Friday, September 16, 2011

Leland Ryken on Bible Readers

(Excerpt from Understanding English Bible Translation, pp. 91-95.)

How Dynamic Equivalence Views Bible Readers

In an earlier chapter I noted that the elevation of the reader to the status of a "major player" in the translation enterprise, even to the extent of determining how the Bible is translated, is a contribution of the dynamic equivalent movement. I will not retread that territory here. My concern rather is the specific picture of the Bible reader that dynamic equivalent translators assume as they sit around the committee table and write the prefaces to their translations.

The overall picture that emerges from the prefaces is a reader with decidedly limited reading abilities. We can see this, for example, in what is loosely called "reading level," which depends on a combination of vocabulary and syntax. One preface speaks of limiting its vocabulary to three thousand words (SEB). Another preface claims that the translators aimed to reach "a junior high school student" (NLT). The chief translator for the Good News Bible claimed that the translation was aimed at the elementary-school reading level.

Along with the assumption of a grade-school reading level we find references to the difficulty modern readers have with theological vocabulary and concepts. One preface claims that in an effort to produce a translation "that can be understood by everyone, especially by those who have never read the Bible," the translators avoided using certain traditional theological terms (SEB). Another translation is similarly committed to "avoidance of traditionally theological language and biblical words" (CEV). Prefaces like these paint a picture of a Bible reader handicapped in dealing with theological language.

There is no need to belabor this point. The prefaces to "easy reading" Bibles present a united front in regard to their assumed readers. Other sections of my book discuss further types of assumed impairment in Bible readers, and I will avoid duplication here. These additional assumptions include the inability of readers to understand figurative language and references to foreign customs in the world of the biblical text, and the need for short sentences. While leaving those topics untouched here, I nonetheless wish to draw two additional inferences.

First, the prefaces I have quoted make an assumption (never stated) that readers cannot advance beyond their current level of reading and comprehension. Readers are permanently fixed at a grade-school reading level. The irony of this is that even if readers do advance beyond a grade-school level (as all of them do), their advance will do them no good when it comes to dynamic equivalent translations, because those translations have been permanently rendered at a grade-school level.

Second, dynamic equivalent proponents overwhelmingly assert that the difficulties posed by the original biblical text are either unique to modern readers or especially acute for them. Prefaces regularly use such formulas as "to modern readers" (NCV), "by the contemporary reader" (NLT), and "most readers today" (NJV). The effect is to isolate modern readers as a "special needs" group, and the whole dynamic equivalent enterprise can be viewed as an attempt to meet the special needs of impaired modern readers.

The Response of Essentially Literal Translators

It is possible to infer how essentially literal translators would respond to the assumptions that dynamic equivalent translators make about Bible readers, but before we tease out those infer­ ences, we need again to note an argument from silence. The prefaces to essentially literal translations assert no presuppositions about modern Bible readers. It is a fair inference that the translators do not believe that the difficulties of the biblical text are insurmountable for educated adult readers, though surely these translators also acknowledge that any text coming to us from the ancient past contains much that requires explanation to a modern reader.

The first assumption that advocates of essentially literal translation would dispute is that a grade-schooler should serve as the norm for reading ability and comprehension. In what other areas of life do we accept a grade-school level of expression and comprehension as the norm and "cap" for society as a whole? There is no sphere in which our society operates permanently at a sixth- or seventh-grade level. The preface to the New Living Translation equates "the average reader" with "a junior high student," but the equation is false: the average reader in our society is not a junior high student. Most English Bible readers have received at least some education beyond the high school level. The dynamic equivalent experiment actually expects less from Bible readers than our society expects in other areas.

A second point of dispute is the degree to which we can and should educate Bible readers as they confront the difficulties of the biblical text. The dynamic equivalent movement is a massive experiment in capitulation to low levels of reading ability and comprehension.

Proponents of essentially literal translations are unwilling to make that capitulation. Instead, they are ready to shoulder the task of educating modern readers. They stand in the line of William Tyndale, who actually added words like intercession and atonement to the English language in an attempt to transmit the content of the Bible. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Bible translation was a leading contributor to the rise of literacy in England. Essentially literal translations have as an unstated motto Paul's command "do not be children in your thinking" (1 Cor. 14:20).

Finally, essentially literal translators do not generally agree with dynamic equivalent translators that modern readers constitute a special case when compared to earlier readers. This is not to say that the customs and idiomatic expressions of the ancient world do not pose difficulties. But the original readers of the Bible were not as exempt from these difficulties as some translators claim. As one writer on the subject asks rhetorically, "Did the average speaker of koine Greek find no difficulty in 2 Peter 2:4-9 or Romans 2: 14-21? ... Did all the congregation of the Galatian church grasp the whole of Paul's letter to them when it was first read?'"

In a similar vein, translator E. V. Rieu stated the view that "there is good reason for thinking that the original audience of the Gospels found them just as difficult as we do; and if therefore we paraphrase or lower our standard of English in order to make things crystal clear to the so-called man in the street, we're going beyond our jobs as translators." We need to remember, too, that one of the "difficulties" that some modern translations wish to remove from the text is figurative language, and we know that figurative language was present in the Bible from the beginning.

Summary: Bible Readers

The opposed views of Bible readers that the two Bible translation camps hold are one of the most unbridgeable points of disagreement. Once dynamic equivalent translators created their image of modern Bible readers as low-level readers, and then additionally when they committed themselves to slant their translation toward this assumed reader, their methods of translation were inevitable. Essentially literal translators never accepted as accurate or desirable the assumed audience of dynamic equivalent translators, and in that refusal lay an equally inevitable methodology for translation.

Bible Translators

It would be easy to assimilate what I have said about biblical authors and readers without realizing that rival views of the translator permeate the attitudes I have surveyed. Let me begin on a positive note in regard to dynamic equivalent translators: they are extremely eager to please their readers and give them what they want. Of course there are major problems with that eagerness to please, but I want to credit dynamic equivalent translators with being allies of Bible readers as they confront the difficulties that the Bible often poses.


Leland Ryken, Understanding English Bible Translation (Crossway Books, 2009), pp. 91-95.

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