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I WANT TO BEGIN BY surveying and critiquing what has been happening in Bible translation for the past fifty years. If I am right, few laypeople know what really makes various English Bible translations different from each other (see Appendix: Bible Translations Chart). When one of my colleagues in the Bible Department at Wheaton College polls his students about Bible translations, he finds that they begin with the premise that all modern translations are equally accurate as renditions of the original text, and that the only basis for preferring one over another is the criterion of readability. In my judgment, this is a matter for serious concern.
But who am I to sit in judgment on this state of unawareness? When I joined the Translation Oversight Committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible, at our first meeting the president of the publishing company announced that the ESV would be an essentially literal translation. I had no idea what that meant, nor how an essentially literal translation differs from its implied alternative. Since that moment of embarrassing ignorance, I have learned what the issues are, and I have become alarmed at what happened to Bible translation about four decades ago. So let me attempt a brief history and analysis of where we stand in English Bible translation.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, English Bible translation was governed by the assumption that the goal of Bible translation was to translate the words of the original Hebrew and Greek texts insofar as the process of translation allows. I know of no major, widely used English Bible before the middle of the twentieth century that did not primarily aim to reproduce in English the words of the original. William Tyndale, from whom English Bible translation largely flows, even coined words like intercession and atonement so as to be faithful to the actual words of the Greek text. Alister McGrath, in his book on the King James Version, claims that a careful study of the way in which the King James Bible translates the Greek and Hebrew originals shows that the translators tried (a) to ensure that every word in the original had an English equivalent, (b) to highlight all words added to the original for the sake of intelligibility, and (c) to follow the word order of the original where possible.1
Around the middle of the twentieth century, a theory of translation known as dynamic equivalence became the fashionable translation theory. Dynamic equivalence, more recently sailing under the name functional equivalence, has as its aim to reproduce not the words of the original text but the ideas or thoughts. The impetus for this theory came from translators who were translating the Bible into new languages on the mission field. The influential scholars behind the movement were Kenneth Pike and Eugene Nida.
It was simply assumed that what was considered best for the mission field would also be best for English Bible translation. This is very significant, and it was in my view a serious mistake. I say that because the English Bible had through the centuries become so familiar and well-established that it should have never been put into the same category as a Bible being translated into a language that had just been reduced to an alphabet.
How should we define dynamic equivalence? Dynamic equivalence is a theory of translation based on the premise that whenever something in the original text is foreign or unclear to a contemporary English reader, the original text should be translated in terms of an equivalent rather than literally. In actual practice, dynamic equivalence goes far beyond this by frequently making interpretive decisions for the reader and adding commentary to the text. Dynamic equivalence is popularly known as a thought-for-thought translation instead of a word-for-word translation.
Many readers do not realize the far-reaching significance of what is being said by means of specialized language in the prefaces to dynamic equivalent translations. Here are some representative quotations (with italics added to highlight the key phrases):
• “[The translator’s] first task was to understand correctly the meaning of the original” (GNB).
• “. . . a thought-for-thought translation” (NLT).
• “. . . to reclothe the meaning of the original in the words and structure of American English” (SEB).
• “The first concern of the translators has been . . . fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers” (NIV).
It is easy to miss what is being denied in these statements. What is being denied is that the translator has any responsibility to translate the exact words of the original. I am not saying that dynamic equivalent translators pay no attention to the words of the original. I am saying that they feel no obligation to express the exact words of the original in English. By contrast, essentially literal translations do strive to retain the words of the original, as they make clear in their prefaces.2
Here is my concern: Most readers of dynamic equivalent translations do not have any understanding as to the liberties that have been taken with the words of the original text. What dynamic translators give us is a translation plus a commentary, but we have no way of knowing where translation ends and the translation committee’s commentary begins.
The most revealing thing that I uncovered while doing the research for my book was what I found in the prefaces to dynamic equivalent translations. As you read the following sample statements, I invite you to see if you can catch the common thread (italics have been added to highlight the key phrases):
• This translation seeks “to express the meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers” (GNB).
• “Metaphorical language is often difficult for contemporary readers to understand, so at times we have chosen to translate or illuminate the metaphor” (NLT).
• “Because for most readers today the phrases ‘the Lord of hosts’ and ‘God of hosts’ have little meaning, this version renders them ‘the Lord Almighty’ and ‘God Almighty’” (NIV).
• “Ancient customs are often unfamiliar to modern readers” (NEW CENTURY VERSION).
• “We have used the vocabulary and language structures . . . of a junior high student” (NLT).
Who is calling the shots for these translations—the biblical author or the modern reader? As John MacArthur has noted, such translations “diminish the glory of divine revelation by being more concerned with the human reader than the divine author.” It is very revealing what Eugene Nida, the founder of dynamic equivalence, said in an interview that Christianity Today carried.3 Nida made no attempt to conceal his scorn for translators who think that the original words themselves need to be translated. He said that these people are guilty of “word worship,” that “they don’t understand the text,” and that “they worship words instead of worshiping God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”
During the last half century the proponents of dynamic equivalence have dominated Bible translation and have become increasingly bold in disparaging advocates of essentially literal translation. Nearly all new modern Bible translations before the English Standard Version have been dynamic equivalent translations.4 As biblical scholar Ray Van Leeuwen said in an article entitled “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” “If you [have] read a Bible translated in the last half-century, you [have] probably read a Bible influenced by Nida.”5