Now as for the use of the Bible in study groups, it will not be necessary for me to describe to those who have much experience of it the problems which arise from different people having different versions in front of them. We all know what happens. Someone reads a passage out loud, and others follow along in their own Bibles, in whatever version they may be, and the differences between the versions sometimes give rise to difficult questions. This problem is not severe when the different versions are all essentially literal, having only minor differences which are easily taken in stride. But I have often had to explain to people why so many “dynamic” renderings are incorrect. I have been involved for many years in group Bible studies, at which various versions were being used, among them the King James, the New American Standard, the New International, the English Standard Version, and others, all of which can be read together without much trouble. But when such a version as the is read, it is quite impossible for people to follow along in other versions. They soon lose track and look up from their Bibles in confusion. I have seen this several times in recent Bible study meetings. A “dynamic equivalence” version can only be used very extensively if uses it. But this is out of the question. Nor is it even possible, because these versions come and go, and keep changing. The people who use them also come and go. They will buy their own Bibles, of course, and they will choose between versions for their own private reading; but a teacher must use a version that is not always going its own peculiar way. Even if I enjoyed some paraphrastic version, and wanted to use it in ministry, I know it would not be practical to use it much in the context of a Bible study. There is no way around it: a version that is used in common must be a relatively literal one.
The priority of the heard form of language over the purely written forms is particularly important for translations of the Bible. In the first place, the Holy Scriptures are often used liturgically, and this means that many more people will hear the Scriptures read than will read them for themselves. Second, the Scriptures are often read aloud to groups as means of group instruction …
One must recognize, however, that neo-orthodox theology has given a new perspective to the doctrine of divine inspiration. For the most part, it conceives of inspiration primarily in terms of the response of the receptor, and places less emphasis on what happened to the source at the time of writing. An oversimplified statement of this new view is reflected in the often quoted expression, “The Scriptures are inspired because they inspire me.” Such a concept of inspiration means, however, that attention is inevitably shifted from the details of wording in the original to the means by which the same message can be effectively communicated to present-day readers. Those who espouse the traditional, orthodox view of inspiration quite naturally focus attention on the presumed readings of the “autographs.” The result is that, directly or indirectly, they often tend to favor quite close, literal renderings as the best way of preserving the inspiration of the writer by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, those who hold the neo-orthodox view, or who have been influenced by it, tend to be freer in their translating; as they see it, since the original document inspired its readers because it spoke meaningfully to them, only an equally meaningful translation can have this same power to inspire present-day receptors.
Now we grant that probably gives more legend than history here, but we must credit the author with knowing what it means to have an authoritative book! And we notice that he correlates authority with , “exactness.” The aura of canonicity is gained by the translation by virtue of its literal accuracy. Likewise Philo of Alexandria explains in his treatise (first century ) that only such a literal translation, in which there is an exact and consistent word-for-word correspondence, could truly represent the sacred text:
The minister was J.C. Ryle, who went on to become a bishop himself. Unfortunately, his views were not shared by many bishops in the Anglican church, but I wish to point out that when Ryle thinks of “for what the Bible was given” he thinks of an authoritative standard by which all things are weighed, judged, and tried. I wonder how many evangelicals today think of their English versions in these terms.
The publishers of the “dynamic equivalence” versions have at any rate been very aggressive in promoting these versions as if they were suitable for everyone, young and old, Christian or non-Christian. The now is making much headway in our churches as a version for the whole congregation, being used in the pulpit and in Bible study classes. I wonder how superficial the preaching and teaching must be in such churches, where this simplified version is thought to be adequate or necessary. What if a man who has been under such a steady diet of pablum happens to open an exegetical commentary and read there the comments of a scholar, or visits a church where the Bible is explained in some detail? He will not be long in seeing what a false impression has been given by his easy-reading version. It is not at all as he was led to suppose. The main ideas of the Bible are indeed simple enough, ; but it is very far from being true that every verse of the Bible is simple. Moreover, if he reads any moderately detailed treatise of theology he will find that the great theologians of Protestantism habitually call attention to linguistic details that are simply absent from his Bible version. If a man knows the Bible only through such a version, and has been encouraged to think that it is just as accurate as any other, how well has he been served? He has been treated like a child or a simpleton. Is it any wonder that many educated people scoff at Christianity when even our Bibles have been so dumbed down that they offer nothing above the level of a ten-year-old child? Is it any wonder that we have such problems getting the interest of the men (who ought to be the spiritual leaders of their households) when everything is designed for children? In regards to this, perhaps the words of the old Scottish preacher, James Stalker, bear repeating.
For a long period the versions were approached rather naively and used directly for textual criticism on the uncritical assumption that the base from which they were translated could be readily determined. But the matter is not that simple. Anyone who translates also interprets: the translation is not simply a rendering of the underlying text but also an expression of the translator’s understanding of it. And every translator is a child of his own time and of his own culture. Consequently every translation must be understood and appreciated as an intellectual achievement in its own right. This is especially true of the versions of the Bible which were produced to meet the practical needs of a community. Most versions of the Bible have been the work of anonymous translators (usually of many translators) who have given concrete expression in their work to the intellectual assumptions of their age and their culture, the religious and other opinions which they adhere to or respect, the prejudices and concerns which they adopt consciously or unconsciously, their education, their ability to express themselves, the conceptual range of the language they are translating into, and many other factors. We must therefore distinguish between what comes from the original text and what is added by the translator—a formidable task to accomplish before we can use the versions for purposes of textual criticism.
Outside of America, linguists have never been very supportive of the approach taken by Nida. European linguists have always placed much more emphasis on the connection of language to culture. And some linguists who have written in English on the subject of Bible translation in recent years have begun to show some awareness of what is really involved in Biblical interpretation. Ernst-August Gutt, for instance, has written several articles on this subject, in which he takes advantage of a new development in linguistics known as “relevance theory” to promote more adequate ideas about translation.
Here Würthwein is speaking of ancient versions of the Old Testament, such as the Greek Septuagint, the Aramaic Targums, and the Latin Vulgate; but what he says concerning these ancient versions must also be said about modern English versions. And if it is “especially true of the versions of the Bible which were produced to meet the practical needs of a community” — , versions like the Targums, which have their contemporary readers very much in mind, and which aim to make the text highly accessible and pertinent to them — then it is also especially true of modern English versions that are of this same character. This warning about the use of highly interpretive versions does not lose its relevance when the versions are modern, and it pertains just as much to simple questions about the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words as it does to the specialized text-critical research of scholars like Würthwein.
When I entered linguistics, the rightness of the equality of all languages was so certain that it was believed, and argued, that one can express anything in any language, translate anything into any language, that all languages are equally complex. Not that one had evidence. The statements were simply consistent with, elaborations of, an insurgent and triumphant world view. … Every translator knows that there are things which can be done in one language that cannot be done in another. It is only if one divorces meaning from form that one can claim that there is completeness of translation. Given pages enough and time, that meaning, that effect that takes one line in the original can be explained. But still the meaning is not the same. Meaning is partly a matter of means. Elaboration, explanation substitute or insert the meaning of a different genre. What is funny or trenchant or compelling in the sound profile of a single line is not as a disquisition. The hearer or reader is changed into a student of a text, no longer an active participant in immediate recognition.