Reflections on Bible Translation

In the movie Good Will Hunting, there is a scene where Skylar asks Will if he’d like to go out for coffee sometime. The dialogue goes something like this:

Skylar: Maybe we could go out for coffee sometime?
Will: Great, or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels.
Skylar: What?
Will: When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.
Skylar: [laughs] Okay, sounds good.

There is something insightful here. Coffee is the norm, the traditional activity for college/grad students, especially for informal gatherings and dates. Getting together to eat caramels sounds strange and rather ridiculous – its not normal. Its not the right way to go on a date.

But when you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee. And yet its not. Going somewhere and eating caramels is one of the things that captures Skylar’s attention that this isn’t just any other guy. In the movie, eating caramels actually becomes a better activity for these two people to break the ice and have fun – get to know each other.

In Bible translation, some are telling us that we must use formal translation to convey meaning the best. Its what we’ve done. It worked for the KJV, it worked for the NASB, and the RSV.

Great, or maybe we could do something new that nobody has ever done. Maybe we could do a translation in natural English language!

When you think about it, its just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.

Or is it? Could it be that there is a better way to express meaning that does not preserve the form? “Surely not!” they say, “There is meaning in the form that we must reproduce!” Yes, I agree. But to use Greek or Hebrew syntax to reproduce that meaning is a flawed approach.

Chomsky taught us over 50 years ago that “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” He taught us that syntax and meaning can be completely separated from each other. You can have perfect form without meaning.

The implication of this for translation is that Greek/Hebrew form is not needed to convey meaning, not at all. We must, instead, determine the best way to represent that meaning conveyed in the form in the translation. And that is exactly where Dynamic Equivalence translation theory comes in. Dynamic Equivalence does not mean we ignore literary forms. It means that we seek to best represent that meaning in English.

The fact is that in my opinion, the debate over translation is not whether one should use the so-called formal translation or the dynamic one. The debate is over which translation is actually the better representative of the meaning. Its a debate not of over theory, but over tradition. DE translation theory says there are better ways to render the text in to English than the tradition way.