Understanding English Bible Translation by Leland Ryken

December 2nd, 2009

Purchase at Westminster Books $9.74

Ryken, Leland.  Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2009.  208 pp.  $12.99. Purchase at Westminster Books.


Leland Ryken has been professor of English at Wheaton College since 1968 and has written over 30 books.  Most notably, he was the literary stylist for the English Standard Version translation of the Bible published by Crossway as well as the coeditor of the ESV Literary Study Bible.


When you ask the typical Christian why they read the particular Bible translation they are reading they usually give an answer like, “I understand it” or “I was raised with it” or “It was given to me when I became a Christian.”  When you ask the typical Christian what translation of the Bible they study, they more than likely offer similar responses.

If you were to ask them to explain the difference between a literal translation and a dynamic translation and points in between, you would undoubtedly get a deer in the headlights look.  Most do not know about the style of translation to care (though some care a bit too much) and really have no clue as to the repercussions of what translation they are reading.  It is one thing to read The Message (a dynamic-equivalent translation) as a devotional, but to study from The Message is to leave one drinking lake water as opposed to the pure spring water found in more literal translations.

Fortunately, Leland Ryken has written a book that greatly helps to introduce the necessity of knowing more about the style of translation used in a Bible.  His book is “thick” enough for the seminary student to read and “light” enough for the layperson to read and both glean the nuances of the problem at hand.  Divided into five parts, Ryken takes his readers on a journey from not understanding the discussion to engaging and wrestling with the issues.

Part one is a simple overview of what is at stake.  Here the reader learns the definitions and questions that need to be asked before embarking on the journey.  The second part offers a short synopsis of how we first got our English Bibles.   I would recommend Paul D. Wegner’s book The Journey from Texts to Translations to anyone wanting to know more about how we got our various translations of the Bible.

The third part might be the most interesting to many readers.  It is in this section that “the gloves come off” so to speak.  Ryken looks at the dynamic equivalence translations that are used extensively in the pews and in studies today and the essentially literal approach.  Upon laying this foundation, Ryken proceeds to argue rather convincingly for the latter.  He concludes his treatise with reasons why an essentially literal translation ought to be predominantly used in the church today.


If you have never given any thought to which translation you are reading, then you need to read this book.  If you are using say The Message or the New International Version, then chances are you will be upset by this book.  That is a good thing!  I have learned over the years that whenever I read something that makes me angry or upset, unless I am reading about something that is sinful, it is usually a good thing.  Read Ryken’s book and be challenged.  Approach the discussion with an open mind and you will be delighted to engage the issue more than you know.

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