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The Bible Translation Debate
UNTIL THE MIDDLE OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, all major English Bible translations were based on the premise that the goal of Bible translation is to take the reader as close as possible to the words that the biblical authors actually wrote. William Tyndale, the fountainhead of English Bible translation, even made-up English words like intercession, atonement, scapegoat, and Passover in order to do justice to the very words of the biblical text.
Equally, striking are the italicized words in the King James Version. Surely, many English readers are mystified by the italicizing of words and phrases in the KJV. Following the lead of the Geneva Bible (1560), the King James translators were so scrupulous about keeping the record clear as to what the biblical authors actually wrote that they italicized words that the translators added for the sake of clarity or fluency in English. By contrast, modern dynamic equivalent translators hope to keep readers in the dark regarding changes that have been made to the original. If that seems like a doubtful statement, I will just adduce the example of a colleague of mine who was given permission to produce an interlinear version of the NIV New Testament. A high-ranking person in the publishing house expressed surprise that this permission had been granted, since it would show at once how many words in the NIV have no corresponding word in the Greek original.
Exactly what happened in the middle of the twentieth century?
Before the rise of dynamic equivalent translations, all major translations were based on the principle of essentially literal translation, also known as verbal equivalence. This translation philosophy strives to give an equivalent English word or phrase for all words found in the original text of the Bible. The goal is to convey everything that it is in the original–but not more than is in the original or less than is there.
The new translation philosophy is called dynamic equivalence, but that designation is very inadequate to cover all that modernizing translations actually do. In fact, equivalence is not usually, what these translations give. Usually, they give a substitution or replacement for what the original says. Additionally, dynamic equivalent translators omit material from material in the original and add to it. Dynamic equivalent translators feel no compulsion to reproduce in English the words that the biblical authors wrote. In fact, the prefaces to these translations and surrounding published materials and interviews hold verbal equivalence up to scorn. These prefaces and translators are bold to claim that a translation that departs from the words of the biblical authors is often more accurate than translations that reproduce the words of the original text.
Are my claims really true? I will give an example of each of the three common maneuvers of dynamic equivalent translators.
Omitting material from the Bible. The most plentiful parts of the Bible where this is done are passages with figurative language. In 1 Corinthians 16:9, Paul speaks metaphorically of “a wide door” that has “opened” to him (ESV). Dynamic equivalent translators who believe that modern readers cannot understand metaphors simply remove the wide door from sight: “a good opportunity” (New Century Version); “a wonderful opportunity” (Contemporary English Version); “a real opportunity” (Good News Bible). As all of this license unfolds before us, we need to ask, who gave us the metaphor of the wide door in the first place? The answer should be the writers of the Bible, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Offering a substitute for what is in the Bible. Omission of material from the original text is often accompanied by substitution for what a biblical author wrote. In Psalm 73, the poet recalls his crisis of faith in metaphoric terms: “my steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2b, ESV). Several dynamic equivalent translations give us a substitute for the image of slipping steps: “I had almost lost my faith” (New Century Version); “my faith was almost gone” (Good News Bible). As one expert on Bible translation exclaims, “This is not translation at all but merely replacement.”
Adding commentary to what the biblical authors wrote. Dynamic equivalent translators incessantly add commentary to what the original text gives us. Of course, the reader has no clue as to where the original text of the Bible ends and the commentary of the translators begin. In Psalm 23:5a, David writes, “You anoint my head with oil.” There is no dispute that this is what the original text says. Nevertheless, dynamic equivalent translators feel an overpowering urge to add commentary beyond the biblical text: “You welcome me as a guest, anointing my head with oil” (NLT). Unless you can read the Hebrew original or have the good fortune to be familiar with an essentially literal translation, you cannot answer the question of where the original text ends and the translator’s commentary begins. Of course, you should be able to trust your English Bible not to mislead you.
Why would translators do these things?
Why do translators feel free to engage in the kind of license I have noted? There are several answers. First, Bible translation took a wrong turn when the concept of a target audience became enthroned. This concept envisions an audience of limited linguistic and theological abilities. The almost universally accepted criterion of dynamic equivalent translations is a reader with the linguistic and theological comprehension of a sixth-grader. With this target audience firmly ensconced, the entire translation is then slanted toward the assumed abilities of this audience. I agree with the verdict of Dr. John McArthur, who in an endorsement of one of my books spoke of translators who are more concerned with the human audience than the divine author of the Bible is.
Additionally, the entire dynamic equivalent enterprise is based on the premise that the Bible is an inadequate book that needs correction. All we need to do is read the prefaces of these translations and observe what the translators have done to see that the translators believe that they can communicate better than the biblical authors did. The biblical authors used metaphors, but modern readers cannot understand metaphoric language. The biblical authors used theological language, but theological language is beyond modern readers. Etc., etc. The view of biblical authors that emerges from this branch of Bible translation is that they are inept and in need of correction. It is no wonder that half a century of dynamic equivalent translations has made the following formula omnipresent in evangelical circles: “now what the biblical author was trying to say is . . . .”
What is at stake in the current debate?
Two things chiefly are at stake in the current debate between the rival translation philosophies. One is whether we can trust our English Bibles. I propose that we cannot trust dynamic equivalent translations to put us in contact with the Bible that God inspired the human authors to write. What is the assumption (completely legitimate) that we all make when we hold a book in our hands? Indeed that the publisher has put into print the words that the author wrote. Dynamic equivalent translations consistently betray that trust.
Additionally, English readers need to choose between the actual Bible that God inspired his authors to write or a substitute for that Bible. I resonate completely with an emailer who wrote to me that he was raised on an essentially literal Bible, gravitated to a dynamic equivalent translation through peer pressure, and returned to an essentially literal translation after reading one of my books. His parting shot was that “it was as though someone had given me my Bible back.”
When dynamic equivalence swept the field half a century ago, people were so intoxicated by the exciting new view of Bible translation that they did not pay attention to what was actually happening. The time has come for sober reality. I would urge readers of the English Bible to practice what an advertising slogan of several years ago advocated: Accept no substitute.