I recently read Jason David BeDuhn’s Truth in Translation and found it deeply intriguing and at times disturbing. I’ll give some positive points and then I’ll list my concerns.
1. Truth in Translation is a carefully crafted and scholarly work. BeDuhn brings a wealth of research and knowledge to the table.
2. The subtitle is “accuracy and bias in English translations of the New Testament.” BeDuhn’s work is a provocative challenge to mainstream evangelicalism’s assumption that just about any Bible translation will do. He argues that too often, even in mainstream translations, the translators make the subtle journey from translation to interpretation.
3. BeDuhn’s chapter The Work of Translation was very helpful. In it, he lays out the spectrum of translation philosophies from a) Interlinear to b) Formal Equivalence to c) Dynamic Equivalence to d) Paraphrase.
The most controversial aspect of this book is not just BeDuhn’s decision to include the JW New World Bible in his analysis, but his conclusion that in many passages the NW translation is less biased than mainstream translations such as the NIV or NASB.
Here are some of my concerns with the book:
1. I felt that BeDuhn’s understanding and awareness of the modern debate on translations, at least within Christian Fundamentalism, was lacking. This revealed itself in a lot of ways, but once in particular where he made a statement which seemed to indicate that he hadn’t studied the preface of the 1611 publication of the Authorised Version though trying to make a point about that edition.
2. BeDuhn seems to operate under the impression that he has avoided all bias in his analysis. At no point in the book does he reveal his own personal theological biases (not even to the point where you could confidently nail him as an evangelical). Yet I would argue that it is impossible for him not to have theological biases. He could have engendered a much higher level of trust with his readership had he admitted his position and biases early on in the book. If I had to peg him based on what little he gives away about himself, I would suspect he is a theological Liberal.
3. BeDuhn seems to work from a basis of absolute neutrality on basic fundamentals of the faith such as the deity of Jesus Christ. While he seems to view this as a virtue, particularly in the context of translation work, one has to question what kind of epistemology allows this type of writing. Isn’t failing to presuppose the deity of Christ in translation (which is inherently interpretive… see #4 and 5 below) the same as presupposing the non-deity of Christ? Can we really accurately translate the Scripture under the belief that we must not presuppose any theological conclusions?
4. BeDuhn readily recognised the necessity of understanding the a) linguistic context, b) literary context, and c) historical and cultural environment in translation. But is it not also necessary to understand the overall interpretive/theological context as well? Would we attempt a translation in any other setting which ignored interpretive context?
5. BeDuhn fails to recognise that all translation necessarily involves an element of interpretation. It is simply impossible to translate the entire NT with no interpretive bias. There are often many English words which can be used. Each time we choose one of those words, we have a whole range of linguistic, literary, cultural, historical, and interpretative (or contextual) arguments for why we feel that is the best English word to communicate the meaning and nuance of the Greek word.
6. BeDuhn’s selection of passages to consider demonstrates a certain bias. In chapter thirteen, BeDuhn says “The selection of passages has not been arbitrary. It has been driven mostly by an idea of where one is most likely to find bias, namely, those passages which are frequently cited as having great theological importance.” However, he deals almost exclusively (seven out of nine chapters) with passages surrounding the deity of Jesus Christ. Is this the only doctrine which might be subject to bias in Scripture? Further, several of the passages he cites are passages which are consistent with the deity of Christ, but would not be used to prove the deity of Christ.
7. BeDuhn fails to make a distinction between a passage which proves a particular point, and a passage which is merely consistent with a particular point. It is one thing to translate something interpretively in a way which is consistent with a particular theological bias (such as translating proskuneo as “worship” instead of “homage.” But it is another thing entirely to translate interpretively in a context which would then be used to prove a particular theological point. I feel that to treat these two on the same level obscures the complexities involved in translation.
8. BeDuhn develops a serious credibility leak in his dealing with several established Greek grammar rules. Particularly, he addresses Colwell’s Rule and the Granville Sharp rule. Instead of merely critiquing them and offering adjustments or developments to them, in both cases he simply says they are wrong and should be ignored. In one case, he actually argues that exceptions to the rule prove that it is not a rule at all. The folly of such a statement is obvious.
I wouldn’t claim to have done significant in-depth consideration of this book, but I did want to record my impressions after a quick perusal. Overall, I think the book has helped me to look at translation work more critically.
I would recommend the book to those who have already read fairly widely on the subject of texts and translations and who are very discerning. Otherwise, I would recommend reading at a more basic level first so that you can read this material more critically and knowledgeably. That said, this book is written at a level which would be accessible to a fairly broad range of believers.