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Finding words to fit the ideas

06 September 2013

Translations are not necessarily the better for being literal, John Barton argues

One Bible, Many Versions: Are all translations created equal?
Dave Brunn
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THE title and subtitle of David Brunn's book will mislead many potential readers into thinking that this is a comprehensive guide to selecting a good Bible translation. In fact, it is a treatment (expert and sensitive) of the preference among some Evangelicals for "literal" translations. Apart from the KJV, he discusses only Evangelical versions, and there are no references to non-Evangelical scholarship, nor indeed to the existence of non-Evangelical Christians as Bible-readers.

The discussion thus takes place within a closely defined world of discourse, and those who do not belong to that world may well wonder why they should take any interest in the book at all.

That would be a pity, however, as Brunn has much to teach about biblical translation. He writes out of his training as a linguist, and his experience as a practical translator of the Bible (primarily the New Testament) into Lamogai, one of the many languages spoken in Papua New Guinea.

He challenges the assumption among many of his fellow Evangelicals that English is somehow the normative target language for translations of scripture, pointing out that the gap between New Testament Greek and English is very small compared with that between either of them and a non-Indo-European language such as Lamogai. (He recognises, but somewhat downplays, the fact that Hebrew is also non-Indo-European.)

Word-for-word translation, impossible even between Greek and English, is a ludicrous concept when the translator is faced with an agglutinating language, in which what we think of as whole sentences may need to be expressed by a single word. Although Brunn is the most eirenic of writers, he surely has in his sights "King James Version fundamentalists" who believe that this one translation is itself divinely inspired. Surely, he argues, God does not privilege English above all the other languages of the world?

The main argument of the book is a brilliant double-pronged attack on those who think that the more "literal" translations are, the better they are. First, an analysis of a dozen or so modern (Evangelical) translations such as NASB, ESV, NIV, and so on, reveals that none is really literal. Sometimes those that claim literality are in places actually less literal than others that are avowedly freer, and more committed to "dynamic equivalence" (idea for idea, rather than word for word).

But, second, he shows that literality is a will o' the wisp anyway. Once we leave aside the interlinear crib, which presumably no Bible-reader wants, all translations work by analysing the meaning of a passage and trying to express it in the target language. Some reflect features of the original more closely than others, but none is truly "literal".

This discussion should be pondered by all concerned with biblical translation. I wish Brunn would write another book for a less specifically conservative Evangelical readership, commenting on such versions as NRSV, NJB, and REB. Much discussion of preferences in biblical translations is woefully uninformed about basic linguistics, and Brunn has the enviable ability to explain the necessary concepts clearly and simply, as well as having practical experience that cannot but command respect.

Dr Barton is Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford.

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