, ,

I recently read a fascinating book:


Ryken makes a compelling case for essentially literal Bible translations (like the KJV and ESV) as opposed to dynamic equivalent translations (like the NIV and NLT). Of special interest to my English-major self was Ryken’s chapter on poetry. Ryken posits that roughly one-third of the Bible is poetic in its form. As he addresses how poetry should be translated, he notes:

The first principle of poetry is the primacy of the image. An image is any word that names a concrete object or action….[P]oetry is predominantly a right-brain discourse.

In an effort to make the Bible easier for laypeople to understand, many modern translations trade out the poetic images in the Bible for abstract applications. Ryken points to Psalm 1:1 as an example. Essentially literal in its translation, the ESV renders the first part of the verse, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” In contrast, the NLT renders the same portion, “Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” Notice that the metaphor of walking has been eliminated from the verse in the NLT. What difference does this make? Ryken notes that the strangeness of poetry is part of what makes it linger in our minds. In addition, the use of imagery in poetry often gives the poem more than one layer of meaning. Ryken quotes Ray Van Leeuwen:

Metaphors grab us and work on us and in us. They have the spiritual power to transform our minds.

By eliminating much of the imagery in the Bible’s poems, modern translations give the reader only one possible meaning of verses that in the original had layers of meaning, and make many passages less memorable than they would have been had the metaphors been retained.