Thursday, January 11, 2007

Digging Deeper into the Science and Art of Bible Translating

As I've mentioned, experiencing The Bible Experience in Today's New International Version (TNIV) over the Christmas holiday prompted me to take a fresh look at translation theory.

Perhaps because my undergrad degree was in Classical Greek, I've tended to prefer the more literal translations such as the New American Standard Bible and, nowadays, the English Standard Version. One reason was that with these translations it was easier for me to discern the underlying greek without having to look it up.

But after listening to The Bible Experience and being blown away by it, I then decided to purchase a copy of Today's New International Version. Then my wife gave me this TNIV Study Bible for Christmas.

I decided, maybe for the first time, to read the Bible through in a year and to do it using my new Bible. I have been thoroughly enjoying this.

And since decided to read through the Bible chronologically (well mostly - I'm reading Old and New Testaments simultaneously and am still reading a Psalm a day and a chapter of Proverbs a day. I'm also not harmonizing the Gospels), I've been reading through the book of Job even before I get out of Genesis. I finished the book last night.

I have never in my life enjoyed reading the book of Job so much. I'll be blogging about it soon, but I had never before appreciated how theologically sophisticated this particular book of the Bible really is. And my feeling has been that my deeper appreciation derives from the fact that I'm reading it in a more dynamically equivalent text I'm getting a better understanding of it.

But I realize that this *feeling* is not necessarily evidence of a superior - or even an adequate - translation. And so I've been revisiting the dynamic versus formal equivalence discussion. I've been building out a section on this topic on faithmaps.org and just ordered

My intuition is that I'm going to come on the other side of this believing that both approaches are legitimate depending on the circumstances and reading intention. But my mind is open.

If you are aware of other good books on this topic or - especially - other great articles on either approach that I've not already located, please let me know in comments.

9 comments:

Randy McRoberts said...

I think it was in Fee and Stuart's "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth" where the proposal was to put a dynamic equivalent translation in front of you with a good paraphrase to its left and a literal translation to its right. Of course, that advice was for people who have no Greek.

I do read Greek, but I adhere to that philosphy pretty well to this day. Of course, the arranging is all done electronically on my laptop, since virtually all my Bible reading is done there.

I appreciate this post, Stephen. It is inspiring me. I needed a kick in the pants.

Stephen said...

thanks.

i should have mentioned in the post that I was just listening to s lewis johnson speak an an mp3 i downloaded and he talked about how the layman armed with 2 or 3 good bible translations can gain a significant understanding of the bible without any knowledge of greek, aramaic, and hebrew. he decried the notion that only those who know the original language have true access to the text.

Anonymous said...

1- My sweet husband gave me the TNIV for Christmas and I *love* it. I've been reading the NRSV (on the rare occasions I would read the Bible at all) for years, so the TNIV is a breath of fresh air for me. It's really renewed my love of Scripture. I'm digging into the Bible big-time now. I get gender-accurate translation that doesn't sound wooden to me. :)

2 - Do you have a link to the S Lewis Johnson talk you were referring to? I used to have a link to a church website with a bunch of his talks (the Daniel ones, plus others), but I have no idea what happened to it. You should just blog about him. He was cool. :)

Stephen said...

I love s lewis johnson! all his talks can be found here. The specific talk I was listening to was in his The Divine Purpose series which is listed under Doctrinal Studies Audio Series. It was talk #9.

AGT said...

Very interesting post. I've been looking for the most essentially literal English translation available, along with a good study version, for some time, and haven't quite decided what to purchase. This and your "Help in Finding" post from yesterday are pretty good help.

Stephen said...

AGT: For the best combination of study helps and a more literal translations I would either go with Zondervan's NASB Study Bible (same notes as my TNIV Study Bible) or with the Reformation Study Bible in the ESV. The former would tend to be more straight evangelical while the latter would be more focused on Reformed thinking.

R. Mansfield said...

Ultimately, there is a need for both kinds of translations--formal and dynamic (or literal and idiomatic). This should be recognized without denigrating one or the other. And as I said in my post the other day which you referenced on your blog, there's nothing more accurate or even more holy about literalness. In fact, it can often be unintelligible and therefore inaccurate.

Further, I'm of the opinion that a translation that tries to straddle the fence between formal and dynamic methods is often the best. I would put the NIV/TNIV in this camp. Formal-equivalent-only types often ignore that the NIV/TNIV can be literal at times as well. In fact the NIV/TNIV is MORE literal in a verse like 2 Tim 3:16 than even the NASB.

Stephen, you said in your post "Perhaps because my undergrad degree was in Classical Greek, I've tended to prefer the more literal translations such as the New American Standard Bible and, nowadays, the English Standard Version. One reason was that with these translations it was easier for me to discern the underlying greek without having to look it up.

I completely understand your sentiment here. I can see the word flesh in the NASB (or ESV) and immediately know that this word represents ????. I like that and like you I have the ability to make a proper interpretation (because ???? can mean a number of different things). However, it's only in the last two or three years that I came to realize a use of literal rendering like flesh is not understood by the average layperson. I used to think that it was okay if they did not initially understand--that it was my job to teach them. However, I now realize that such a thought is completely outside the spirit of the Koine that the NT was written in, and for that matter it's outside the spirit of the Reformation to deliver the Scriptures in each person's language. Certainly some things in scripture are still difficult. There will always be a need for responsible teaching, but I don't feel like we should put extra stumbling blocks before church members.

So, for instance, Sunday when I was teaching on Nehemiah in a Bible study that I lead, I used the TNIV. But last night, I sat in on a study in 1 John led by the pastor in which I carried a Greek NT and my NASB that has most of my own notes. But that has to do with me and my background. Since I had my Greek NT, I could have just as easily carried the TNIV, but I confess I wanted my notes with me!

I've come to the position that unless I'm in front of a fairly knowledgable group, I'm not going to use formal equivlent translations in public anymore. Tonight when I'm teaching at IWU, I will use the TNIV because I'll be in front of a group of business majors.

But I think it goes even deeper than that. You say in your post regarding reading through the Bible in the TNIV, "I have never in my life enjoyed reading that book so much. I'll be blogging about it soon, but I had never before appreciated how theologically sophisticated this ancient book really is. And my feeling has been that my deeper appreciation derives from the fact that I'm reading it in a more dynamically equivalent text I'm getting a better understanding of it.

I've made a similar discovery myself in recent years. After being a diehard NASB user for well over two decades, only in the past two or three years have I discovered that more idiomatic translations not only are more appropriate when I am in front of a general audience, but also in my own personal use.

Why? I can only guess that it's because the Scriptures are being spoken in the same language that I use on a daily basis. An idiomatic (or dynamic) translation simply communicates our language better than a literal translation. And when that happens, the scriptures are being communicated quite accurately.

R. Mansfield said...

I just noticed that in my above comment, a series of question marks (????) were substituted for my use of the Greek word sarx.

Rick said...

Personally I always had a bent against the more DE translations, that was, until I used Fee's commentary extensively as I translated my way through Philippians. Almost every liberty the NIV took to veer from a more formal translation he explained, and in almost every case I understood and agreed with it.

However, I do feel that all of the idiomatic, or DE translations don't do a very good job representing verb tenses and their inherent nuances. There is a way to express this without losing the smoothness or readability of the passage.

I'm blogging my work from translating Philippians, if some of you more learned guys get a chance, check it out and let me know what you think along with any suggestions.

blessings...