Raymond C. Van Leeuwen on Translation

Last night I read an article/essay/chapter in After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation. Its a great book, but this chapter by Van Leeuwen caught me off guard.

I’m somewhat tempted to blog through the essay. At this point, all I can say is that I cannot believe that someone who participated in translating the NLT could know so little about the methods and theory of translation used and taught by organizations like Wycliffe. Honestly. It amazes me. My wife is taking a class on translation right now and I sat in on it last week, just to visit and that particular class session, in of itself, contradicted an entire section of Van Leeuwen’s argument against meaning based translation.

Beyond that, the chapter is so full of red-herrings, misunderstandings, and inaccuracies that I simply don’t know what to do with it. In reading the essay, I can’t help but get the impression that Van Leeuwen thinks that Wycliffe translators are completely naive in their views of how language works and how meaning is conveyed or that they simply haven’t put any kind of thought into such issues (or perhaps a combination of both). The result is that in a number of cases, Van Leeuwen provides very helpful discussions about meaning and how communication works as if he’s critiquing meaning based translation methods. But he’s not. Several examples he provides are regularly used illustrations in introductory classes provided at SIL schools.

All this to say, I’m not entirely sure what the point of his chapter was. All the translators that I know personally would agree with much of what he said about language in general, but consider such issues reasons for using a functional/meaning based method of traslation, rather than, as Van Leeuwen believes, arguments against such translations methods.

12 thoughts on “Raymond C. Van Leeuwen on Translation

  1. Well, ElShaddai, his “more extensive treatment” is pretty useless in terms of being a critique. Its a helpful discussion of challenges of translation, but lacks substance in terms of its criticism because translators would agree with his points.

    Looking at your posts, it seems that the substance of examples are essentially the same.

    If I have time, perhaps I will blog through the essay. Its only about 10 pages or so.

  2. Incidentally, after seeing Van Leeuwen’s complaint about Carson, I picked up the book where Carson refers to his CT article. Regardless of whether Caron referenced the CT article or the scholarly article in After Pentecost, I think the critique is spot on.

    Its Carson’s essay, “The Limits of Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation–and other limits too” in The Challenge of Bible Translation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 65-114.

  3. I think you have seen my comments, on ElShaddai’s posts. I have little to add, except that at least around 2001 when the CT article was written these ideas were a matter of intense debate within SIL. Indeed one of the main sources of van Leeuwen’s ideas, Ernst-August Gutt, is or was an SIL member, and he was pushing translation principles, an alternative to the well known SIL ones which in practice would lead to rather literal translations – at least this was the judgment of many: Gutt denied this but never provided positive examples of actual translations according to his method.

  4. Peter: Thanks. That’s interesting to hear.

    Esteban: If Van Leeuwen is the Caragounis of translation, then who is Leland Ryken with his The Word of God in English?

    That book was ridiculous.

    1. He’s wrong on a few counts:

      1) We don’t need another English translation — especially when there are 2,393 languages without any scriptures and another 1,998 languages that have projects in process, but regularly struggle with funding, and for the for foreseeable future have nothing that resembles adequate access to Scripture.

      We can pretend that the “new” translations that appeared in the past 9 years were for good & ethical reasons, but if we’re honest, we need to admit that Crossway wanted a conservative text that they could control without “that dangerous gender stuff” (the conservative-ized RSV known as the ESV) and the Southern Baptists wanted a text they could control (the HCSB, which is actually a fantastic translation).

      2) He’s also wrong in his understanding of FE translation — my experience as a linguist with training specifically in translation has been that many, many Biblical scholars are. He’s wrong about the benefit of a “literal” translation for serious study. That’s fascade that’s been pushed around by scholars who simply tend to be more comfortable with syntactic transliteration.

      3) He also doesn’t realize that FE does not equal “easier to understand” necessarily. Tragically, that’s the impression that most people get. It’s the wrong impression caused by a pendulum swing toward an emphasis on more accessible Bibles — that wasn’t bad thing when all we had was the KJV’s 1500’s Engilsh (yes, 1500’s, the majority of the KJV was already in Tyndale), but in the long run it’s hurt the status of a *good* theory of translation. There’s so many things in that article that are just plain wrong. I find myself regularly thinking, “BUT NOT FE translator would ever say that!!!”

      I’ve read that particular article probably four or five times over the past 5 or 6 years. It only frustrates me. He’s wrong. If he understands the issues here in translation, it’s just about impossible to tell from that article. He gives the appearance (on page 6) that at SIL/Wycliffe there’s just as much debate about these theory & method of translation.

      There isn’t.

      The VAST majority of people trained in translation in that organization that boasts more PhD’s than any seminary in the world *DISAGREE* with Van Leeuwen.

      But thankfully, Van Leeuwen is more knowledgeable that Ryken — now there’s a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    2. More importantly is that when Carson criticized (accurately) this very CT article, Van Leeuwen complained that he didn’t look at his article in After Pentecost, which is the very article I’m criticizing in this post.

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