Friday, February 10, 2006

The communication fallacy in modern Bible translation

Dynamic equivalence

Eugene Nida a Bible translator devised the theory of dynamic equivalence in the early 1960s. Since then he and his theory have been a domineering presence in the American Bible Society, the United Bible Societies, and Wycliffe Bible Translators - in short, influencing almost completely the structures and institutions of modern evangelical Bible translation. Dr. Anthony H. Nichols completed a PhD thesis on this very issue, he observes that the "literature on Bible translation in particular over the last half century is dominated by Eugene A. Nida and his proteges in the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Wycliffe Bible Translators".

The dynamic equivalence (sometimes called "functional equivalence") philosophy of translation undergirds many/most modern Bible versions (exceptions to a fair extent are the ESV, RSV, ASV/NASV and NKJV). The goal and method of dynamic equivalence is to produce an effect in the modern-day reader that is exactly equivalent to that registered by the very first readers in their culture. The translator must have the same "empathetic" spirit of the author and the ability to impersonate the author's demeanor, speech, and ways with the "utmost verisimilitude". All of this intuition is required in order to express by a telepathic process, the thoughts of the author as he himself would have, had he been writing in the language and culture into which the translator is translating.

Thus, translation becomes equated with revelation, and the finished product every bit as much the Word of God as the original Greek and Hebrew, since it is the thoughts and not the words that count. Nida believes that: "God's revelation involved limitations...Biblical revelation is not absolute and all divine revelation is essentially incarnational...Even if a truth is given only in words, it has no real validity until it has been translated into life...The words are in a sense nothing in and of themselves...the word is void unless related to experience". It needs no emphasising surely, that this is entirely heterodox. Revelation is not when God has spoken but when man has received, this is presumably what makes it relative.

Modern translators of the Bible have made the rendering of its "spirit" rather than "letter" their basic assumption, and this assumption is rarely questioned even though it is decidedly untenable. An abstract distinction is drawn between the form of the Scriptures (the words used) and their content (meaning of the phrases). Nida (following the Saphir-Whorf linguistic hypothesis) continually speaks of the "essence" or "spirit" of the text as though the words were mere labels.

The distinction is fundamentally flawed, however, since as Henry Zylstra noted, "separation of truth from statement, of content from form, of idea from style, is a false and fatal separation. The form is essential to the meaning, to the understanding of it and to the communication of it". Discarding form in favour of content is the basic principle of the philosophy of dynamic equivalence, but clearly it radically "underestimates the intricate relationship between form and meaning in language" (Anthony Nichols, p.159). To "translate meaning while ignoring the way that meaning has been articulated is no translation at all but merely replacement - murdering the original instead of recreating it" (Gerald Hammond).This crudely mechanical idea "has led to a simplistic view of text, in which a particular sequence of meaning is couched in a particular linguistic form, according to the 'stylistic'preference (or, at worst, whim) of a given writer". In terms of the Bible this would mean the view (defective in its doctrine of inspiration) that the individual authors of Scripture and their mode of expression was irrelevant, accidental, or simply whimsical.

Historically, however, translation has always been understood as subordinate to the originals and dependent upon them, in the same way that streams are dependent upon their source. According to Reformed theologians such as Francis Turretin, the authority of the things/substance/content of Scripture (authoritas rerum) may be conveyed by means of accurate translation as well as in the original languages. The authority of the words of Scripture (authoritas verborum), however, may be maintained only in the words of the original languages. It is important to note that Nida's theory not only diminishes the authority of Scriptures by dismissing any significance in their original phrasing or form, it also degrades material authority. This is because material authority may be endangered by what is lost (inflections of meaning) through paraphrase and because with the original words obscured only one interpretation of them (which may be rarely true and never adequate) is instituted. Nida maintains that doctrines are in a sense culturally relative, that where substitutionary atonement has no communicable value it should be replaced by a doctrine of the atonement as simply reconciliation. It is alarmingly clear that material authority has only a tenuous existence when dynamic equivalence is rigorously applied. Material authority is destroyed when Nida tells us that part of the necessity of the translation process requires that ideas must be "modified". (On Translation, quoted Prickett, p.31).

One linguistics scholar has little time for Nida's idea of "equivalent effect": "The principle of "'equivalent effect'...involves us in areas of speculation and at times can lead to very dubious conclusions". Dr. Anthony Nichol's recent doctoral research concludes frankly that "equivalence defined in terms of receptor's response is impossible to measure". In some versions Western principles and thought forms seem to dominate making the Scriptures in effect Westernised a opposed to reflective of biblical language and culture. Dr. Nichols' highly important research investigates the influence of dynamic equivalence in several Far Eastern translations. The results are alarming: " what emerged was the immense influence of the GNB [Good News Bible] on three important non-western versions". It was concluded that "the renderings of the more traditional 'formal-correspondence' Indonesian versions were regularly more culturally appropriate [in comparison with the dynamic equivalent versions]".

It becomes readily apparent that Eugene Nida's idea of translation is one that obliterates the distinction between translation and exegesis, the latter is to be absorbed into the responsibility of translation. Nida proceeds to redefine exegesis as (the) "interpretation of a passage in terms of relevance to the present-day world, not to the biblical culture" (On Translation). In anyone else's book, however, this is hermeneutics and exegesis is the basic process of a historical-grammatical understanding of the text. Nida has simply switched the labels in pursuit of transforming the missionary and evangelist into a translator and vice versa. Dr. AH Nichols speaks of the way that Nida's notion of "equivalence" 'blurs the distinction between "translation" and "communication"'. Many versions like to promote this idea e.g. God's Word (1995) the translation published by World Bible Publishers who claim preposterously, "Now no interpretation needed. The Bible: the all-time best-seller but hardly the best understood. God's Word the revolutionary new translation that allows you to immediately understand exactly what the original writers meant".

Preaching and communication

No doubt, historically, the Bible has been widely distributed and every encouragement given that it be read. Never before, however, has its contents been tailored so brutally upon the Procrustean bed of communication. Historically, the preaching of the gospel - the personal and direct God-appointed means - has always been the primary means by which it is proclaimed. New Testament evangelism did not centre around making endless copies of Scripture portions or apostolic tracts. In our own day printed communication is not necessarily as perfect a means as we may assume. There is the problem of information-saturation and overkill through junk mail and the constant background noise of communication in our society.

It might be objected that the Bible says that it is the Word of God that produces faith. The reference is to Romans 10:17, "Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God", and it is that word "hearing" that makes us look again at the whole passage. "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call upon him whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!" (verses 13-15, my emphasis). Why did the apostles preach? Not surely because of the pragmatic choice that the cultural situation entailed, but simply because they were "sent" and commanded by the "wisdom of God" (Luke 11:49). They were the herald and witnesses of Christ, speaking as ambassadors on his behalf: "As though God did beseech you by us", says Paul, "we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). Often in fact the apostle's preaching is spoken of as Christ himself preaching (Eph. 2:17 and 4:20-21, I Pet. 4:11).

In Scripture we find that God always deals and speaks personally, that at least always speaks through authorised representatives (Exodus 7:1). The incident of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is instructive in the midst of these issues. Reading Isaiah 53 in his chariot, he is asked "understandest thou what thou readest?" This line is happily quoted for a joke by peddlers of the modern versions in their adverts, but perhaps they might take the trouble to understand the issues that the passage presents. The eunuch was probably reading a 300 year old Greek translation but his main concern was to have someone to guide him. The literal meaning of the word that he uses, hodogetos, refers to a guide, one who shows the way. The desire is not for an exegete but a hodogete. God is gracious to provide not only a map but a guide also, as it were. A dynamically equivalent translation would not have answered the burning question, "of whom speaketh the prophet this?" Even a study bible with its peremptory explanation in the study notes would still be very far from:

"Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus" (emphasis mine).

Bible and literature distribution has been greatly blessed in the conversion of many, and the work of the Gideons is crucially significant. In general, however, we would want to be able to present the gospel personally also. While many have the ability to read, that is not at all the same thing as having either the desire or the time to do so. Handing someone a Bible does not fulfill our evangelistic responsibility towards them, it only marks its beginning. An oral presentation deals upon personal terms - the way in which God Himself always deals, seeking to confront the sinner with a personal Christ as well as a personal frame of reference.

The apostle Paul saw no problem in reaching pagans by making use of a three-hundred year old Bible translation that was written in a form of the common language that no-one spoke. Paul also wrote in this dialect and used much terminology and many Old Testament analogies that were even more culturally alien.

The apostles correctly maintained a distinction between the covenant document that God has given to the church and the church's proclamation of the good news to unbelievers. Martin Luther understood this distinction well and expressed it memorably when he spoke of the 'synagogue' as the 'book house' but the 'Church' as the 'mouth-house'. The Westminster Divines placed a similar emphasis upon preaching in the means that are effectual for salvation. Question 89 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads 'How is the Word made effectual to salvation?' The answer is given: 'The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation'. Modern evangelicals need a higher view of both preaching and the Scriptures. The Reformed view of translations was that preaching supplied the inadequacies of translation, J. W. Beardslee III sums up the Reformed position as believing that preaching "continues the work of Bible translation; hence the importance of an educated ministry".

We are sometimes told that the incarnation is analogous to the Bible, that just as Christ came in 1st Century clothing so the Word must be translated into modern everyday idiom. Historically, however, this has been understood rather differently, Richard Sibbes advises ministers in their preaching to "take heed that they hide not their meaning in dark speeches, speaking in the clouds". Speaking of Christ's preaching Sibbes says "Our blessed Saviour, as he took our nature upon him, so he took upon him our familiar manner of speech, which was part of his voluntary abasement". Preachers cannot be held to be evangelistically inert if they fail to use a modern rewriting of the Scriptures. Noone will quarrel with the assertion that evangelistic communication must be vital and intelligible.

Edwin H Palmer (one of the NIV translators) argues emotively that it is almost unethical and unchristian for preachers to use the AV. With excessively absurd imagery Palmer importunes: "Do not give them a loaf of bread covered with an inedible, impenetrable crust, fossilized by three and a half centuries. Give them the Word of God as fresh and warm as the Holy Spirit gave it to the authors of the Bible [note the influence of Nida here, we can have the original thoughts of the authors] "For any preacher or theologian who loves God's Word to allow that word to go on being misunderstood because of the veneration of an archaic, not understood version of four centuries ago [it was 3 ½ centuries above] is inexcusable and almost unconscionable". As Don Carson has remarked, the most manipulative arguments in some of these kinds of debate are the "spiritual" ones. Noel Weeks states the issues much more clearly in the following remarks:

"Why this emphasis on simplicity in translation? Is it not a result of the fact that the prime means of converting the unbeliever has changed from the preaching and teaching of the gospel to the distribution of literature, especially of Scripture portions? [however] if the unbeliever is unable to understand the Bible as easily as his pulp novel, the cause is not lost. Let us go back to preaching the gospel as our prime means of evangelism. I cannot be convinced by arguments that Scripture must read like any other book if it is to have force. The New Testament was written in Hebraized Greek. The AV with its literalism is Hebraized English. Rather than being passed by as unreadable the Authorised Version has shaped our whole language whether people read it will ultimately depend upon whether God gives us power to preach it with boldness and conviction, rather than upon its simplicity and lack of technical words."