Review: One Bible, Many Versions

onebiblemanyversionsMany of issues addressed in Dave Brunn’s new book are things that I wish every Christian knew about bible translation and at points I found myself almost cheering for Brunn as he began his explanation of the bible translation process. He does a wonderful job explaining many of the challenges bible translators face and masterfully demonstrates how similar answers to those challenges have often been chosen by translators who have embraced very different translation philosophies. Before reading Brunn’s book, I had already read several reviews which admittedly had shaped my expectations and so I was surprised to find that I was initially agreeing with him far more than I had anticipated. However, as I continued to read, I soon realized that my original expectations were not as far off as I had thought. While Brunn explores aspects of bible translation that I wish every Christian understood, too often he stops short in his explanations and leaves the reader with an impression that is not entirely accurate. I would like to explore some of the places were I believe Brunn’s explanation falls short.

 

The meaning or words

Brunn does an excellent job explaining how a single word in the biblical languages can have many different meanings in English, he explains how the meaning of words in different languages are almost never identical and how words used in translation seldom perfectly convey the meaning of the original language. One of the myths held by many Christians is that the bible they use is a  “word for word” translation and Brunn does an excellent job illustrating why a true “word for word” translation would be impossible to produce. Unfortunately, Brunn also significantly overstates the ambiguities that bible translators face when determining the meaning of a given Hebrew or Greek word. One of the ways in which these ambiguities are amplified in his book results from his failure to explain the difference between lexical meaning (the meaning of a word as defined in the dictionary) and actual meaning (the meaning of a word in real a sentence). In every language, grammar, context, and form almost always limit the meaning of a word to a small subset of the possible meanings found in the dictionary. For example, if we look at the lexical meaning of the English word “saw” we find multiple meanings.

saw – noun, a tool used for cutting; noun, a proverb; verb, to cut; verb (past tense of) to see; verb, to move back and forth.

But if I were to use this word in the following sentence:

“I saw a man using a saw to saw wood.”

I would find that each instance of the word “saw” in this sentence is limited to exactly one meaning. Grammar and context prevent any misunderstandings about what meaning was intended in each of the three specific instances where this word is used. While the lexical meaning of the word “saw” has at least five different possible meanings, the actual meaning of each instance of “saw” in this sentence has exactly one possible meaning. While context and grammar do not always eliminate all but one choice, as they did in this example, a word’s actual meaning is almost always limited to a small subset of its lexical meaning.

 

The limits of dynamic equivalency

After demonstrating why “word for word” translations are impossible, Brunn does a good job of showing why every translator must adopt a “meaning for meaning” methodology to some extent. However, he fails to adequately explain the boundaries that should constrain the translator. One of the stated translation goals of many English translations has been to leave interpretation, as much as possible, in the hands of the reader. By striving to interpret as little as possible, the translator avoids introducing his own sectarian biases into the text. Brunn rightly points out that in some circumstances this goal is truly unattainable (which is something every translators understands) but he then concludes, wrongly in my opinion, that if it can be shown that an interpretive choice must be made for the reader in any circumstance then it is acceptable to do so in every circumstance. Rather than cautioning the translator to avoid introducing their own interpretations into the text, he opens the door wide open for this practice with very little being said about practical boundaries. While I am sure that, in practice, Brunn recognizes that there are boundaries that should not be crossed, he does a very poor job communicating those boundaries in his book. To illustrate why it is important for a translator to avoid overly interpretive translations, I offer the following “translations” of Hebrews 6:4-6. The first interpreted according to Reformed theology and the second interpreted according to Arminian theology.

The Reformed version

It is impossible for those who appeared to have once been enlightened, who have pretended to taste the heavenly gift, who have fooled us into believing that they have shared in the Holy Spirit, who may even have themselves thought they had tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)

The Arminian version

It is difficult for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who are now falling away, to be brought back to repentance. While they continue to rebel, they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)

While these “translations” might legitimately reflect the interpretations offered in commentaries, neither of these “translations” belongs in any bible. Both of these translations are overly interpretive and resolve theological debates that are not resolved in the text itself. While either of these interpretations might reflect the meaning of the text as it is understood by the translator, offering either of these translations in a version of the bible would be crossing lines that should offend us all; it should offend us even if we happen to agree with the interpretation offered.

 

Philosophical differences

Brunn makes almost no mention of the philosophical differences related to understanding language itself that have shaped the different translation theories he explores. While it is true, as Brunn aptly demonstrates, that people who hold very different philosophies about language can come to the same conclusions about the meaning of a particular text, understanding those philosophical differences helps one understand why they frequently come to very different conclusions about meaning. At the heart of this difference are questions about the beginning of language itself i.e. did language originate with God and are there common ideas expressed through language that transcend culture or did language originate with man and is every idea constrained by the experiences of the culture and/or individual? Eugene Nida, considered the father of the Dynamic Equivalent translation theory holds strongly to the latter position. According to Nida, words do not have any inherent meaning, they are simply symbols used to communicate ideas and no two speakers associate the exact same ideas with the same symbols. Nida says that he does “not believe in truth apart from experience and cultural experience.” Here is an excerpt from Nida’s lecture where he attempts to explain the process of communication to his students.

“Now he [i.e. the source, or initiator of communication] has to, in order to express that, to communicate it, to select from his own background, mind you, he selects from his background, those particular symbols which to him best represent that experience and he then puts them together in the way in which he has learned to put them together.  Now this is a very important point because his use of symbols depends entirely upon his experience and background with those symbols.  No two people ever have the same background; therefore, no two people ever mean exactly the same by the same symbols!  This is discouraging for communication, isn’t it?  Nevertheless, this is really the way it operates and unless we’re aware of this fact we can get tied up in all kinds of misunderstandings.”, lecture that Nida gave in 1962.

And in a lecture at Asbury Theological Seminary in 1994, Nida suggests that there are no absolute truths that can be determined from Scripture. His position is typical of many evangelical postmodern theologians who accept the existence of an absolute truth but reject the idea that anyone other than God can know anything at all about that truth.The assumption is that if one does not have an infinitely perfect understanding of truth then they cannot have any assurance that anything they believe is true and because none of us can have infinite and perfect knowledge, we are all left without any hope of being able to determine truth at all. While Nida, in theory, affirms the existence of an absolute truth, in practice he leaves us with nothing more than theological and moral relativism. Here is an excerpt from his lecture at Asbury.

Yeah, but if you, you cannot define God how can you then have an absolute?  Only God himself is absolute.  I’ve had people say to me, “God couldn’t have done that because it’s contrary to Scripture” meaning, contrary to their interpretation of the Scriptures.  And God is the only absolute.  And once we try to get an absolute out of a variety of cultures we’re just kidding ourselves because all of those are contained within culture and therefore, every one of them is limited.  And if you’re going to put a bunch of limited things together you’re not going to come out with something that is unlimited – an absolute.  So, add up as many as you like.  But it’s not going to be completely supracultural.

I believe it is important to understand the philosophical assumptions held by the leading proponents of this translation theory and to understand how those assumptions have affected the underlying tenets of the theory itself. By recognizing the underlying philosophical assumptions, we can better understand why there are frequently very different choices made in translations produced by those who have adopted these principles compared to those who have not.The practical rejection of absolute truth combined with a belief that words are merely “symbols” that are associated with ideas only in the mind of the speaker/author has opened the door to translation practices that have begun to challenge Christian orthodoxy itself. The recent Turkish translation which translates “Father” as guardian and “Son of God” as “God’s representative” or the Malay translation that translates “Yahweh” as “Allah” are good examples of how far astray a translation can go when we accept the philosophical propositions that are foundational to the Dynamic Equivalent theory of translation. To be clear, I am not suggesting that everything encompassed in Dynamic Equivalent theory is itself wrong or that every translator who has adopted Dynamic Equivalent translation practices has accepted these underlying philosophical assumptions. Much of what is called Dynamic Equivalency today has been a part of translation for as long as their has been translation and, as Brunn points out, it would be impossible to translate without accepting the validity of some of these ideas. Unfortunately, he does not address any of the underlying philosophical questions that are wrapped up inside the modern theory of Dynamic Equivalency and that is where the biggest disagreements exist.

 

Are all versions equal?

One of the areas where Brunn and I most strongly agree is in regards to the wealth that English speakers posses because we have been so richly blessed by having access to so many good English bible translations. One of the questions I am frequently asked is “Do you need to know Hebrew and Greek in order to understand Scripture?” and my answer is always, absolutely not! Because there is such a wealth of bible translations available in English, English speakers can gain valuable insights into the text just by comparing a number of good English translations. Unfortunately, this is also where I think Brunn and I disagree most. Brunn leaves the impression that each translation is an equally valid representation of the original text and that is a proposition I do not accept. While I agree with Brunn that there is no such thing as a perfect translation and that each translation has its strengths and weaknesses. I also recognize that the original authors of Scripture intended to communicate specific meanings in the words they chose and a translation that communicates that intended meaning more accurately is better than one that does not. When two translations communicate very different meanings for the same text, at least one has miscommunicated the meaning intended by the author. By using multiple English translations, an English reader can more easily identify texts that presented challenges to the translators but this does not mean that an English reader should accept every meaning found in each bible translation as valid, rather these differences should indicate areas where more study is needed when seeking to understand the biblical text. When we compare multiple bible translations, we usually find that there is general agreement about the meaning of the text. When one version diverges from that general agreement far more frequently than do others, it should be treated with much more caution. If one version presents a very different meaning for a given passage in Scripture, then the translators of that version should be able to articulate a very strong objective argument that explains why so many other translators have misunderstood the text that they alone have understood. In the absence of that explanation, it is typically best to assume that the meaning conveyed by the majority of translations is the meaning the author intended.

One additional area where English speakers are truly blessed comes from the accountability translators face because there are so many English speakers that read the biblical languages. If the translator of an English version of the bible veers to far from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, there will many people who understand these languages that will begin to raise the alarm. Unfortunately, people groups that have only one translation of the bible also seldom have this kind of accountability. There are seldom any text books available in these languages for students wishing to learn the biblical languages and even the translators themselves seldom have sufficient training in the biblical languages that would enable them to work directly from the original texts. Often the barriers preventing the kind of accountability we have for our English translations are almost insurmountable. When the translators of bibles intended for these remote people groups accept the underlying tenets of Dynamic Equivalent translation theories (as most have been taught to do) it sets up the perfect storm for potential abuses in translation with almost no accountability when a translator goes astray. Frightening translation choices, that would have raised alarms long ago if any English translator had ever attempted them, have survived almost completely undetected for many years in some languages. When comparing translation theories, I believe it is helpful to understand what is being produced in languages that lack the accountability that typically keeps the English language translator in check. There, more than in English, the fruit of each theory is revealed.

 

How accurate are Brunn’s examples

Most of the time Brunn’s examples are very accurate but occasionally his examples demonstrate his own misunderstanding of the biblical languages. For example, when he argues that the Hebrew word BRK means both “bless” and “curse,” he fails to recognize that there is much more involved in this example than just simply the meaning of the word; the challenges in this passage have been the subject of many articles in journals of the Biblical languages. Ironically, the verse he chooses to illustrate his point is the one verse (out of the four in the beginning of Job) where the meaning of “curse” is most frequently disputed by Hebrew scholars, some believe that Job’s wife may have gotten a “bad rap.” Sometimes his examples are a little bit of a reach. For example when he argues that one “word” in another language can often mean much more than an English word, he fails to mention that one “word” in many languages is frequently the equivalent of an entire phrase in English because pronouns, prepositions, verb conjugations, etc.. are prefixed, suffixed, and/or infixed together to form what appears to be one word to those who do not understand the language. Some of his examples really demonstrate the structural differences between languages rather than the idea that a single “word” in these languages really means much more than words do in English. On the whole, most of Brunn’s examples are very good and the most common difficulty arises from what he has not said rather than what he has said.

 

Conclusion

Brunn’s book has a wealth of good information that would be helpful to anyone wanting to understand more about the process of bible translation and it has an abundance of examples that help illustrate the points he is making. Unfortunately, his book overemphasizes the ambiguities that translators face and provides almost no information that describes how these issues are typically resolved. Because information about bible translation that would bring balance to the topic is frequently not discussed, this book often leaves the impression that the meaning of the original text is almost unknowable and that every attempted translation is equally valid. At times, Brunn hints at the idea that there are boundaries that translators should not cross but unfortunately he never really discusses these boundaries and ends up leaving the impression that, if these boundaries exist, the line is very, very blurry. I do wonder whether Brunn would accept the legitimacy of the translation practices of many who see his book as an endorsement of the troubling translation choices that have made?

Addendum 8/3/2013: After publishing my review, I have had the opportunity to dialog with David Brunn and he graciously answered many of the questions I have raised. His responses can be found here. I would encourage all to read his response. 


Notes:

  1. “Dynamic Equivalency” is an older term and most recent discussions about translation use the term “Functional Equivalency” in its place; however, “Dynamic Equivalency” is the term understood most easily by those who don’t frequently read about translation practices.
  2. Finding translators who are willing to invest their life learning the languages of the many people groups that do not yet have a bible, often under primitive conditions in remote locations is a huge task. Requiring these translators to also learn Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew would make this task nearly impossible. My statement about the lack of language skills was only a statement of fact and not itself a criticism. I am concerned about the methodology that is used by many of these translators because it does allow for a little too much latitude in translation and when combined with limited knowledge of the original languages and, as is too frequently the case, a limited understanding of Christian theology and history, it has opened the door to some very troubling translation practices.
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