Book Review: Understanding English Bible Translation

Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach by Leland Ryken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach
Leland Ryken
ISBN-10: 1433502798
ISBN-13: 9781433502798

The one who avoids this book due to a fear of it being overly scholarly and hard to understand will certainly make a mistake. While the book is indeed well researched and intelligently written, it is also easy to read and to understand.

Ryken deals with the differences between dynamic equivalent translations of the Bible (those that translate in a more thought by thought manner) and formal equivalent translations (those that attempt to translate word for word).

Ryken claims that an essentially literal translation, or a formal equivalent translation is more to be desired than a dynamic equivalent.

Why? He gives a number of reasons. Two of these reasons stand out to me above all others. One is that the dynamic equivalent translations are not consistent. They vary from one translation to the other so that one is not sure which translation is correct. This leads to a destabilized text. It leads people to wonder which is correct. Another reason is that dynamic equivalent translations often present commentary instead of translation. Thus the reader gets the understanding of the translator, but doesn’t always get the understanding of the underlying text.

An essentially literal translation, however, seeks to translate word for word the original language into the receptor language. For the subject at hand, that language is English, because that is the language with which Ryken deals. (As an aside, I read one person who took issue with Ryken because things don’t always work as well when translating into languages other than English. Ryken specifically states, however, that he is only dealing with English and understands that other languages present significant challenges in this respect.) With an essentially literal translation, there may be variance in the words used to translate, yet they will still yield basically the same understanding when compared one to the other. An essentially literal translation will also present essentially the same words and phrases as the original texts so that the reader will be reading basically the same thing that the Biblical writers presented to their original readers.

As one who grew up under the King James Version and still uses it today, I was impressed that this author respects the KJV instead of breezily dismissing it. In fact, he claims (and I think, rightly so) that all essentially literal translations follow the same philosophy as the translators of the KJV.

In a day when there is much confusion over Bible translations and translating philosophies this book is a breath of fresh air. I believe it also brings some needed clarity to the debate. I could only wish that everyone saw the need for an essentially literal translation.

(This book provided for review by Crossway Publishers.)

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Understanding English Bible Translation

  1. CD-Host October 31, 2009 / 9:51 pm

    My problem with this book has been the Ryken’s positions contradict the actual practices in the ESV. I’ve written a few times about this for example Is the ESV essentially literal?. What Ryken is really arguing for is more like an interlinear. I personally advise people to use a very literal bible (like an interlinear) and a very dynamic translation. I often find at the level of literalness of the ESV that you end up with a translation that carries neither the nuances of the original nor the meaning.

    Let me give a couple examples I’ve used on my blog which demonstrate the problem with “essentially literal”:

    he first was in Spanish (from Mark Strauss)
    Original: ¿Cómo se llama?
    Literal Translation: “How yourself call?”
    Formal Translation: “How do you call yourself?”
    Dynamic Translation: “What is your name?”

    Then one in French (from Mark Taylor)
    Original: mon petit chou
    Literal: “my little cabbage”
    Dynamic: “my dear”

    Finally one in English to English which shows the problem of literal vs. dynamic (Mark Strauss)
    Original: “By the way, I’m hitting the road at the crack of dawn.”
    Literal: “Along the path, I’m punching the street at the fissure of sunrise.”
    Dynamic: “I wanted to let you know, I’m departing very early in the morning.”

    Of course the whole better bibles group are all advocates against “essentially literal” and I’m a regular there. So if you want someone who on this blog who would argue for dynamic I’ll take that position with the priviso that I basically support using the two extremes.

    • JasonS November 1, 2009 / 5:34 am

      I’m not extremely widely read as you seem to be. That being said, this is the first time that I can recall such a dichotomy made between formal and literal.
      I’m not sure that distinction is one we should deal with. After all, literal is not only for the purpose of translating the words, but the sentence structure, too. That would mean changing the verb/noun order where necessary.
      Another issue is that of figures of speech such as “hitting the road”. Should we translate this into another figure of speech, or should we simply allow for the old figure to be given with perhaps a marginal note to explain it? Personally, I prefer the latter. It seems to be more true to the text and one can come to his own conclusion by reading background material, etc.
      On dynamic I’m back to the issue that one has study aids to help them determine the meaning of the text. Why allow the translator to do that for us?
      I’m sure that each translation blurs the lines at times. I guess that’s next to impossible not to do. In the end, however, essentially literal seems like the most viable to me.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You give us much to think on.

    • Edward D. Andrews January 17, 2011 / 8:28 am


      I am Sorry, but you may wish to do a little more studying. Ryken is hardly advocating an interlinear. You are doing a bot of a red herring. Let us take it point by point.

      (1) An interlinear is a far cry from any literal translation and that includes the ASV and the NASB, the kings of literal. Let us look at (a) interlinear and (b) NASB.

      (a) Mark 3:12 INTER: And much he warned them that not him manifest they should make.
      (b) Mark 3:12 NASB: And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was.

      Here you can see, your argument is very misleading, and no where near being correct. An interlinear is the Greek text as found in a critical edition (WH NU, with the corresponding English lexical meaning beneath it. The English words are not altered based on syntax or grammar. There is no consideration of how the words work together, they are in isolation so to speak.

      (2) Your Taylor and Strauss arguments are weak a best, at worst, they are misleading yet again. To use Spanish and French in place of Greek and Hebrew is apples and oranges. First, the functional equivalent (FE) camp present that literal is that way all through a translation. The only absolute in this world is God. It is literal AS FAR AS POSSIBLE. The FE people want to quote what the literal people say about being literal, but leave out the “as far as possible.” Then the FE pick out a few verses that do read FE, and say something like, “see they do not even stick to the very principles that advocate.”

      (3) Your second Strauss example is misleading again. The literal example would be in the original language, and in an interlinear, not what your average churchgoer would read. The one used as the “original” would be the translation of the “literal” example. Let us look at it, how it would go,

      Interlinear: “Along the path, I’m punching the street at the fissure of sunrise.” [Here you have how it would look in an interlinear, a tool for Bible study and research, not reading.]

      Literal: “By the way, I’m hitting the road at the crack of dawn.” [Here you have an idiom translation, which if Hebrew, would be the translated just like this. Which is the word of God. Do you want what God said, or what another tells you God meant by what he said.

      Dynamic: “I wanted to let you know, I’m departing very early in the morning.” [Here you have a translator determining the meaning for the reader, which conceals the Word of God.]

      Below is a little educational note:


      The functional equivalent translator believes that somehow meaning exists apart from words. When asked in an interview for Christianity Today Magazine, “What do you consider your most important contribution to Bible translation?” Eugene A Nida responded: “To help people be willing to say what the text means—not what the words are, but what the text means.” The interviewer goes on to ask, “How did you develop your ideas about Bible translation 50 years ago?” Nida replied:

      “When I was at the University of California, Los Angeles, our professors would never let us translate literally. They said, “We want to know the meaning. We don’t want to know just the words.” I found that a number of the Greek classics had been translated very meaningfully, much better than the Bible had been translated. I thought it a tragedy to have the Scriptures in a form that most people misinterpret. Why should the Bible be so much more poorly translated than secular texts? I studied linguistics, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and I decided that we’ve got to approach the Scripture as though it is the message and try to give its meaning, not just to repeat the words.”

      What is often left out of this discussion is that the goal of every literal translator is to convey the meaning of the Biblical language into the English language. The difference is that they believe this is best accomplished by giving the reader what was said, while Nida and his followers believe that the translator has to skip over what is said into the realms of translating what is meant by what was said, because “they [you the reader] don’t understand the text,” so says Nida.

      Does the translation seek to render into English what was said in the original language as correspondingly as possible? Take note that an accurate translation is not one that is going beyond the English equivalent, in search of rendering the meaning of those words, but is one that seeks to render the words of the original language text into an English equivalent (corresponding) word or phrase as accurately as possible. A translation is certainly inaccurate if the English edition does not correspond to the original, as a mirror reflection, in any of the following ways:

      (1) if all of the original words are not accounted for by an English equivalent;
      (2) if the translation has added to or taken away from the original in any way;
      (3) Finally, if the meaning that the reader could derive by the corresponding English words has been affected, changed, in any way by an interpretive method.

      Roughly, six months after John starts preaching, Jesus comes to him at the Jordan. Jesus asks John to baptize him. At once John is in opposition to such an idea: “I have need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”” Yet, despite John’s objection, Jesus insists:

      Matt 3:15 (NUI) —having answered, but the Jesus said to him, “allow now thusly for fitting it is to us to fulfill all rightness” Then he allowed him.

      Matt 3:15 (LEB) —But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it now, for in this way it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted him.

      Matt 3:15 (CEV)—Jesus answered, “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.” Then John agreed.

      The reader of the Lexham English Bible, ESV, NASB, NW, and RSV will be reading the very words of God as they correspond in English: “to fulfill all righteousness.” The reader of the Contemporary English Version will get the interpretation of God’s words as, “do all that God wants us to do,” which TEV renders as “do all that God requires.” The TEV’s interpretation is similar to a number of other functional equivalent translations (NEB, NLT, and NIRV). The literal translations give us the corresponding English words of what the Bible says, while the functional equivalent translations interpret those very words to mean “obedience”, as understood by these translation committees.
      What is meant by “permit it now”, by “for in this way”, by “it is right”, or by “for us to fulfill all righteousness”? It is up to each reader of the Bible, to determine what is meant by these words. It is not the job of the translator to interpret what was said, but to give the reader what was said, for interpretation. Just looking at one of the phrases, what is meant by “to fulfill all righteousness”? Is it referring to the doing of all that God asks or requires, in other words, obedience? Does it mean that John and Jesus were righteous individuals? Does it mean, by baptism that Jesus would be entering a path of a right relationship with his Father, a symbol of presenting himself to doing the will of his Father? Again, it is up to the reader to make the determination as to what was meant by the words that Jesus used. Sadly, the reader of the CEV, TEV and other functional equivalent translations do not have that choice, because a committee has made the choice for them.

  2. CD-Host November 1, 2009 / 3:16 pm

    Jason —

    I’d say if you want to preserve expressions from another language and have explanatory notes you want to go far far more literal than the ESV. I can see why you agree with Ryken’s argument, though as I mentioned his translation choice doesn’t meet his objectives. My favorite at the level of literalness you are talking about is Brown and Comfort. And I think we agree if you basically see highly dynamic as a study aid with highly literal as “the text”.

    this is the first time that I can recall such a dichotomy made between formal and literal.
    I’m not sure that distinction is one we should deal with.

    I’ll see if this table comes up at all (wish there was a preview) but I think this list might make the distinction between literal and formal more clear.

    Hebrew/Greek, Diglot or Hebrew/Greek Reader (NA27, Majority /Byzantine Text, Textus Receptus, MT-Heb) Interlinear translation (Brown & Comfort, Marshall, McReynolds, Concordant interlinear) Highly literal (AMP, NASB, YLT, Mounce, Concordant) Formal (ESV, KJV, ASV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV)
    Balanced (TNIV, NET, NIV, HCSB, Price) Tight Dynamic (REB, NAB) Dynamic (NEB, NJB, CEV, NLTse, Gaus) Loose dynamic (NLT1ed, GNB, Voice) Paraphase (MSG, TLB, TAB, JBP)

    As for the disagreement as I read what you wrote in response I think we may actually agree. I don’t see either the formal or the dynamic as the text, the text is in Greek; and use both as an aid to understanding the text. You are saying that the you want to go as literal as possible (i.e. as close to the Greek as possible) with the dynamic as a commentary on the text. Which in practice amounts to the same thing.

    That being the case if a person were only going to use one bible translation I’d go for a dynamic over a literal. I think where the literal expression diverges from the meaning the reader with limited exposure is likely to draw the wrong conclusions.

    One bible that is not very literal but whose text notes are is the NET bible. I’d be curious what you think of it. While lacking in elegance it seems to do a very good job of capturing both meaning and structure and explicating translation issues.

    • JasonS November 2, 2009 / 9:50 am

      I’ve not looked at the NET much. Something turned me off the first time I saw it, and I haven’t given it a fair chance, to be honest.
      Will take a look-see.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I know that we are poles apart in many ways, but I appreciate that fact that you are generally kind in your comments and very articulate.

    • Xtreme July 27, 2010 / 9:47 pm

      Excuse me, but the TNIV is NOT balanced. You might want to do your homework better, son. The TNIV is a loose paraphrase (i.e. really bad commentary) and is gender inclusive. The REB is not tight dynamic, either. It delves into dynamic equivalency deeper than the rest, retaining the Apocrypha and also being gender inclusive. The NET, NIV, and HCSB are also NOT “balanced.” They are dynamic equivalency, the NIV being conservative in this area compared to its newest counterparts, the NIrV and the TNIV. The NRSV is NOT formal, either. It contains dangerous heresy, is DE, retains Apocrypha, and is gender inclusive. It changes the generic term “man” and “son of man” to 64 different words/phrases, which change the theological and doctrinal implications and understandings of the text. Five such examples are “nature,” “enemy,” “human commission,” “human society,” and “world.” Read Psalm 8:4 and imagine any one of those replacing the words “man” and “son of man.” You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about, son, and DE “Bibles” are NOT the way to go. I have studied Spanish so I know all about translational errors and how you cannot translate from one language to another with 100% pin-point accuracy. The examples you provided by Mark Strauss are just ignorant examples of reality. Mark Strauss’ arguments are sheer stupidity because the idiot is trying to fend for the TNIV, which if you’ve ever read it and compared it to the original languages is screaming out to hang it and set it on fire. The aim should ALWAYS be at being word-for-word, doing as the KJV did when needed and adding words to help make sense. But no more than that. DE “Bibles” are simply written according to the author’s interpretation of the text, which, more often than not, fails to represent it accurately and in no way reflects the original. So if you want to battle this argument out, I suggest you go do your homework because right now you’re coming to a battle of the wits unarmed, like coming to a gun fight with a knife.

    • Erik July 28, 2010 / 10:23 pm


      Thanks for stopping by. Sorry it took a bit of time to get your statement posted. For some reason, it was hung up in the approval queues.

      Your point about the TNIV is taken; but we’d ask that you refrain from what could be perceived as argumentative language:

      “You might want to do your homework better, son”
      “I suggest you go do your homework because right now you’re coming to a battle of the wits unarmed, like coming to a gun fight with a knife.”

      Such statements can be construed as combative, and we strive (although imperfectly) to carry on fair discussion with those who are willing to engage fairly.

  3. fundyreformed November 3, 2009 / 1:45 pm

    I agree that the ESV is not always “essentially literal”. And I also agree that there is a place for dynamic equivalency. The examples given here are the kind that even the KJV has (the literal Greek phrase “may it not be” is rendered “God forbid!”)

    However, I tend to think we should think less in terms of the reader’s needs and more to the need of the church. The Bible is designed to be read with teachers. That’s how God has set it up to be. I think Michael Marlowe’s discussion of the dangers of dynamic equivalency is pretty convincing that we shouldn’t advocate a DE Bible to be our primary reading/teaching Bible. This is not to say there is no benefit to a DE translation for study or even reading.

    Regarding formal vs. literal, that is fairly common I believe. You wouldn’t want to use Young’s Literal translation for any kind of reading or teaching/preaching, for instance.

    I really like the NET Bible. It’s study notes and textual/translational notes are superb.

    • Erik July 28, 2010 / 10:25 pm

      This is an old post, but I wanted to add that I found the first occurrence of the term “Essentially literal” in the Preface of the RSV, which is the basis for the ESV. I think it is a case of conservative scholars reclaiming an idea from the liberals (the RSV is notoriously liberal theologically).

  4. JasonS November 3, 2009 / 2:08 pm

    Bob & CD,
    Good points you both make.
    In the end I do not think that any translation will ever be totally literal. Perhaps that is the distinction that should be made. Essentially literal is not totally literal.
    I will agree that there is room for DE, but I do not think it should be one’s primary study Bible.

    • fundyreformed November 3, 2009 / 3:12 pm

      And to follow up here, there is a difference between the NASB (strictly literal or formal), and the ESV (essentially literal, or DE-light). I’ve heard that on the spectrum of Bibles the ESV is closer to the NIV than the NASB when it comes to literalness. I think just slightly closer, but closer nonetheless. It’s not the NIV however, and the NIV is not a strongly DE-heavy version like the NLT is.

      But in that same spectrum the NASB is a little bit closer to woodenly literal than the KJV, and a bit less woodenly literal it’s ASV forbear. Right on the woodenly literal column is Young’s Literal translation as well as interlinear translations.

  5. CD-Host November 5, 2009 / 10:29 am

    Bob & Jason —

    I’m a strong believer that the “one size fits all” bible is a bad idea in general. For example I advocate the KJV for formal liturgical purposes even though I think of it as a so/so translation of a poor Greek, accuracy isn’t that important for worship. For teaching you need to worry about how far to transculturize (that is translate cultural aspects) which depends on experience of the reader.

    Marlowe IMHO contradicts himself in how free he wants to be with the text. He advocates accuracy in places where bibles converges from conservative reformed theology and inaccuracy in places where the bible diverges from conservative reformed theology. He certainly is no fan of even very literal translations that don’t soften the bible in places hostile to his theology: for example the Concordant translation that Bob mentioned in the other thread, which is Arianist, Price’s translation (which is Atheist), Source (liberal Protestant), NET (Evangelical but to his left)…

    Another example is preservation of tone vs. preservation of language. The Scholars Version is very loose with language but preserves: tone and meaning quite well.

    My personal taste in translation is accuracy on its own terms. Translation is a complex process and the bible is a complex book. Translations aiming for accuracy should (IMHO) try and present one side of the prism accurately and assume the other sides of the prism are handled by totally different translations.

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