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Dumbing Down the Bible

Dynamic equivalence translations of the Bible, according to Leland Ryken, not only assume illiteracy in their readers, but also ensure that readers remain at a low literacy level.


Further assumptions about modern readers fill out the picture of what I call a naïve readership. Dynamic equivalence translations regularly assume that contemporary readers struggle with figurative language, so that, in the words of one translation, “at times we have chosen to translate or illuminate the metaphor” (NLT). Incidentally, translating the metaphor is exactly what equivalence translations do not do; they do not translate the metaphor but remove it from sight. Not only is figurative language said to be beyond the ability of modern readers, but so is the ability to enter the ancientness of foreignness of the biblical world. In the preface to the NIV, we read that the translators based two of their renderings on the premise that “for most readers today the phrases ‘the Lord of hosts’ and ‘God of hosts’ have little meaning.” An unstated and perhaps unrecognized assumption in all this is that readers cannot be educated beyond their current abilities—to me a naïve and untenable premise. If this were not the operating premise, translation committees would not fix their translation at a lowest common denominator of reading ability and comprehension. In effect, “easy reading” translations ensure that readers will remain at a naïve level of comprehension, even if the translators would disavow that this is their aim.

This, then, is one way in which dynamic equivalence translations are naïve: the translators producing them assume an audience with minimal linguistic and theological ability and then produce a translation adapted to the assumed needs of the audience. Essentially literal translations are not naïve in this sense. They expect from their readers what we as a society expect of educated adults and even bright teenagers in other areas of life. The reply to the charge of elitism is simple: essentially literal translations make the Bible neither more nor less difficult than it was in the original. Faithfulness to the original is the goal of essentially literal translation; catering to the assumed wants and needs of the modern reader is the goal of dynamic equivalence translations.

—Leland Ryken, Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Crossway, 2005), 64–65.

Posted 2008·08·18 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Leland Ryken · Translating Truth · Translations

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