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Fascinated by Languages
Fascinated by Languages
Eugene A. Nida
John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2003
163 pp., 120.0

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Reviewed by Nathan Bierma

The Words of the Word

Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation.

I wouldn't read this review if I were you. They say that there are two things you never want to see produced—laws and sausages. But there's at least one more: Bible translations. As Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham says in his blurb for Leland Ryken's The Word of God in English, Ryken's book is "gripping" but "also most disturbing, for Ryken argues that most modern Bible translations sell their readers short."

This is hard to hear for believers who have memorized and treasured certain versions of their favorite verses. The translation we're used to seems as sacred to us as Scripture itself. If something's not quite right with the sausage, there's a part of us that would rather not know.

The problem isn't with Scripture, it's with language itself. In a recent essay in Harper's, Kitty Burns Florey remarks that trying to get English to conform to the rules of Latin grammar is "something like forcing a struggling cat into the carrier for a trip to the vet." Trying to get Hebrew (which is lusciously poetic) and Greek (which relies heavily on context for the meaning of words) to fit nicely into the parameters of English is similarly problematic.

Bible translators have two ways to put the square pegs of Hebrew and Greek into the round hole of English, and those are "essentially literal" and "dynamic equivalent" translations. An essentially literal translation follows the literal meaning and word order of the original language as far as the receptor language allows. A "dynamic equivalent" translation seeks to use the words and phrasing of a receptor language that best captures the meaning of the original language. A common definition is that "essentially literal" means word-for-word, while "dynamic equivalence" is thought-for-thought. The most common criticism of essentially literal versions is that they are "wooden." The most common criticism of dynamic equivalence is that it plays "fast and loose" with Scripture.

The founder of dynamic equivalence is Eugene Nida, whose memoir of his 60-plus-year career as a linguist and biblical translation consultant was published recently by John Benjamins. Nida says he spent a lifetime urging translators to "see through and beyond the words to the meaning of the text." After all, Nida writes, "it is rare that key Greek words can or should always be translated the same way. In fact, key words are very likely to have quite different meanings in diverse contexts." And so dynamic equivalence (which Nida describes but doesn't name) is called for.

Nida's memoir is not much of a narrative—it's structured geographically rather than chronologically, and his anecdotes are random and abbreviated—but it's chock full of fascinating case studies. In South Africa, for instance, while working on a translation of the New Testament in the Shilluk language, Nida wondered whether to translate "forgiveness" with a term that meant "to spit on the ground in front of someone." It was the local custom for the plaintiff and defendant to spit on the ground in front of each other at the completion of a court case to signify its closure. It was a meaningful and culturally distinct way of rendering the concept of forgiveness, but translators were loath to give such theological weight to a word for what they considered a crude act. (Alas, Nida doesn't say what they decided.)

Elsewhere in Africa, Matthew 25 presented a problem. In that passage, Jesus invites the sheep into heaven but banishes the goats to hell. "But in most of sub-Saharan Africa, goats are prized for their resourcefulness, and sheep are often regarded as filthy scavengers," Nida writes. He considered it off-limits to "make the sheep into goats and the goats into sheep," but he told translators to explain the symbolism in a footnote. Spreading branches in the path of a leader is an insult in many parts of Africa, so a footnote was needed to clarify that Jesus' triumphal entry on Palm Sunday was indeed triumphal.

Nida also presents word studies from the Greek New Testament, including a partial list of the ways the word logos is rendered in English Scripture. The list includes the figurative title for Christ in John 1:1 ("Word" in English), "reason" in the phrase "the reason for your hope" in 1 Peter 3:15, "financial accounts" in "the servants' accounts" in Matthew 18:23, and a half dozen others. Sarks is similarly versatile, meaning "skin" in Revelation 19:18, "human form" in 1 Timothy 3:16, "humanity" in 1 Peter 1:24, and "race" in Romans 11:14. Nida said he and colleagues once produced a list of 25,000 meanings for the New Testament's 5,000 words. This made Nida skeptical of "the prevalence of 'word-worship,'" which he says "almost always results in skewing the meaning of the original and making artificial the form of the resulting translation." The solution is to find "the closest natural equivalent in meaning and impact."

This makes Ryken's skin crawl. His book is in many ways a response to Nida's career, if not his memoir (Ryken discusses English, while Nida mostly considers other languages). Nida, Ryken says, championed the "forthright elevation of the reader over the author" and "caters to readers."

Ryken clearly believes that the plain English translations that have flourished in recent decades—dynamic equivalence versions that emphasize accessibility above all—have gotten carried away with their alterations of Scripture. What began as an effort to bring the Bible to a broader audience by revising and simplifying archaic language, Ryken says, ended up replacing established, elegant versions of the Bible with diluted ones (and he places the popular New International Version in the latter category). This shift, he contends, has left many English-speaking Christians with a shallow understanding of theology and drained the Bible of the essential literary features of rhythm, parallelism, and vividness, to name a few.

Take the handsome phrase "establish the work of our hands upon us," which the English Standard Version uses in the last verse of Psalm 90. The Contemporary English Version changed this to the relatively lame phrase "let all go well for us"; the Good News Bible has the Oprah-esque "give us success in all we do." Or take James' statement that believers are "a kind of firstfruits of his creation." The CEV has that as "his own special people," with echoes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

But once Ryken gets rolling on this point, he takes it too far, to the point of excessively glorifying the King James Version. He even uses the phrase "the words of the original" in a way that I initially took as a reference to the KJV. At one point, Ryken says that God gave us "the Word as he wants us to have it." If that were true, we wouldn't be reading the Bible in English at all.

As a result, Ryken registers little of the struggle to get the cat of the original languages into the carrier of English. Ryken's cat nestles snugly; he leaves the word "essentially" in the term "essentially literal" undefined. He also fails to acknowledge that the KJV translators took all kinds of stylistic liberties with the original Hebrew and Greek (although at least those liberties were beautiful, and are now set off by italics).

Ryken also downplays the fact that the KJV, in the words of Bruce Metzger's preface to the New Revised Standard Version, "has serious defects." Nida explains—and here he is like Upton Sinclair telling us what's in our sausage—that the basis for the New Testament in the King James Version and other Reformation-era translations was an unreliable Greek text called the Textus Receptus, which had been altered by scribes as they copied it over the centuries.

In short, the KJV writers wrote gorgeous English but had a flawed understanding of the original text. Today the problem is just the opposite: translators have superb textual resources at their disposal but can't manage to duplicate the KJV's literary magnificence. Neither Nida nor Ryken satisfactorily answers the crucial question—how can we get the best of both worlds?

My fear in opening these books was that they would undermine my faith in Scripture, by giving me a sinking feeling that as a speaker of English, I could never know for sure what Scripture was really saying. I was afraid that learning about the production would spoil the product. But the opposite has happened. After taking an interest in linguistics, I'm poring over the Word as I never did in daily devotions, with a fresh determination to hear what Scripture is saying.

Nathan Bierma is Communications and Research Coordinator at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and adjunct professor of English at Calvin College. His "On Language" column appears in the Chicago Tribune.

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