This article looks at the translation theory behind some of the newer Bible translations, especially the Dynamic Equivalence theory.

Source: The Outlook, 1981. 5 pages.

Which Translation?

The Current Confusion🔗

A development which perplexes many Christians in our time is the multitude of English translations of the Bible which are appearing on the market. That this puzzles many of our readers is apparent in several letters sent to us. Some time ago I sent some of them to Dr. Edwin Palmer, long­time member of our Fellowship and editor of the New International Version, asking him to write something to help our readers deal with the prob­lem. Shortly thereafter we were shocked by the news of Palmer's death, so that we are not able to benefit from his experience in trying to deal with this matter.

Approved Versions🔗

Four English Bible Versions have been declared acceptable for use in Christian Reformed Churches by the synods: The King James, the American Stand­ard, the Revised Standard, and the New International. The history of the church's approval of the last two may be particularly interesting. When the Revised Standard Version appeared the C.R. Synod in 1954, on the advice of a study committee which called at­tention to the liberal bias betrayed at a number of points in the translation, decided not to approve it for use in public worship. Thereupon a member of the church, of which this writer was pastor, Mr. Howard W. Long, convinced that there was a real need for a good modern translation in ordinary English especially for use in our evangelistic con­tacts, proposed that if the RSV was not satisfactory for this purpose we ought to try to get one that was. The result was an overture from the Consistory of the First Church of Seattle to initiate an effort to get such a translation. The overture, which failed to get classis support, aroused the interest of the synod. In the Lord's — providence the eventual out­come of this proposal was the publication of the New International Version a quarter of a century later. In the meanwhile a Synod in 1969, reversing the pre­vious disapproval, designated the RSV as accept­able for use in worship services. Finally, in 1980 the Synod accepted also the NIV for such use.

Among the many less carefully done, some one-man, translations these four versions recommended by our church assemblies stand out as much more substantial. But the synod decisions do not really re­solve our readers' problems. Which of the four is really to be preferred? Why did the synod reverse the earlier disapproval of the RSV? Had the version changed or had the later synod only become less dis­criminating? And to complicate matters, some have been telling us that the historic King James Version is really the authentic Bible and that the claims about later versions, allegedly based upon more ac­curate texts, are really just showing the influence of liberal higher criticism among Bible scholars.

Tentative Observations🔗

First of all we ought to observe that the Bible's claims about itself (2 Timothy 3:13 ff., 2 Peter 1:19-21, etc.) compelling Bible-believing Christians to maintain that it is infallible and inerrant, apply to the Bible as it was given but do not apply to all of the various ways in which scholars through the centuries have translated it. Translations are authoritative only in the measure that they are faithful to the original. We do not have perfect translations, but have to pray and work for the best we can get. The historic King James Version, despite all of its merits as good English, was written in the language of Shake­speare's time, a language which differs increasingly from the language we speak today. To insist on us­ing it is to handicap us especially in our evangelistic outreach to others, as well as in training our own children. And the translators of the King James ver­sion did not have as many earlier manuscripts avail­able for study as later scholars did. The American Standard Version works under a number of the same handicaps and is becoming harder and harder to get. The Revised Standard Version does show the objectionable liberal influence an earlier synod ob­served, but it generally also tries to follow more closely the word and sentence structure of the origi­nal Hebrew and Greek texts than most later ver­sions do. How shall we evaluate the new NIV. Al­though it was very carefully done by conservative scholars and is smooth and easily read, it tends to be considerably freer than others in departing from the word and sentence structure of the original texts. One notices that in his minority report to our last synod on this matter Dr. Bastiaan Van Elderen (despite the fact that he on other occasions has pub­licly defended higher critical treatment of the Bible) objected to the synod approving the NIV for church use because it was less a word for word translation than the RSV was. The reason for its free transla­tion he saw was its acceptance of what is called the principle of "dynamic equivalence."

The use of dy­namic equivalence may promote greater clarity and understanding of a passage, but often this is at the expense of precision and fidelity to the original lan­guage. For private use, devotional reading and study purposes this may be acceptable. And the NIV is an excellent contribution to the collection of such versions. However one must question whether a ver­sion employing the principle of dynamic equivalence can be used liturgically in the church. Obviously this issue has not been adequately addressed by our liturgists and biblical scholars.Acts 1980, pp. 268­-269

It is significant that a committee of the Canadian (and American) Reformed Churches (according to a report by Professor Faber in their June 28, 1980 magazine Clarion), after careful study, came to a somewhat similar conclusion. Despite the weak­nesses of the RSV, because it is more of a word-for-word translation, the committee decided to recom­mend it to the churches in preference to the NIV.

A Helpful Book🔗

On this confusing subject of Bible translations I recently ran across an outstandingly good and help­ful book, The Future of the Bible by Jakob Van Bruggen. It is published by Thomas Nelson, the well-known publisher of Bibles, notably the RSV, as well as the earlier ASV. The writer is professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Reformed Theologi­cal College in Kampen, the Netherlands, the school of the (Liberated) Reformed Churches. The purpose of the book is not to recommend one or another translation, but rather "to help Christians under­stand the history of the translation of the English Bible so that they can do their part to influence its future development" (p.x). Bypassing "incidental objections" which "can be raised against any trans­lation" and seeking to lead the reader beyond the too common "stiff defense of the old translation just because it is old and revered, or ... an equally stiff rejection of that old translation because the lan­guage is archaic," the writer sets out to expose the principles which should guide every responsible translation. He gives special attention to the con­troversial theory of "dynamic equivalence."

From the King James to the Modern Versions🔗

Beginning with the long accepted King James Version the discussion shows how especially the later revisions, beginning with the RSV abandoned word-for-word translation. This movement proceeded much further in the New English Bible, and Today's English Version (also known as the Good News Bible) until the Living Bible became so free that it no longer even claimed to be a translation.

The old King James Version has been criticized with the allegation that it was made from a text which was much poorer than that used in making later translations.

Van Bruggen observes that the evidence available does not demonstrate that the scholarly texts of our day are any better than those used in 1611. All will admit that the text followed by the translators of the King James Version is that found in the great majority of the extant Greek manuscript. p. 22

When the King James Version was made "it was taken for granted that scholarship alone was not suf­ficient; the translators were assumed to be orthodox in doctrine," subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles — a Reformed doctrinal statement.

In the 19th cen­tury, however, while there was still a demand for scholarship, indifference was shown regarding the faith and confession of the translators.  p. 25

In­evitably, as the author shows, this adversely af­fected the translation of the RSV and even more of Today's English Version. The translators of the NIV set out to correct this development by requiring on the part of those engaged a faith in the Scriptures.

A Changing Idea of Translating🔗

While the King James Version was to be "as con­sonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek," "the ideal of the modern translator, on the contrary" is to produce a work that is so much in the idiom of his time that it "not be noticeable as a translation" (p. 27). The difference between these two is not merely one of style but "it is a difference between two philosophies of translating." The writer points out that modern translators, setting aside the struc­ture and word order of the original are attempting, using their own idiom, "to produce an equivalent ef­fect." "Formerly the central question was what one translated. Today the central question is for whom one is translating. The attention is shifting from translating into the English language to translating for English-speaking people" (p. 29). The attempt to achieve an equivalent effect leads to the incorpora­tion into the translation of the wishes, preferences, and restrictions of those for whom it is designed. Adoption of this theory of "dynamic equivalence" es­pecially on the part of the Bible Societies has further led to their translating selected parts of the Bible designed to appeal to particular groups, beginners, youth, women, the handicapped, etc.

The problems of translating are not new. The author devotes a chapter to exploring the history of such labors, in the debate between Augustine and Jerome about the merits of the Greek Septuagint in comparison with returning to the original Hebrew, and those between Erasmus and Luther and Tyn­dale and More on the importance of faith and theol­ogy in the translation of Scripture — a history which lack of space forbids us to follow now.

The Bible Societies have come to take an increas­ingly dominant role in translating the Bible, largely as a result of the deterioration and doctrinal devia­tion of many traditionally Protestant churches.

At present these societies no longer see their translat­ing work solely as a service to the churches, but above all, as their own inherent duty towards modern society. And in that translating they are guided by the principle of dynamic equivalence.p. 65

The "Dynamic Equivalence" Theory🔗

These developments are compelling us to take a critical look at this "dynamic equivalence theory," which the Bible societies have officially accepted as the most important guideline for their work. This theory involves not merely taking into account the character and distinctive manner of expression of the language into which one is translating. Every translator must do that. It involves certain assump­tions about the nature of communication and about the character of the Bible. According to this theory it is essential that we give much more attention than was formerly given to the "culturally and socially determined and limited nature of man" (p. 69). The theory has "grown out of modern anthropology and sociology" (p. 71), and it involves what we have com­monly come to call "the new hermeneutics." The church must "transform" the truth to meet the needs of its own time. Van Bruggen cites an example to show what kind of transformation of fundamental Bible teaching is envisioned.

In the biblical world, where one was accustomed to sacrifices and temples, God's work of reconciliation was mainly described in terms that were borrowed from the sacrifices and that pictured reconciliation as compliance with the demands of God's justice. But in the conflict-filled twentieth century, says Nida (leading exponent of this theory), reconciliation is better interpreted in terms of peacemaking. p. 72

Notice how in the working out of this theory even the central doctrine of the atonement gets "translated" out of the Bible! Advocates of this theory such as Nida try to justify it by appealing to the doctrine of the Incarnation. In it they claim God's "revelation is given by means of the time-bound forms of human communication" (p. 75). "God did not give eternal truths," says Nida, "but granted communication."

What's Wrong with the Theory?🔗

Van Bruggen shows that the way in which the In­carnation is used to defend this theory is far from or­thodox. "Because He was fully God and fully man, Christ was not limited and time-bound." "He could ... speak — with his human tongue — words that came from heaven and revealed the Father to us." "...the new wisdom may have come to the early Christians in Aramaic or Greek, but its result was to liberate them from the slavery to their time and cul­ture." The author reminds us how Paul in 1 Corin­thians 1 and 2 insisted that he did not (do what the theory says men must do) bring the gospel in the words and wisdom of the men of his time. "The the­ory of dynamic equivalence takes into account the receptors of the Word as they see themselves, but not as God views them." "This approach seems to show a sensitivity toward the reader, but in fact it shows a disregard of what God Himself says." "The Bible, therefore, should not be reinterpreted so as to make its message suitable to modern culture. The Scripture is plain that we should not add or take from that which has been written" (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Jude 17; 2 Peter 1:12-15; Revelation 22:18, 19).

What Course Should we Take?🔗

In contrast with this faulty theory and some of the errors which it produces in translation (which the author illustrates), reliable translation demands (1) faithfulness to form, (2) clarity, (3) completeness, (4) loyalty to the text, (5) spirituality, (6) authori­tativeness and (7) ecclesiastical usage.

When fol­lowed (as the author explains them) they will pro­duce a translation that becomes a vehicle through which the ancient Scriptures are carried to modern men and women without being transformed to suit contemporary needs as interpreted by the trans­lator.p. 142

A concluding chapter pleads for church reforma­tion and for the restored church's renewed involvement in the translation in effort to regain one ac­cepted and used version. This would still leave room for study and use of other versions but they, in his opinion, should not push aside the ecclesiastically ac­cepted one. The King James, despite its virtues, he judges antiquated. "One who now holds to ... (it) without updating it contributes to its neglect and progressive disuse." He recalls briefly the merits and demerits of attempted revisions of the King James. Regarding new translations "in this book it has be­come clear" that they (including the NEB, TEV, and The Living Bible) "are unacceptable to those who put great importance on the reliable rendering of God's Word. The freedom these translations take with the inspired text is far too great. They cause confusion and hinder the preservation of the true Scriptures. How the NIV will turn out is not yet clear." (The complete translation was not yet pub­lished when Van Bruggen wrote.) "In the New Tes­tament the NIV is not only on the same path textually as the revisers of 1881, but it is also too free in its translation. To a lesser extent than in the case of the TEV, however, the NIV misuses this freedom for doctrinal purposes. Often the NIV does not transmit the intention of the Scripture accurately or completely. Fluent and clear English must not be achieved by accepting some loss in content or accu­racy. The NIV New Testament in its present form cannot be considered a reliable substitute for the KJV or even the RSV." (In an appendix the author lists examples to illustrate these conclusions regard­ing these translations). In the growing polarization between translations that focus on the language and taste of the receptor and those that focus on the ac­curate transmission of the inspired text, and the parallel polarization between modern but less accu­rate and very good but old fashioned translations, we must seek again, in the conviction of the author, to get one English Bible.

King James is long gone, "But King Jesus is here, and the church, ... remains accountable to the King of kings for all the efforts that are undertaken for the preservation of His one Word and its translation."

I have reproduced in broad outline what I found to be the extraordinarily illuminating discussion of Professor Van Bruggen of what is for me as well as others the confusing problem of choosing between translations. We must not exaggerate the size of the problem. The differences between the more respon­sible English translations are not as great as a con­centrated discussion of them might suggest. The gospel is being clearly conveyed through them. But in this area, as in others, we must pray for and seek to achieve and use the best that we can get. Some of us had long anticipated the appearance of the New International Version. When it appeared I was en­thusiastic about its clarity and smooth reading, but less enthusiastic about its freedom in translating from the original. Perhaps my apprehensions about that were partly attributable to familiarity with the older versions. Careful reading of Van Bruggen's il­luminating book, however, suggests that something more serious is involved in this wide divergence from the original text to make smoother and easier reading. It suggests that despite the orthodox dedi­cation of the translators the influence of the modern dynamic equivalence theory of translating, embody­ing misleading modern subjectivist assumptions, prevented them from achieving the definitive Eng­lish version of the Bible for which we hoped.

Let us make abundant and grateful use of the NIV and the help it can give us in understanding many parts of the Bible. Let's use it in combination with the older, more literal versions in the prayerful ef­fort to know, experience and convey "the whole counsel of God."

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