For 20 years, missionary and translator Dave Brunn labored to provide the Lamogai people of Papua New Guinea with Scripture in their own language. Meanwhile, a debate broke out among Western Christians about the merits of translating the Bible into different versions of English: Are "dynamic equivalent" translations (which aim to reproduce the basic meaning of original biblical texts) as faithful to the original biblical text as "literal" (word-for-word) ones? In One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (IVP Academic), Brunn, dean of academics for New Tribes Mission's USA Missionary Training Center, explains the choices faced by Bible translators and exposes the limits of English-language conventions in understanding the translation process. Lindsay Olesberg, Scripture engagement director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and author of The Bible Study Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to an Essential Practice (InterVarsity Press), spoke with Brunn about the judgment calls that translators inevitably face, no matter which translation theories they espouse.

Why do English-speaking evangelicals face so much tension around this issue?

Part of the tension is due to a limited, incomplete view of translation. I don't question anyone's motives. They are all driven by a desire to protect the faithfulness and accuracy of God's Word as it is translated into English or another language.

But it is a little bit dangerous to raise discussion of Bible translation to the level of doctrine. Obviously, there are key doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth and the deity of Christ, that we must protect very carefully. But the Bible does not give instructions on how to translate a message from one language into another.

How has your experience in Papua New Guinea shaped how you see the current debates about English translations?

When I first went to Papua New Guinea, I was committed to translating God's Word as faithfully and as accurately as possible. I thought I had a good idea of what that meant, but I quickly realized that I had oversimplified the actual task of Bible translation. I heard people articulate proposed standards for faithfulness and accuracy. But I found that many of those standards are based on English grammatical features that do not exist in Lamogai or many other languages. So, if those standards are really God's universal standards, then Lamogai would automatically be disqualified from having a faithful and accurate translation.

A lot of people don't realize that since English and Koine Greek are both Indo-European languages, the degree of accuracy that we have in our English New Testaments is largely due to the fact that the translators were working with languages that are part of the same family, albeit as distant cousins. Translation into English is not easy, but there are many more difficulties faced by those translating into unrelated languages—difficulties that those translating into English would never imagine.

What most surprised you as you started comparing the original Hebrew or Greek with various English translations?

As I approached a passage to translate into Lamogai, I looked at the original, and then I would compare as many English versions as I could. I thought I understood what "literal" translations were in English. But I found that every literal version frequently breaks its own rules of literalness and word-for-word translation—and not only when the grammar or other specific constraints force them to. Often it's just a judgment call for the translators. It really surprised me to find out that the supposedly "literal" versions are often not literal in places where they could have been. There is also a surprising number of places where the intentionally nonliteral versions actually end up closer to a word-for word rendering.

My goal is not to argue translation theory. Different theories of translation often come down to little more than philosophical differences between translators. I'm trying to let the real evidence speak for itself. What have the translators of "literal" versions done in the actual practice of translation? I think, by implication, they are saying it is okay to go beyond some of their own guidelines.

So calling their translations "literal" or "dynamic equivalent" is somewhat misleading in terms of what actually happens on the ground?

I don't think anyone is intentionally trying to mislead. But when Bible scholars call a translation "word for word," they know that cannot possibly mean that every word in the translation matches every word from the original. The term "word for word" is unfortunate. To the average English-speaking Bible reader who has no access to the original languages, it implies a higher degree of correspondence with the original than is true of any English version.

You call your book a "plea for realism." Why does the translation debate need that sort of perspective?

A lot of books and articles have been written about Bible translation. The vast majority of them tend to be theoretical, academic, or philosophical. Authors will often articulate their philosophy of translation and then use a few carefully selected examples to support their position. I have tried to take a broader look at the evidence in all of the versions, especially in the more avowedly literal translations. I find that the discussion within the theoretical realm doesn't do a good job describing what the translators have done in actual practice. I would prefer to let the real evidence speak for itself. Everything that people will criticize in another version, I can show them many places where their version does exactly the same thing. So it doesn't make a lot of sense to put down other versions.

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One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?
One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?
IVP Academic
2013-03-04
207 pp., 22.49
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