I just finished reading a book that came off the press within the last month:
Dave Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? IVP, 2013. 205 pgs. $16.00, pbk. ISBN: 9780830827152.
This book contains a perspective that I have long thought needed to be heard in the debate over English translations: that of a Bible translator working in a language other than English. Brunn repeats several time a statement to the effect that “well-meaning Christians unwittingly [make] English the ultimate standard for Bible translation” (this instance from p. 180). This is not a statement directed toward the “KJV-Onlyism” cult perspective (though it is certainly relevant in that context). Rather it refers to the more “main stream” discussions over contemporary English translations. Too often that discussion has been framed in terms that reflect only English translation. Guidelines are established, boundaries are set up, and translations are judged on the basis of principles that work only in English. Brunn makes the very valid point that if we establish specific criteria that must be followed in Bible translation, then those criteria should be valid in any language. (Yes, there are some English-specific considerations that come into play in our language, but those are not of the principle/criteria level, but of the application of the underlying principles.)
The book does not work from a theoretical model to specific application (as do most other discussions). Rather he begins with many, many examples of what has been done in a wide range of translations and then asked the pertinent questions regarding the theory involved. The results are both interesting and insightful, particularly in demonstrating how extensively “modified literal” translations use “idiomatic” renderings (his terms). “No version consistently follows its own ideals” (191). He does not argue that one particular translation or translation model is best. Rather, he argues like this:
It is not humanly possible to create a single translation that is perfectly balanced in all respects. For that reason, I recommend that every serious student of the Word have and regularly use a variety of translations—some modified literal ones and some idiomatic ones. That is the surest way to find balance in our understanding of Scripture.
Based on their ideals, the translators of each English version approached the translation task from a slightly different angle. The learner who is willing to walk all the way around a passage of Scripture, pausing to view it from each of these angles…, will come away with a more complete understanding than someone who reads and studies only one Bible version (166).
A key section of his concluding chapter summarizes what he has demonstrated in the book. (I’ve slightly revised the format of this list and omitted chapter references.)
- Translates thought for thought rather than word for word in many contexts.
- Gives priority to meaning over form.
- Gives priority to the meaning of idioms and figures of speech over the actual words.
- Gives priority to the dynamics of meaning in many contexts.
- Uses many renderings that are outside of its ideal range.
- Allows the context to dictate many of its renderings.
- Steps away from the original form in order to be grammatically correct in English.
- Steps away from the form to avoid wrong meaning or zero meaning.
- Steps away from the form to add further clarity to the meaning.
- Steps away from the form to enhance naturalness in English.
- Translates some Hebrew or Greek words many different ways.
- Changes some of the original words to nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs or multiple-word phrases.
- Sometimes translates an assortment of different Hebrew or Greek words all the same way in English.
- Leaves some Hebrew and Greek words untranslated.
- Adds English words that do not represent any particular word in the Hebrew or Greek text.
- Changes single words into phrases, even when it is not required.
- Translates concepts in place of words in many contexts.
- Sometimes gives priority to naturalness and appropriateness over the ideal of seeking to be transparent to the original text.
- Sometimes chooses not to use a literal, transparent rendering even though one is available.
- Substitutes present-day terms in place of some biblical terms.
- Paraphrases in some contexts.
- Uses interpretation when translating ambiguities.
- Makes thousands of changes that amount to much more than dropping a “jot” or a “tittle.”
- Adds interpretation, even when it is not absolutely necessary.
- Replaces some masculine forms with gender-neutral forms.
- Often sets aside the goal of reflecting each inspired word in order to better reflect the inspired naturalness and readability of the original.
The book is not written at a highly technical level, though most of it reflects the writer’s technical competence of the issues. It can be understood by those who have not studied the biblical languages and could be used in a local church setting. Some items I might have wanted to see stated more precisely or more suitably qualified (e.g., the comments on the LXX and on the OT quotes in the NT could use some revision and clarification), but overall, this is a book that I recommend. Pair it with the Fee/Strauss volume How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth and add Carson’s essay “The Limits of Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation—And Other Limits, Too,” ch. 3 of The Challenge of Bible Translation, ed. Scorgie (there are some other good essays in that vol. also), and you’d have a good introduction to the issues involved in Bible translation.
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I just discovered that Dave Brunn blogs here.