Thirdly, translators need to determine the most accurate English words and phrases by which to render the Hebrew and Greek words. This includes (a) avoiding English words that have the wrong meanings and connotations, and (b) choosing the most accurate English words and phrases.
CPH: Why is there always a need for new translations?
Leland Ryken: The need for new translations arises from the nature of language. Language is always in the process of changing. New words enter the vocabulary of every language. Words that are no longer regularly used become obsolete and archaic. Often the meanings of words change. Even fashions in syntax (the order of items in a sentence) can change. Eventually, these changes produce a situation in which evolving language moves out from under every translation.
CPH: What is the basic history of the English Bible?
Leland Ryken: Before I note the landmark Bible translations, I need to say something about the philosophy of translation that dominated English Bible translation from the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century. No major translation between Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 and the RSV of 1952 deviated from the view that the goal of English Bible translation is to provide a corresponding English word or phrase for every word in the Hebrew or Greek texts of the Bible. Tyndale coined many English words in order to render exactly what the Hebrew and Greek texts contained. The history of English Bible translation as we know it began with William Tyndale. Five translations stand between Tyndale and the King James Version of 1611. The most important of them was the Geneva Bible of 1560. The King James Version then completely dominated the scene until the middle of the twentieth century, when a new translation philosophy known as dynamic equivalence swept the field, though of course there remained advocates of essentially literal translation. After half a century of dominance by dynamic equivalence, the pendulum began to swing back in the direction of verbal equivalence at the turn of the century.
CPH: What are the differences among an interlinear translation, a literal translation, a dynamic equivalent translation, and a paraphrase?
Leland Ryken: Those four categories name the continuum from literal to free. An interlinear translation is completely literal concerning both vocabulary and syntax. An essentially literature translation gives an English equivalent for every word in the original, resorting to a substitute only when a literal rendering makes no sense. Dynamic equivalent translators feel no obligation to find an English equivalent for every word in the original Hebrew and Greek texts; if the text says “he anoints my head with oil,” a dynamic equivalent translation might read “he treats me as an honored guest.” Paraphrases often bear little resemblance to what the biblical authors wrote (for example, the statement in Psalm 19 that God’s law is “sweeter than honey” becomes “you’ll like it better than strawberries in spring” (The Message).
CPH: What is the difference between what a text says and what a text means?
Leland Ryken: What a text says is what the author wrote, rendered into the best English equivalent. Translators divide on the question of what the text means. Essentially literal translators assume that a biblical author meant what he said, so if they give an English equivalent of the words of the original author, they have also stated the author’s meaning. Dynamic equivalent translators operate on the premise that meaning exists independent of the words of the original author. The most helpful way of understanding this is that dynamic equivalent translators feel free to add the activities of a commentator or interpreter to the task of translation. That is really the crux of the difference between the rival translation philosophies. I myself believe that it is inaccurate to call a dynamic equivalent Bible a translation; it is a translation plus a commentary plus the product a heavy editorial hand. To illustrate, Philippians 4:1 contains the phrase “my joy and crown.” Essentially literal translators believe that those words contain what the author meant. Dynamic equivalent translators abandon the words of the original (“joy and crown”) and substitute an exposition of the original text: “how happy you make me, and how proud I am of you” (Good News Bible).
CPH: Those who favor dynamic equivalence say that “all translation is interpretation.” Is this true?
Leland Ryken: The motto that “all translation is interpretation” is the most abused formula in translation, and a moratorium should be called on its use. All translation is lexical interpretation, that is, deciding what English word or phrase best expresses the Hebrew or Greek word in the original text. However, this is not what dynamic equivalent translators chiefly have in mind. What they mean by the phrase is that all translators add commentary to what the Hebrew and Greek texts say. This is patently untrue of essentially literal translations.
CPH: At what point does a translation infringe on the intention of the author?
Leland Ryken: Let me begin by describing the history of dynamic equivalence. When Eugene Nida’s new philosophy became the norm in the middle of the twentieth century, the very newness of the venture served as a curb on taking excessive liberty with the biblical text. The original NIV of 1978 is a conservative version of dynamic equivalence. In passing, I will say that despite the fact the original NIV is a relatively mild form of dynamic equivalence, I lay a lot of blame on the NIV for having gotten the direction of modern Bible translation set in the wrong direction. Once the NIV made dynamic equivalence “mainstream,” we can trace an arc of increasing departure from what the original authors wrote in this family of Bible translations. As I look at this arc of increasing distance from the Hebrew and Greek texts, I infer that the quest to be new and different became part of the picture. Successive waves of translators seem to have set out to see how innovative (and in some cases daring) they could be. The ultimate terminus of this is, of course, Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
To return to the original question, I believe that the moment translators adopt dynamic equivalence as their methodology they have infringed on the biblical authors’ intention. Surely, the biblical writers wrote what they intended to write (and us to read). I have often wondered how dynamic equivalent translators would respond if others did with their scholarly writings what these translators do with the biblical authors. I think they would go into orbit.
CPH: What are some liberties that dynamic equivalent translators take?
Leland Ryken: They are well documented in both the practice of dynamic equivalent translators and in their statements of philosophy. Here are the liberties that dynamic equivalent translators regularly take:
(1) replace what the original authors wrote with something else (e.g., where the text says “establish the work of our hands,” dynamic equivalent translations substitute “let all go well for us”);
(2) change figurative statements into direct statements (again a substitution);
(3) add interpretive commentary to what the biblical authors wrote, so readers do not know what was in the original and what was added;
(4) make the style of the English Bible contemporary and colloquial;
(5) reduce the vocabulary level of the original text;
(6) bring masculine gender references into line with modern feminist preferences. In all these ways, dynamic equivalent translations give the public a substitute Bible. I would also assert that the original authors of the Bible had the resources to state their content the way dynamic equivalent translators state it, but instead, they stated it as we find in the original texts of the Bible. Dynamic equivalent translators take a condescending view of the authors of the Bible, treating them like inept writers who couldn’t state things accurately and therefore need correction.
CPH: What can you say about dynamic equivalence and the “dumbing down” in American culture?
Leland Ryken: Dynamic equivalence is a particular manifestation of the whole drift of American culture during that past half century. As a culture, we have been conducting an experiment in reducing expectations and standards. I will note in passing that the stylistic level of easy-reading Bibles is exactly the same as what has happened to Christian music and church services. When we consult the prefaces to dynamic equivalent translations, we find that the translators are explicit about the assumed low level of linguistic and intellectual level of their readers. The sixth-grade threshold is widely accepted in these prefaces. The logical conclusion is that readers cannot be educated beyond a sixth-grade level. I would raise the question, In what other areas of life are we content with a sixth-grade level of attainment?
CPH: Has the dumbing down of Bible translations produced the well-attested biblical illiteracy that we find in the church and in the culture at large?
Leland Ryken: Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of easy-reading translations. When I read these translations and (even more), hear them read in public, I feel a great letdown and say to myself that such a Bible does not capture my heart and allegiance. A translation that reads like the chatter at the corner coffee shop is given the type of credibility that the chatter is given. But quite apart from that, we need to acknowledge the damage done by the proliferation of Bible translations. With so many contradictory renditions of the biblical text, the public has lost confidence that we can actually know what the Bible says. It is an easy step from this skepticism to an indifference about what the Bible says.
CPH: What responsibility lies with the reader?
Leland Ryken: Readers should aspire to what is excellent. They should refuse to read a substitute Bible. They should want a Bible that calls them to their higher selves—or to something higher than their current level of attainment. I was raised on the King James Version. As a youngster, I did not suffer from a great burden of unintelligibility in regard to the KJV. I did not understand every word, but I remember experiencing that as something desirable. I sensed that someday I would understand the words.
CPH: What about the greater difficulty of a translation like the New King James Version or the English Standard Version as opposed to easy reading translations, particularly with regard to children or people new to the Bible?
Leland Ryken: I believe that we should not immediately put an easy reading Bible into the hands of these groups. My question has always been, What good is readability if what we are reading is not what the original authors wrote? The Bible is not an easy book to read and understand. It does not carry all its meaning on the surface. As a result, a process of education is always going to be part of understanding the Bible. The danger of giving an easy reading translation to someone is that the person will never move beyond it. Also, let me ask my question again: in what other areas of life are we content with a sixth-grade level of comprehension? Finally, in my experience, children fare just fine with the NKJV and the ESV. The difficulties have been greatly exaggerated. The latter named translations are also much easier to memorize.
CPH: How is a literal translation more faithful to the text than dynamic equivalent translations?
Leland Ryken: An essentially literal translation allows us to see what the biblical authors actually wrote. Much of the time dynamic equivalent translations substitute something in place of what the authors wrote. The prefaces to these translations are often quite explicit that the translators felt no obligation to give an English equivalent of what the biblical authors wrote. I personally experience dynamic equivalent translations as an organized conspiracy to prevent readers from knowing what the biblical authors wrote. As the years roll by, dynamic equivalent translations remove the Bible reading public farther and farther from the actual text of the Bible.
CPH: How does a dynamic equivalent translation deprive readers of the full interpretive potential of the original text?
Leland Ryken: Dynamic equivalent translations regularly make preemptive interpretive strikes, thereby removing the reader’s ability to know what the original authors wrote and what the interpretive options are. Additionally, the more literary a text is, the more likely it is to embody multiple meanings in a given detail in the text. Dynamic equivalent translators regularly reduce the multiple meanings to one by the way they translate a passage. Dynamic equivalent translations are one-dimensional in places where the original is multi-dimensional. Dynamic equivalent translators are like the priests in the Middle Ages: they dole out to the public their preferred interpretation of the biblical text in a misguided effort to protect the public from what they think are incorrect interpretations.
CPH: How are most dynamic equivalent translations like a commentary rather than a translation?
Leland Ryken: They are like a commentary because they have an abundance of exposition or explanation mingled right in the text. Sometimes this commentary takes the form of a substitution (for example, “my feet had nearly slipped” is translated as “my faith was almost gone”). The other practice is to add an explanation to what the biblical authors wrote, as when the original says “my cup overflows” and a translation adds “my cup overflows with blessings.”
CPH: Do you see any usefulness in dynamic equivalent translations?
Leland Ryken: I do, but not as a translation of the original text. I cannot trust dynamic equivalent translations to tell me what the biblical authors wrote. I can use them as commentaries. They give me a menu of options concerning the possible meanings of a biblical passage. However, note that I said “menu of options.” Dynamic equivalent translations are less helpful than regular commentaries because they give such a wide range of renditions of many passages. They are all over the board. Therefore, I occasionally consult a few dynamic equivalent translations when I find a difficult passage, but I am more inclined to consult the footnotes in a good study Bible.
CPH: At what point does a translation become too literal?
Leland Ryken: A translation needs to make sense in English. If the original text contains idiomatic constructions that had an understood meaning in the original context but that make no sense in English, of course, translators need to “go dynamic.” But essentially literal translators do this only in extreme situations—situations that are so few that they are perhaps statistically insignificant. Essentially literal translators regard most idiomatic constructions as figurative or poetic statements that need to be preserved, not as foreign idioms that need to be eliminated. I will just add in passing that dynamic equivalent translators have a uniformly low view of poetry and figurative language.
CPH: Which translation do you regard as most trustworthy and excellent?
Leland Ryken: I am a member of the translation committee of the English Standard Version, and I highly prefer it. It has a double superiority over other translations. First, it is accurate because it gives an equivalent English word or phrase for everything that biblical authors wrote. At this level of accuracy, I have equal confidence in the New American Standard Bible and the New King James Version. But the ESV has a stylistic superiority over those two translations. The ESV retains the stylistic excellence of the King James Version and flows beautifully.