Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Word about "A word on translation theory": A response to Denny Burk

Bible translation debates can get very heated very quickly. Christians have their favorite version that they like to read. Having a conversation with someone who is informed about Bible translation philosophy is extremely rare. Enter Dave Brunn's book One Bible, Many Versions. Recently DennyBurk posted some thoughts about Brunn's book. I'm not confident that all of Burk's criticisms are fair.
Burk claims that Brunn at times is nuanced in his discussion of Formal Equivalence translation theory (or what some prefer: Essentially Literal) and at other times he is not. He does provide some examples, like Brunn saying that these translators believe that “increased literalness” always leads to “increased faithfulness and accuracy” (on pages 49 and 50). So I looked up pages 49 and 50.

On these pages, Brunn never says that Formal Equivalence translators are claiming that increased literalness leads to increased accuracy. It seems obvious to me that he is trying to correct the common misconception amongst Christians that the more literal a translation, the more accurate. I hear that very consistently in conversations with pastors, seminary students, Bible college students, and members of churches. This is an urban legend of Christianity. Brunn addresses it and doesn't say that the translators advocate it. His audience is not Bible translators of Formal Equivalent translations, but people in the pews. Burk might be “mirror reading” the wrong people into this dialogue.

Burk says, “Readers might be tempted to think that Brunn has uncovered a discrediting inconsistency with Formal Equivalence translation—that Formal Equivalence translations claim to be 'word for word' but that they don’t really carry it out consistently in practice (191).” My fear is that readers of this post might think that Brunn has naively characterized Formal Equivalent translations and then won't take the time to read his book and have informed thoughts on the issue. Not only does Brunn NOT appear to “tempt” readers in to thinking he has uncovered a “smoking gun,” he goes OUT OF HIS WAY to show this. Note this quote from page 68:

The translators of literal versions such as the ESV and NASB are aware of the tension that exists between ideal and real translation, and they acknowledge that tension in their Bible introductions. For example, the introduction to the ESV includes the following statement: 'Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between 'formal equivalence' in expression and 'functional equivalence' in communication.” Brunn cites the introduction to the ESV so that what the Formal Equivalence translators are claiming is put right in front of the eyes of his readers. No smoking gun, nothing uncovered, no secrets revealed. Ironically, Burk thought that quoting from the ESV introduction would be the way to resolve any question about what the translators think so he quotes some of the exact same words that Brunn quoted. Seems like Brunn did a great job covering his bases.

Burk does provide an interesting response to some of Brunn's comments on page 191. I find myself kind of stuck between them on this issue. I've heard some “essentially literal” translation advocates say, with my own ears, that when a translation doesn't have an English word where a Greek word was, then the translators must not have a high view of the authority of Scripture.

For example, the Greek text of Matthew 28:18a says:
And Jesus came up and said to them saying ...”
ESV: And Jesus came and said to them ...
HCSB: Then Jesus came near and said to them ...
NIV: Then Jesus came to them and said ...

All of these translations “drop” the (redundant) word “saying.” Does that mean that the translators have a low view of Scripture? No, of course not. I think Brunn may be responding to some of these extreme comments, comments that I have heard translators and lay people make. But Burk asks a good question: how much of that is acceptable in a reliable translation? That truly is where the crux of the debate is at, and I'm confident Brunn would agree with Burk that this is where a valuable discussion can take place.

Overall, I think the confusion here is that Brunn is writing to lay people who have a lot of confusion regarding Bible translations. I can't count how many times I've heard the concept that "literal is more accurate" in small groups. While scholars and translators may not be promoting this idea, lay people do believe this. That is who Dave Brunn is writing to ... not scholars and translators.

1 comment:

Denny Burk said...

Hey, David. Thanks for the push-back. It's good sharpening. I've invited Brunn to post a response on my blog. Hopefully he'll take me up on it!