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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Bible translation theory: a shifting paradigm

Many who critique Bible translation theory are not aware that a paradigm shift has been occurring for a number of years within this field. It is no longer adequate simply to contrast Dynamic Equivalence (pioneered by Dr. Eugene Nida) with Formal Equivalence, or Literal (or Essentially Literal) with Idiomatic translation, when discussing approaches to Bible translation. A major factor for the current shift has been the application of Relevance Theory (RT), a linguistically based theory of communication, developed by British linguists Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, to translation theory. A seminal book by Sperber and Wilson is Relevance: Communication and Cognition. A scholar who has pioneered application of RT to translation has been Bible translator and consultant Dr. Ernst-August Gutt, who has written a number of books and articles demonstrating the inadequacy of previous translation theories used by Bible translators, including:
Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation
Translation and Relevance. Cognition and Context
The literature on RT and translation is not easy for laymen to follow (nor all linguists, for that matter!). But the concepts promoted are important to translation of better Bibles. Dr. Leland Ryken refers positively to the writing of Dr. Gutt in his book, The Word of God in English. So have some other Bible scholars who have recently promoted more literal (or "transparent") translations of the Bible.

A critique of both Dynamic Equivalence and Meaning-Based translation theories has been written by Dr. David Weber, Bible translator and linguistic consultant, in a technical article titled Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

This is an interesting time to work as a Bible translator. Not only have major shifts been taking place affecting gender language in English, but a major paradigm shift is occurring in Bible translation theory itself. Those who wish to be as current as possible in the debates about Bible translation theory would be well advised to dig into the literature on changes taking place within this field.

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At Sun Jul 24, 03:20:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I think it would have been fairer to point out that many Bible translators, including myself, have serious reservations about the Relevance Theory approach, and especially about how it has been applied by Ernst-August Gutt. Well, let me anticipate your response to this by offering to contribute a summary of my objections to this blog - in due course! Meanwhile some of you might like to read my rather technical paper about this and related matters, called "Holy Communicative?", in "Translation and Religion" ed. Lynne Long, Multilingual Matters 2005, available from, or see the draft of this paper at

At Sun Jul 24, 06:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

You're right, Peter. I was trying to be as concise as possible and still give the overall picture of change which is occurring within Bible translation. As you know, I, also, have had reservations about some aspects of RT. But I also see great value in being sure that language and culture-specific inferences are allowed in the translated text, so that there is not overtranslation.

My hope is that there are some bridges that can be built between Bible translation "literalists" and those following other translation approaches. I think that a bridging possibility exists through "legitimate" application of RT to Bible translation.

And, of course, I look forward to any posts you can make on this blog which can give more details to limitations of application of RT which Bible translations need to be aware of.


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