Let’s say you’re an aspiring Bible translator, or perhaps a struggling translator. Where do you get help, other than going to a school that teaches Bible translation (which are few and far between)? Chances are your local Christian bookstore will have nothing to help, and the Internet is not much more help. Searching an online bookstore would give you many more results than you want, most unrelated, and few Bible translators discuss their art on line (and it is an art).
So how do you get started studying on your own? I’m here to help. In the last few decades an entirely new scholarly discipline has grown up in the secular world called translation studies. Scholars in this field acknowledge the contributions of Bible translators in this area, starting with Jerome on through Eugene Nida of dynamic equivalence fame. (DE; Nida changed the method’s name to functional equivalence, but most scholars still use the DE moniker.) It is a good time to study how to be a translator.
First of all, let’s consider what is available which is written by actual Bible translators. Strangely enough, many who write on the subject have not actually done translation, including the famed Nida. (To be fair, he served as a consultant on many projects, so he did know the field.) Let’s start with James Price, the Old Testament editor of the NKJV. His first book on translation, Complete Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1987), is a good basic book on the literal method, contra dynamic equivalence. His other book, A Theory For Biblical Translation: An Optimal Equivalence Model (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), is excellent, but a very scholarly work for which a good knowledge of both Hebrew and transformational grammar is necessary.
The little book Translating Truth (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005) is another book on the literal method, in particular the method of the ESV translators. It has articles by Wayne Grudem, Leland Ryken, C. John Collins, Vern S. Poythress, and Bruce Winter. They call their method “essentially literal,” and this book will be a help for the aspiring translator. Particularly interesting is the chapter by Wayne Grudem on the theological basis for literal translating.
A somewhat different method is described by fundamentalist Charles Turner in Biblical Bible Translating (2nd ed. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publ., Inc., 2001). Having worked on a tribal translation in Papua, New Guinea, Turner teaches a somewhat freer method of translation designed for tribal translation work. One good point about his book is its practicality. For example, he includes a chart which the translator can use to record the progress of the translation book by book, chapter by chapter, and in percentages and number of verses per book.
Translating the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co, 2009), edited by Stanley E. Porter and Mark J. Boda, has a number of good articles about where Bible translation theory is today. Though it is a somewhat technical book written by and perhaps for scholars, the missionary translator will find some help in it.
Here is one last suggestion in the area of Bible translation. Even a translator using a literal method should be familiar with Eugene Nida’s DE method. I suggest his last book on the method written with Jan De Waard: One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986).
Bridging the gap between Bible translation and secular translation, we find Ernst-August Gutt, who is both a Bible translator and a linguist. In his book Relevance Theory (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, and New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), Gutt applies the comparatively recent relevance theory of communication to Bible translating. While I believe the Bible stands on its own as revealed truth, making the literal method the best, relevance theory still is helpful in understanding how the target audience will receive the translation. In this respect I consider it much better than the code theory underlying DE.
In the area of secular translation studies, Susan Bassnet has written an excellent basic textbook, Translation Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1980, 1991, 2002). Of particular help are the chapters on “Central Issues” and “The History of Translation theory.” She does touch on Bible translation, noting the same thing about DE that James Price does in his book mentioned above: “Even in his simplified theory, Nida does not tell us how the deep structure transfer occurs” (p. 57).
Edwin Gentzler has written a great introduction to the main theories of translation studies, Contemporary Translation Theories (Revised 2nd ed. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2001). Of particular interest to the Bible translator are the sections on skopos theory and “scientific” theories. (As with many secular scholars, he gives due credit to Eugene Nida for his pioneering work in the field, while being dismissive of DE itself.)
A similar book is Key Terms in Translation Studies by Giuseppe Palumbo (New York: Continuum International Publ. Group, 2009). Palumbo deals well not only with the terminology, but with the main theories and methodologies and their proponents.
Finally, in the field of secular translation studies, no brief list of recommendations would be complete without a book by Lawrence Venuti. He is the editor of The Translation Studies Reader (2nd ed. New York and London: Routledge, 2004), which should certainly be on the reading list of any grad class on translation. In this book you have several gems helpful for Bible translators, such as a new translation of Jerome’s “Letter to Pammachius” by Kathleen Davis, Fredrich Schleiermacher’s “On the Different methods of Translation” etc. Of the books Venuti himself authored, I highly recommend The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference (New York and London: Routledge, 1998). This book will help the reader understand Venuti’s influential division of works into foreignizing and domesticating translations.
And there you have it. If you are serious about translation studies, this will get you started. Happy reading!