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Does it mean what it says?

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Is a translation of a text supposed to provide what it says or what it means? Or what the translator thinks it means, or wants it to mean?

One translation approach-whether of the Bible or anything else-is the "formal equivalent" method. This approach seeks words in the English language that replicate as closely as possible the words in the original language.

The other approach is the "dynamic equivalent" method. This approach seeks to replicate not words but meanings.

A good translation, of course, will do both, but "the dynamic equivalent" approach, favored by most contemporary Bible translators, carries with it a certain philosophy about the text that can easily be abused-as secular linguists with no theological ax to grind are pointing out.

The pioneer of dynamic equivalence in Bible translation was Eugene A. Nida, former head of the American Bible Society, who, to his credit, did much to translate the Bible into multitudes of native languages on the mission field. The goal, as he explains it, is to render the biblical text in terms of the culture of the readers. "The equivalent forms," he said, "should not be 'foreign' either in form ... or meaning." The translated version should not only read like a modern text; it should resonate in terms of modern meanings. A passage, he says, should be expressed "in terms of relevance to the present-day world, not to the biblical culture."

This approach to translation, arguably, makes the ancient world of the Israelites more accessible to tribes in the mission field. Mr. Nida and his approach gave us the "Good News" Bible in modern American English. The approach can be used modestly and judiciously, as it was in the New International Version (NIV). But Today's New International Version (TNIV) takes the approach to an extreme that reveals the limitations of the dynamic equivalent method.

First, how can a scholar writing thousands of years later, from an entirely different culture and speaking an entirely different language, be so confident of what the original text "really means," other than what it says?

Second, the ancient biblical world really is quite a bit different from modern American culture. To make it not seem "foreign" is to miss the point, since it actually is foreign. And making the Bible fit our culture-instead of making our culture fit the Bible-has a way of watering down its authority.

Secular linguists-such as Stephen Prickett, in Words and the Word and Origins of Narrative-describe the dynamic equivalent approach as "naïve" and "simplistic" in its understanding of language and in its assumption that cultural meanings are easily transferable. Dynamic equivalent practitioners pride themselves on achieving clarity, but a text like the Bible, according to Mr. Prickett, is filled with mystery, multileveled meanings, and unique "untranslatable" revelations-all of which get leveled out and lost in many contemporary translations.

Mr. Nida admits that his approach involves "exegesis" as well as translation. A dynamic equivalent translator must substitute what he thinks something means for the literal expression, instead of leaving the exegesis and interpretation for readers and pastors.

Another problem with dynamic equivalence is that it tends to explain away metaphors, figures of speech, and specialized language-when those are the very elements that make a text powerful and profound. For example, the New Testament often refers to Christians as "saints." We don't use that word much anymore, so the TNIV gets rid of "saints," using instead words like "believers" or "people of God."

But this obscures an important theological point, that Christians are considered by God to be holy. If the translators wanted a new term for the word used in Greek, they might have used something like "holy ones." But to change "saint" to "believers" focuses on belief rather than holiness; to "people of God" focuses on their membership in a community. Those do apply to Christians and are described elsewhere, but "saint" contains a profound theological insight that is blithely swept away.

A person has to know "what it says" before trying to figure out "what it means." And it may never be possible to exhaust the depths upon depths of meaning contained in a single verse of Scripture. The TNIV translators, in trying to make the Bible more suitable to modern sensibilities, just get in the way.

Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.


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