Before I give you my review of this next book, let me be up-front about something: I'm a formal translation guy and I like to use a formal translation when I'm reading the Bible because, well, I do.
I don't want to be too glib about that choice on my part because I am pretty sure it's a reasoned choice -- and I could line out for you the reasons in about 5000 words if we had that kind of time today, but we don't.
At the root of it, I like a formal translation of the Bible because when I am studying seriously (for example, when I am teaching at church) and I open up the reference material to see what's going on behind the text in the original languages (not because I can read Greek or Hebrew, mind you, but I took Methods and Research in Grad School and I can use reference books), it's always reassuring that what I see in the English is somehow representative of what the Greek or Hebrew expresses according to the lexical experts.
I mean: it always bothers me when we have a translation that we have to debunk for the reader so that as a teacher (or as a preacher) we have to say, "but what the Greek really says is ..." Translation is an art, to be sure, but it's not a baffling mystery which leaves the reader at the mercy of the translator to the place where the translator has interjected himself as the author's editor.
But in that, I have a respect for "functional" or "dynamic" translation as a methodology for some purposes. For example, I think there is a good use for the NLT as a first-pass read through the whole Bible -- because it seeks to deliver the message of the text without using a collegiate-level vocabulary. That is valuable in evangelism and in other kinds of ministry to those who are not pre-grad or post-grad egg-heads.
The Word of God in English. The egg-heads among you readers should read that book and forget about the rest of this review/recommendation.
Understanding English Bible Translation, and it will be reviled by anyone who has any affection for dynamic equivalence. Coming in at 194 pages before the brief appendices and index, it's a brutal assessment of the flaws of dynamic equivalence and a brief and popularized argument for the use of what Dr. Ryken calls "essentially literal" translation. It's red meat for the common inerrantist, and frankly it's a pretty gripping read for the kind of book that it is because Ryken argues with passion and keen intellect. He doesn't let much get by on the other side, and while he gives gracious credit for some things (for example, he's gracious about the really good motives for some dynamic equivalent practitioners [e.g. - evangelism]), he doesn't let that get in the way of making his case at every point. By the end of the read, if you're not a convicted "essential literalist", I'll need to see your baptismal certificate and have a talk with the elders at your church.
Now, having said that, and now saying explicitly, "buy this book, read it, and get other people to read it," let me offer some criticisms of the book which I think are important to consider.
First, I think Dr. Ryken's approach to translation philosophy veers dangerously close to a correspondence theory of translation which, let's face it, would be a little simplistic. There is no way to say that every word in (for example) Greek has a categorically-equal corresponding word in English both lexically and practically. And because this is true -- that in some cases we would need an uncommon word in English to translate a relatively common word in Greek -- we have to admit that often translators ought to make a judgment call about how to present some text as the author intended, thereby having occasions in which giving us just one word for another is an inadequate approach.
And this happens in all translations of the Bible, including the KJV, the NASB and especially in the ESV. However, Dr. Ryken seems to make the case that the practice of doing this across the board in order to improve the reader's basic comprehension of the ideas of the text is inherently disreputable and undesirable for philosophical reasons. The irony here is that I agree with his objection but I disagree with the force with which he makes it. By a long shot, this is best exemplified by his lumping together of the NIV and the Message as two types of the same kind of Bible translation -- and this is simply a category error. Everyone by now knows that the Message is a paraphrase and not intended to do anything but, well, paraphrase the original text rather than translate it. And while his system of explaining this issue may simply call all translations to the "right" of the NKJV "dynamic translations", it seems to me to be a difficult pill to swallow to make the NIV or the HCSB texts which destabilize the common understanding of the Bible.
And that, I understand, is a pretty stiff criticism of a book which one is actually recommending and endorsing. However, in spite of this concern I have for this book, Dr. Ryken's book is a stiff tonic in an age where all manner of issues relating to the author's original intent in the text is being subverted for the sake of appealing to contemporary, metropolitan sensibilities. If you want to clear your head about this subject, get this book and read it. In the end, you may not agree with this argument or the substantive reasons for it, but you'll be better made over having had to grapple with the scope and direction of this book.