30 September 2009

Word Up

by Frank Turk

Before I give you my review of this next book, let me be up-front about something: I'm a formal translation guy and I like to use a formal translation when I'm reading the Bible because, well, I do.

I don't want to be too glib about that choice on my part because I am pretty sure it's a reasoned choice -- and I could line out for you the reasons in about 5000 words if we had that kind of time today, but we don't.

At the root of it, I like a formal translation of the Bible because when I am studying seriously (for example, when I am teaching at church) and I open up the reference material to see what's going on behind the text in the original languages (not because I can read Greek or Hebrew, mind you, but I took Methods and Research in Grad School and I can use reference books), it's always reassuring that what I see in the English is somehow representative of what the Greek or Hebrew expresses according to the lexical experts.

I mean: it always bothers me when we have a translation that we have to debunk for the reader so that as a teacher (or as a preacher) we have to say, "but what the Greek really says is ..." Translation is an art, to be sure, but it's not a baffling mystery which leaves the reader at the mercy of the translator to the place where the translator has interjected himself as the author's editor.

But in that, I have a respect for "functional" or "dynamic" translation as a methodology for some purposes. For example, I think there is a good use for the NLT as a first-pass read through the whole Bible -- because it seeks to deliver the message of the text without using a collegiate-level vocabulary. That is valuable in evangelism and in other kinds of ministry to those who are not pre-grad or post-grad egg-heads.

That said, there is a larger debate going on in the realm of Bible translation regarding the methodology which is best for the church and for Christians in general. For me, the most forceful spokesman for the "essentially literal" approach is Leland Ryken. He's an English professor, and if you ask me we need more men like him teaching English at the college level so that there are more, better readers of our language. He also wrote my favorite all-time book on the philosophy and theology of Bible translation: The Word of God in English. The egg-heads among you readers should read that book and forget about the rest of this review/recommendation.

But Dr. Ryken has just written a new book for Crossway called Understanding English Bible Translation, and it will be reviled by anyone who has any affection for dynamic equivalence. Coming in at 194 pages before the brief appendices and index, it's a brutal assessment of the flaws of dynamic equivalence and a brief and popularized argument for the use of what Dr. Ryken calls "essentially literal" translation. It's red meat for the common inerrantist, and frankly it's a pretty gripping read for the kind of book that it is because Ryken argues with passion and keen intellect. He doesn't let much get by on the other side, and while he gives gracious credit for some things (for example, he's gracious about the really good motives for some dynamic equivalent practitioners [e.g. - evangelism]), he doesn't let that get in the way of making his case at every point. By the end of the read, if you're not a convicted "essential literalist", I'll need to see your baptismal certificate and have a talk with the elders at your church.

Now, having said that, and now saying explicitly, "buy this book, read it, and get other people to read it," let me offer some criticisms of the book which I think are important to consider.

First, I think Dr. Ryken's approach to translation philosophy veers dangerously close to a correspondence theory of translation which, let's face it, would be a little simplistic. There is no way to say that every word in (for example) Greek has a categorically-equal corresponding word in English both lexically and practically. And because this is true -- that in some cases we would need an uncommon word in English to translate a relatively common word in Greek -- we have to admit that often translators ought to make a judgment call about how to present some text as the author intended, thereby having occasions in which giving us just one word for another is an inadequate approach.

And this happens in all translations of the Bible, including the KJV, the NASB and especially in the ESV. However, Dr. Ryken seems to make the case that the practice of doing this across the board in order to improve the reader's basic comprehension of the ideas of the text is inherently disreputable and undesirable for philosophical reasons. The irony here is that I agree with his objection but I disagree with the force with which he makes it. By a long shot, this is best exemplified by his lumping together of the NIV and the Message as two types of the same kind of Bible translation -- and this is simply a category error. Everyone by now knows that the Message is a paraphrase and not intended to do anything but, well, paraphrase the original text rather than translate it. And while his system of explaining this issue may simply call all translations to the "right" of the NKJV "dynamic translations", it seems to me to be a difficult pill to swallow to make the NIV or the HCSB texts which destabilize the common understanding of the Bible.

And that, I understand, is a pretty stiff criticism of a book which one is actually recommending and endorsing. However, in spite of this concern I have for this book, Dr. Ryken's book is a stiff tonic in an age where all manner of issues relating to the author's original intent in the text is being subverted for the sake of appealing to contemporary, metropolitan sensibilities. If you want to clear your head about this subject, get this book and read it. In the end, you may not agree with this argument or the substantive reasons for it, but you'll be better made over having had to grapple with the scope and direction of this book.


Peter M. Head said...

I would recommend learning Greek and Hebrew.

Frank Turk said...

Peter -

I knew someone was going to say that. However, I have three critical objections to that point of view.

Before I make them, however, let me say that it is necessary for the life of the church that we have a significant number of men who can read and understand Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. That we can have vital translations of the Bible is critical, and that the source text not be a dead language to us is important.


1. We are not Muslims. We do not believe that the only way to receive God's word is by reading it in the original languages. This fact should be, for us, a living truth and not a theoretical truth which has no consequenes in the actual church.

2. Going back to Jerome, but especially to Wycliffe and then the rest of the Reformers, the great fathers of our faith believed that it was not only proper but necessary to have the text in the common language of the people in the church. We should find a way to again share that belief and put it to practical use.

3. The sense in which it is actually 'better' to read the Scripture in the original language is an academic sense, not a spiritual sense. You cannot find a single admonition from God to read His word in this language or that language. I have more to say about that, but I'll make a full-fledged post about it tomorrow.

Peter M. Head said...

I am not sure which "point of view" you are objecting to. I just find it interesting how many ordinary Joe Christians have firm opinions about Bible translation without any real knowledge of the languages. That is not something you will find in Jerome, Wycliffe and the Reformers.

I realise of course that this blog is supposed to be opinionated.

JackW said...

I used to be an ordinary Joe Christian until I started speaking in other languages and then I was a ... ???

mKhulu said...

Do you think the recent revisions in the NIV do, in fact, move it all the way down to "paraphrase"?

drbeck said...

I think you miss the point of Ryken's book. He is not saying that the Message and NIV are the same, only that they are both in the "dynamic equivalence" category of translation. In fact, in "The Word of God in English", he directly handles the object you bring up about the message.

Regarding your points about learning the original language...

Almost all the statement of faiths I see say "We hold the Bible to be inerrant and infallible in its original languages..." This means that all translations can be fallible and in error. Therefore, why its not a requirement for faith to learn the greek and hebrew, it certainly should be something we strive for in our walk, especially for the elders of a church.

Frank Turk said...

Peter –

It’s utterly fallacious that in order for anyone to be informed about translation philosophy and its consequences, one has to be an expert at translating any particular foreign language. It simply does not follow that because, for example, that I cannot speak French, that I cannot have an informed opinion about whether it is better to read a formal translation of Victor Hugo vs. a dynamic interpretation of Hugo. The fact is that I can actually read English, and in knowing what my language means when I read it, I can use that as a basis for understanding what is being presented in a translation – and what the translator’s intent was in presenting it to me matters in what I am receiving.

This is so much more obvious in the realm of Bible translation. I am sure you personally could present example after example, due to your clearly-educated perspective of knowing the original languages, where dynamic translation says something different than a formal translation, but here is my favorite, which Dr. Ryken noted in his book – Amos 4:6

King James Version (KJV)
And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

English Standard Version (ESV)
Israel Has Not Returned to the LORD
"I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,"
declares the LORD.

New International Version (NIV)
"I gave you empty stomachs in every city
and lack of bread in every town,
yet you have not returned to me,"
declares the LORD.

Today's New International Version (TNIV)
"I gave you empty stomachs in every city
and lack of bread in every town,
yet you have not returned to me,"
declares the LORD.

New Living Translation (NLT)
“I brought hunger to every city
and famine to every town.
But still you would not return to me,”
says the LORD.

Frank Turk said...


What Dr. Ryken focuses on is the issue of the phrase “cleanness of teeth”, which I think is an interesting case of what is plainly an idiom in one language which simply doesn’t cross the linguistic divide, let alone our advances in dental science. The word I’d like to focus on, however, is the Hebrew word “nĕ'um”, which the KJV and the NLT render as “says”, and the other translations listed here as “declares”.

Now, here’s what I think: “declares” in English means something different than “says”. They are in the same lexical range, but the former … well, let’s let the dictionary do the talking:

[From m-w.com]

Main Entry: de•clare
Pronunciation: \di-?kler\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): de•clared; de•clar•ing
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French declarer, from Latin declarare, from de- + clarare to make visible, from clarus clear — more at CLEAR
Date: 14th century

transitive verb
1 : to make known formally, officially, or explicitly
2 obsolete : to make clear
3 : to make evident : SHOW
4 : to state emphatically : AFFIRM [declares his innocence]
5 : to make a full statement of (one's taxable or dutiable property)
6 a : to announce (as a trump suit) in a card game b : MELD
7 : to make payable [declare a dividend]

intransitive verb
1 : to make a declaration
2 : to avow one's opinion or support
3 : to announce one's intentions (as to run for political office) [declared for mayor]
— de•clar•able \-?kler-?-b?l\ adjective

synonyms DECLARE, ANNOUNCE, PROCLAIM, PROMULGATE mean to make known publicly

Main Entry: say
Pronunciation: \?s?, Southern also ?se\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): said \?sed, especially when subject follows s?d\; say•ing \?s?-i?\; says \?sez, sometimes ?s?z, especially when subject follows s?z\
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English secgan; akin to Old High German sag?n to say, Lithuanian sakyti, Greek ennepein to speak, tell
Date: before 12th century

transitive verb
1 a : to express in words : STATE b : to state as opinion or belief : DECLARE
2 a : UTTER, PRONOUNCE b : RECITE, REPEAT [say your prayers]
3 a : INDICATE, SHOW [the clock says five minutes after twelve] b : to give expression to : COMMUNICATE [a glance that said all that was necessary]
4 : SUPPOSE, ASSUME [let's say you're right]

intransitive verb : to express oneself : SPEAK


Frank Turk said...


It would be utterly incorrect to say (heh) that these words do not have a very similar meaning. It would in fact be careless to say so. But it would be equally careless to say that they have an identical meaning – and the nuance between them, I think, is captured in the synonyms M-W.com offers us: “say” is merely what you do with words (to state or express); “declare” has a public connotation, and an official connotation – it is a more specific use.

And it turns out that “nĕ'um” is used almost exclusively in the OT as the action of God, a prophet, or the king, making a public statement – a notable exception being Ps 36:1 where the transgression of the wicked says something to David. So it seems to me that “declares” is the right English word here, and “says” is not actually a sufficiently-specific word.

Now: you –do- have to have some reference to the Hebrew to find out whether “say” or “declare” is a better translation. What you do not need fluent Hebrew for is to see that the translators are making choices based on their philosophy or methodology, and that in the best case sometimes those choices are utilitarian and not ideological.

Seriously: are we going to start thinking that the KJV translators used “saith” and not “declares” because they are intent on subverting God’s authority? Yeah: no. But it does serve all of us well to see that the kinds of choices translators make are not always governed by simplistic rules. In this fact, one who is not a reader of any foreign languages can have an informed opinion about what kind of translation they prefer to receive.

I am sure that will not sway you in any way, but it is a foundational presupposition of Ryken’s book with which I agree: the monoglot reader can and should make an informed choice about the kind of translation he is receiving.


Frank Turk said...

mKhulu --

I think the NIV is a translation. The tNIV is a corrupt translation based on faulty linguistic premises and on theological biases from the commissioning body for the translators.

But, that said, let me also say that I think the tNIV still have the power of God to save in it because it still presents the Gospel in the context of the history of faith. I don't like it; I don't use it; I don't think God is in danger because of it.

brainout said...

Wordplay in the Hebrew and Greek is almost always lost in translation. The current translations we have of any philosophy, always copy too much from older English Bibles in deference to their alleged expertise. Worse, any political agendas in the older translations are also slavishly copied.

All this makes the case for JUST TEACHING THE ORIGINAL, so you can get all the delicious wit in the Bible as God intended. My pastor taught us that way, so now I can read Bible in those languages easily, within BibleWorks. Why not make a new practice of teaching Bible the way it was actually written? Frankly the original words are far more easy and fun to remember, once you know them.

Alternative: take a translation and correct it as you go along. If the congregation gets used to it, there will be no angst. Again, that's the approach my pastor took, so one doesn't have to fault past scholar errors, but rather one comes to appreciate the difficulty of translation. :)

Frank Turk said...


It is a little weird to say that because he covers the Message in the Word of God in English, Dr. Ryken doesn't have an obligation to maintain the correct category distinctions in this shorter, more popular-level book. It's simply ludicrious to ignore the implications of paraphrase as opposed to the implications of translation, and it is frankly an overstatement to say that what amount to stylistic and vocabulary choices by the translators is always the same as "paraphrase".

That said, I haven't at all missed the point of this particular book: Dr. Ryken is making a plea toward the academic/magisterial community through a popular medium to fortify the standing of "essentially literal" translations of the Bible -- an effort I think needs doing, and should be done with the broadest possible view to help those involved in this effort to see the impact of simply spilling out new translations when someone thinks that a 6th grade vocabulary is no longer a viable target reading level.

The problem is that logical end of Dr. Ryken's argument taken as a whole is that somehow the original texts are the only way to receive God's Word -- and I think this is a disasterous mistake. I think we should take a view which resembles the view of those who have brought us this far, among whom are the KJV translators who, in justifying their own work, make it clear that it is incumbant upon the church to provide the text in the common languages for the benefit of all believers, and that these common language texts all represent God's word.

No one should take this view to mean that any ol' hack job on the original languages will do, but we should all be exceding careful not to fall into the trap that somehow because the Hebrew uses a word which means "declare (a public statement of offical bearing)" and an English translation uses "say (to state in words)", we have somehow crippled God or the power of God's word.

And I have three major reasons for saying this, which I will cover in my post tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.

Frank Turk said...

I want everyone to read and re-read what brainout just wrote -- because I think he's stone-cold wrong.

Not wrong about the Hebrew: wrong about the practice. And with that, I leave all of you to enter your objections to that statement from me as long and as loudly as you can muster. I'll be back much later today to sort out the problems with that approach to Scripture, preaching, and the Christian life.

Stan McCullars said...

What version of the Old Testament did Jesus and the Apostles use?

Was it the Hebrew or a Greek translation? Both?

Citizen Grim said...

This just needs to be repeated:

But, that said, let me also say that I think the tNIV still have the power of God to save in it because it still presents the Gospel in the context of the history of faith. I don't like it; I don't use it; I don't think God is in danger because of it.


I think some linguistic connoisseurs get hung up in the hanging participles and forget that God's saving power isn't neutered just because a particular translation might be.

God accomplishes His will both through and in spite of us, His imperfect servants. Our mistakes cannot thwart Him.

SandMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Turk said...



Mike Riccardi said...

Citizen Grim,

While that's absolutely true, it doesn't mean we should get comfortable about making those mistakes.

Thanks for the reviews, Frank. I enjoyed your comments.

puritanicoal said...


I agree with your post and assessment of Ryken's take on this. I am irked (rightly?) when I pick up a commentary by a respected, conservative scholar and find it is "based on the NIV." I can translate that phrase: "The NIV/Zondervan gave me a big grant to write this commentary, base it on the NIV, and state as much, so it looks like the NIV is 'prefered by 9 out of 10 Seminary Profs.'" When, in actuality, the commentary's exegesis many times conflicts with the NIV's 'translation' of the text.

Side note: I agree with you and your assessment of brainout's comment with the exception of one proposition: "Wordplay in the Hebrew and Greek is almost always lost in translation." That is true. (See, for instance, Jeremiah 1:11-12 and the word play on "almond" and "watching over.") But, this problem is something that most commentaries, even layman versions, will point out. Brainout's ultimate point that we need to be teaching in the original languages is stone-cold wrong. Tyndale would roll over in his grave on that one.

J♥Yce said...

Would prefer egghead over jughead(been there, done that) ~ grateful for the fine read and encouragment(so the norm here)! :-)

stratagem said...

Frank: Let's see, brainout is advocating having a bunch of amateurs revise he Bible as they go along, and you are asking if there are any among us who will come to his rescue.

Is this a trick question?

Frank Turk said...


When you put it that way ...

MSC said...

Hey, I have an idea. Let's require that all church memebers go through Greek and Hebrew classes and pass a proficiency exam before being allowed to hear the sermons of the pastor who of course will preach directly from the Greek and Hebrew.

Michael G. Helders said...

Dear Phil, I was wondering if you could let me post following article on my blogg: http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2007/04/let-me-put-it-this-way.html ?
My blogg url is: http://jdfk-kefas.blogspot.com

Incredible work you guys do on this blogg!
May God continue to bless your ministry!

Zaphon said...

Concerning the Greek and Hebrew, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

I have found that in dealing with people about the claims of the Gospel , I RARELY, if ever, need to do an in depth exegesis of the original languages. It may sound all scholarly and cool to say KAI THEOS EN HO LOGOS but it's English rendering is actually very clear- "and the Word was God".

So, IF you are going to do this, go into Greek text, (I'm saying this for the pew warmers among us)actually KNOW your stuff and don't make the Gospel more complicated than it needs to be.

Photomender said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chad V. said...


You might have noticed that Paul taught the churches doctrine using the Greek Old Testament, not the Hebrew. So Ponder.

Christian Haiku said...

You won't find God's Word
From my favorite version
Hidden in my heart ;)
http://ChristianHaiku.com - Ps 119:11

Kyle Mann said...

"Fav - o - rite" Funny, I always pronounce it "fav-rit." Technically, the haiku is correct.

stratagem said...

Frank - which version(s) do you consider to be a formal translation? NIV, NASB, none of the above?

puritanicoal said...

Zaphon wrote: "It may sound all scholarly and cool to say KAI THEOS EN HO LOGOS but it's English rendering is actually very clear-'and the Word was God'."

This brings up an important point in this meta. John 1:1 is a perfect example, but this argument applies to many more verses.

If the argument is that all one has to do is read an English translation and the "clarity" of a verse is sufficient, then there could be a problem. Yes, it says what it says in English, and what it says in English is very important. But, what would be 'dangerous,' would be to stop there, satisfied only with the English translation so as not to appear "too cool."

I am not arguing that everyone should know Greek, but these days, when the deity of Christ is being assaulted in "evangelical" circles, and via LDS or JW's, knowledge of the Greek in at least a few key verses, is essential, whether it be from knowing it one's self, or consulting a reputable Greek scholar.

For instance, in John 1:1, the word order in the Greek alone could affect whether those 6 words are orthodox Christianity, Sabellianism, or Arianism. You do not pick up a hint of word order, or its importance, in even the most literal of English translations.

This does NOT mean that you have to know Greek to 'share the Gospel.' But, you could find yourself in a discussion with....Knock, knock...hang on...sorry, there are two guys in white shirts with black ties knocking on my door...BRB...

Paula said...

Isn't Rob Bell always spouting Greek and Hebrew? His hermeneutic seemed to have jumped the shark a few years ago. So perhaps knowledge of the original language is not the cure-all for good Bible interpretation.

As a student of history, I deeply value going to the original (primary) sources rather than just reading secondary sources (textbooks, biographies, etc.)(although those can have insight that the primary sources lack).

Frank is not proposing abandoning the primary source - the original text of the Bible - and switching over to secondary sources (i.e.commentaries) for study.

And it's not like we got our English Bible translations from one guy translating and we weren't sure he was getting it right (like Larry King's interview with Kadafi....did anyone else wonder if the translator was getting even half of that rambling, mumbling, interview right?).

stone-cold wrong

Can y'all stop saying that? I'm going to have to make an emergency trip to Cold Stone Creamery today, even though the temps here have plunged to the 50's. : (

Frank Turk said...


I agree with the convention that ASV, NASB, ESV, KJV and NKJV are specifically-formal translations and that NIV, HCSB and NRSV are pretty much BETWEEN formal and dynamic -- not radical dynamic translations.

I'm not disagreeing with the chart I linked to: I'm disagreeing that everything to the right of NKJV is somehow past the midpoint to very bad.

Frank Turk said...

As to the apologetic value of access to the Greek and Hebrew, I disagree with the otherwise clear-minded puritanicoal.

Someone who wants to argue with me about how the nuances of the Greek violate the ancient belief that Jesus is both God and Man is simply barking up th wrong tree -- and arguing the nuances of the Greek is the wrong apologetic tactic (with real deference to those who seek to do so).

The problem is not what that one verse says: the problem is what the one verse says when read in the context of the rest of John 1. The context there can dispell the completely-heretical idea that John 1:1 is saying Jesus is another god beisdes God. If John 1:1 says that Jesus is not God as the Father is God, the rest of John 1 quickly dives into incoherence.

You test it out -- in any translation.

rbcbob.1 said...

For an enthusiastic endorsement of Ryken's book coupled with a judgment that he did not consistently apply it when he advocated the ESV see:


Frank Turk said...

And for Paula's sake, our problem today as a church is not that there are no adequate translations from the sources in modern English: it is that they largely go unread.

Let's start there before we start the apologetic gin mill for the inerrancy of the Scriptures: let's start with the sufficiency of the extant translations.

dwitzke said...

Well said. I DO know and use the languages in my study and prep for my sermons, and you are absolutely right that a monoglot is able to evaluate and discern the necessity for proper translation without knowing the original languages. The reason for being able to come to the conclusions you have is because you have researched the issue, not because you learned the languages. I have read Ryken's first book you mentioned, and I agree it is a must read for anyone who wants to take this issue seriously. I look forward to reading the second book. Thank you for your review of it.

Paula said...

BTW, sneaky of everyone to derail this meta to a discussion of the original languages while DJP is on a sabbatical at a Tibetan monastery (or wherever Frank said he was).

stratagem said...

Thanks Frank - I understand now that when you say "formal," you mean word-for-word rather than thought for thought (the extreme of which for the latter, is a paraphrase). I intentionally prefer the NASB for the same reason, so I feel the same way you do on that.

Stan McCullars said...

Also for Paula's sake...

Rob Bell's theology has been in the toilet for years and is in need of being flushed.

puritanicoal said...

Frank, I largely agree with you, and I see where you are headed with your argument.

I can probably end our 'nuanced tributary' with this: I don't think any 'evangel-ee' is going to hell because an evangelist had to 'punt' on an argument involving Greek nuances. But, I'm not willing to say knowledge of Greek nuances is a solely academic endeavor to be shunned because the English translation seems "clear" (Zaphon's word).

Chris said...

Chri...um...Puritanicoal ;-) I know you!

I think you got it right with something I think explains the dichotomy between knowing and not knowing the languages:

This does NOT mean that you have to know Greek to 'share the Gospel.

While a translation is sufficient (given it's been faithfully interpreted) to share the Gospel, it may not be sufficient in discussing matters of semantics and syntax.

I agree with Peter's original statement: learn Greek and Hebrew. I don’t see what the problem is here. As a teacher of God’s Word, especially in a vocational context, why would you not do this? There was a time in the world when one would have been laughed out of the pulpit for not having some knowledge of the languages. What happened?

We generally look foolish when we stand up before people and intersperse our teaching with "the Greek this..." and the "the Hebrew that..." while having absolutely no working knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. It’s like someone commenting on the syntax of Goethe’s original prose without actually knowing basic German grammar. It’s almost laughable if it weren’t so sad. Besides, most references to the “original languages” I hear today from the pulpit add almost nothing to point the person is attempting to make. Thus, it seems reasonable to me that until we can actually answer basic questions required of a first-year Greek or Hebrew student, perhaps we should dispense with the references in our teaching, as they almost always add nothing significant to the conversation besides our looking intelligent. Moreover, because we can speak English doesn’t necessarily mean that we are qualified to run around and ramble about English grammar. Now apply that to an ancient language separated from us by centuries of linguistic de-evolution and transformation. Good luck.

BTW, for the most part, I enjoyed Ryken’s book.

greglong said...

Professor Mark Snoeberger from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary is, like Dan, a CalvieDispieBaptoGelical (actually, he's probably more like a CalvieDispieBaptoFundie). He wrote a blog post taking issue with the thesis of Ryken's book, and I thought it had some very convincing points--he would agree with you on some points, Frank.

gospelandgrace said...

Dr. Ryken's works are very good. I find his defense of formal equivalence to be very good.

Like you I agree that formal or essentially literal is the best method for translating the scriptures, however; when I see Dr. Ryken's categorizing all other translations together I come close to questioning his motive. Here is what I mean by that, In "The Word of God in English" one is left with impression that the book is an apologetic not for the translation method in general but for the ESV in particular.

He gives what I think is nothing more than a "tip of the hat" to the NASB or NKJV and gives the HCSB, a version which I think is significantly more literal than the NIV and is in the formal equivalent family, almost no mention at all.

His arguments for formal equivalent are solid but he borders on an "ESV-only" mindset as are very many proponents of the ESV. I grew up in churches that were "KJV-only" and not only will not be associated with anyone who adopts that type of thinking I will also not use their "approved" version on principle even if it were the "best available" - which by the way I don't believe the ESV is given its awkward English style which is not common use English.

Frank Turk said...

Yes, but he thinks the right way to go is a wholly-functional route, and while I find his logic intriguing, I am sure he is at least half-wrong.

Tian An said...

Hi Frank,

I've read 'the Word of God in English' on loan and had planned on purchasing my own copy until this new revision was released. Which book would you recommend more?


Scott Bailey said...

Questions without reading Ryken's book from somebody that functions in Hebrew and Greek without interlinears and lexicons for every word:

A)Does he know Greek and Hebrew at all?

B) Why is it so often that those that know little to know Hebrew and Greek often find it unimportant? (I don't know if this is Ryken or not it is just I have run into this so often it is almost formulaic from the uninformed) I wonder what people would say if I told them I didn't know how to read music or play any instruments but at the same time asserted that I was going to 'prove' how all those musicians were wrong. Translation theory is more complicated than ideas about translation. You learn this when you actually have to do them.

C) What does he suggest to do with idioms, euphemisms, and the many other linguistic devices that can make certain statements in a language nonsensical and inaccessible to outsiders if translated literally?

D) What about verbless clauses? Is it not "dynamic" to supply the verb?

E) What about Hebrew poetry?

Zaphon said...

To puritanicoal:

I agree with you, but I didn't mean that we should stop at the English translation. My point was that some people, by presuming a knowledge they don't have, end up biting off more than they can exegetically chew.

They may fancy themselves a hybrid of Dan Wallace/James White & end up cashing exegetical cheques that their bodies can't cash.

So go ahead and handle the Greek bible, but just KNOW what you're doing. I know:self-evident.

Now I think my post is maybe more tangential than direct to Frank's review, but it bears saying in passing.

God Bless.

dwitzke said...

From what I gathered from his first book . . . Concerning your question C) - Ryken argues that it is the responsibility of those who preach in the church to explain these nuances and idioms, etc. rather than the translator. D) He recognizes the necessity of supplying verbs, but urges great caution in doing this, so as not to lead the reader to a wrong understanding (and he recognizes this is a difficult thing to do).

Frank Turk said...

Tian --

I own both. Not everyone used to own a bookstore, and your book budget may be lower than mine, so here's my suggestion if you cannot buy both:

Word of God in English is, in my estimation, the better book. It is more comprehensive. Understanding English Bible Translations is more concise, but some of the nuance of the older book is obscured. However, it is also easier to read.

Both are a great investment in your understanding of this issue. I recommend both, but buy the one which better suits your needs. Do you need comprehensive or concise?

Frank Turk said...

| Questions without reading Ryken's
| book ...

Oh boy ...

| ... from somebody that functions
| in Hebrew and Greek without
| interlinears and lexicons for every
| word:

I see: you know about Ryken’s book because you are fluent in Greek and Hebrew. There’s an irony there which I will let the reader of this thread sort out.

| A)Does he know Greek and Hebrew
| at all?

I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that, because he’s a professor of English, his Hebrew and Greek are probably not as robust as yours. Let’s assume for the sake of your questions Dr. Ryken knows no Hebrew or Greek.

| B) Why is it so often that those that
| know little to know Hebrew and
| Greek often find it unimportant?

Who said that? I find it somewhat baffling that in a discussion which we are talking about translating from Greek and Hebrew, this objection would come up. The Greek and Hebrew are “unimportant”? So what is the source of our translation?

The question is simply not “are Greek and Hebrew important?” Of course they are important. The question in this case is “how do we represent the Greek and Hebrew best in English?”, or better, “for what purpose do we use English translations?”, or best: “How important is the translation which we receive?”

It’s a pretty deep misunderstanding of the question and the problem here to say that the Greek and Hebrew are “unimportant”.

| (I don't know if this is Ryken or not it
| is just I have run into this so often it
| is almost formulaic from the
| uninformed) I wonder what people
| would say if I told them I didn't
| know how to read music or play any
| instruments but at the same time
| asserted that I was going to 'prove'
| how all those musicians were wrong.

I suspect that, given your example here, you don’t really understand how criticism works. You don’t have to be a gifted musician to know when you have heard a horrible recital of some piece of music, or to be able to recognize that some piece of music is completely awful.

To say that you must is to adopt an epistemology that pretty much rules out almost all communication – let alone translation or critical analysis.

| Translation theory is more
| complicated than ideas about
| translation. You learn this when you
| actually have to do them.

Aha. So you’re saying that translation is not about achieving a goal which in some way has framed the role of the reader and the role of the writer? I wonder what it is about then?

Let’s see if you tell us as we go forward ...

| C) What does he suggest to do with
| idioms, euphemisms, and the many
| other linguistic devices that can
| make certain statements in a
| language nonsensical and
| inaccessible to outsiders if
| translated literally?

I don’t have either of Ryken’s books I have referred to here, but here’s what I think he would say to that:

We are talking about God’s word, therefore, if God used an idiom in Hebrew to say something through (for example) the prophet Amos, we should respect the inspiration which ontologically produced that statement and translate the idiom word for word. It may produce a statement in the receiving language which, for the first-time reader, doesn’t make any sense – but we do owe God the benefit of the doubt that what he breathed out is what he meant to say.

While I have sympathy for what you are saying here, Scott, what you are really advocating for is that the translator also be the exegete. In my view (and I think in Ryken’s view), putting exegesis in the text is actually a mistake because it changes what God says into what we think God ought to have said in order to be more clear, or more accessible, or whatever.


Frank Turk said...


| D) What about verbless clauses? Is it
| not "dynamic" to supply the verb?

Let’s not mix categories. There’s a vast difference between supplying the implied “is” or the distributed force of a verb over a series of clauses and changing the words “cleanness of teeth” to “empty stomachs”. The difference is the difference between translation and exegesis.

| E) What about Hebrew poetry?

What about it? One of the hallmarks of Renaissance literature is the abundance of translations of poetry – it was sort of a cottage industry of the age to take poems from other languages and translate them. The art of translating poems may have hit the high water maker in the West during the Renaissance. Yet the KJV translators (who were translating during the Renaissance, in an environment where this practice was well-known and well-understood) chose to translate the words as literately as possible – but with a high degree of concordance.

What this speaks to is the obligation of the translator to be as transparent as possible, and Ryken’s point (with which I would agree) is that the translator is not the re-interpreter: he is a messenger, and he has a specific message to deliver. How he choses to deliver that message speaks to what he thinks of the one who sends the message and the message itself.


stratagem said...

Don't most of the "literal" translations (NASB, etc) depart somewhat from literal-ism when translating idioms? If so, what's the fuss about?

DJP said...

The book is on my to-read list, but not at the top. I have, however, worked in the Heb/Gk text for ~36 yrs, and offer these fwiws:

1. The line between dynamic and formal is not sharp and black, but a bit fuzzy.

2. It is impossible to avoid a certain amount of paraphrase and dynamic equivalence, if one wishes for any sort of even marginal coherence.

3. It also is impossible to avoid doing exegesis in translation, and to have a translation unaffected by the results of that exegesis.

4. At issue (imho) is the extent to which one is willing to package interpretation-as-translation without restraint or notice.

5. That having been said, I myself am okay with putting NIV and The Message along a continuum in the same category, though the former would lean on one edge, and the latter on the far opposite edge.

6. To give one specific example, rendering sarx as "sinful nature" without a footnote is not translation, but interpretive paraphrase. And finally....

7. If I ever issued a translation of the NT (!!), there would be 1,500,000 footnotes. Half of them would start with "Or...", and the other half would start with "Literally...."

Tom Chantry said...

To give one specific example, rendering sarx as "sinful nature" without a footnote is not translation, but interpretive paraphrase. And finally....

I agree completely, and...to translate it as "human being"? I rather like the ESV, but I want to give the translation committee a beat-down every time I read through Romans.

DJP said...

To add one more gripe, I have countless times noted dropping conjunctions in the name of "smoothness." Conjunctions are there for a reason, and it should take an avalanche to impel one to overlook them, particularly in the Greek NT — and even then, I'd add a footnote. (This contributes to the 1.5 million figure.)

Mike Riccardi said...

I personally think that no footnotes should be added to tell me what the literal translation is.

Instead, give me the literal rendering in the body of the text and a footnote to tell me what you [i.e., translators] think it means.

In the case of sarx, give primacy to the literal "flesh," and if you just can't move on without offering your interpretation of "sinful nature," put your interpretation in 4 point font at the bottom of the page, let what the text actually says be in the body.

Scott Bailey said...

Frank, as usual you show your Christian charity by not being able to answer a question without demeaning. I am openly admitting that I do not know Ryken's book and I am asking questions about what you represent from what I know from working within these languages. Sorry I have not read every book and author on translation theory. It's such a small limited field I'm sure I should be doing better. A more charitable disposition towards a Christian brother might be OK. That's an irony I'll let the discerning reader work out.

Hebrew poetry is quite difficult becasue it leaves out many of the words we take for granted in normal discourse such as the definite article, the relative particle, personal suffixes, conjunctions, etc., which makes it unintelligible if translated literally.

I would ultimately submit that in many ways the difference between "formal" and "dynamic" is in some ways a false dichotomy, probably even more so if one considers functional. They are all translations and at the end of the day while in some cases literal may be "better" than dynamic in others literal can actually obfuscate what the author was intending in the original language. Therefore to slavishly prefer literal can be counterproductive.

I suppose my last concern is that if a pastor is supposed to explain all of these idioms and literal confusions how many are equipped for such exegesis? I'm not trying to limit this to the realm of experts but how many pastors would find it overly time consuming, and overly difficult, to translate the Bible from English into English?

Your misrepresentations aside, and since you so kindly asked: I would say that translation is about representing the text with as much lexical and rhetorical accuracy as possible, which betrays most likely what translation theory I would support.

dwitzke said...


At the end of your post you said:

"I suppose my last concern is that if a pastor is supposed to explain all of these idioms and literal confusions how many are equipped for such exegesis? I'm not trying to limit this to the realm of experts but how many pastors would find it overly time consuming, and overly difficult, to translate the Bible from English into English?"

I, as a pastor of a small church, can appreciate your question here. But, that is exactly what the pastor is to to. He has a responsibility to explain to his people what the text means; that is his job, not the job of the translator.

Experts in translation are of great benefit to the Church, but they are not the end of the process of getting the Scripture from the original languages into the hearts of the people in the Church. The pastors are responsible for that last exegesis and exposition (kind of like the local expert, if you will).

He does not have to re-invent the wheel every week in doing this, and he will not be able to go as in-depth in the languages as he may like every week, but he still must work in the languages. Yes, that is time consuming, and yes, far too many are NOT adequately equipped for this. But, that is why the church in America today is in such a bad state: Preachers no longer exegete the text, they exegete the commentaries.

I would wish that every person in the church would be able to read and study from the original languages (or even be able to read and study well from the English!), but they can't, so it is my calling to strive to explain those idioms, figures, and hard sayings to help them draw out the implications in their lives.

That seems to be what Ryken is arguing.

Scott Bailey said...


Fair enough then.

What's the solution? How do you help the far too many that do not, and cannot, exegete the text? How do you raise a generation of pastors that can do this when the current model is turning out so many that can't?

Frank Turk said...

This thread is hereby closed.

take your concerns up in the thread for this post instead.