Explaining Bible translations

Kathy Mansfield (wife of blogger Rick Mansfield) has just posted a cute, but truth-telling, poem under the blog title Flirting With NLT:

Today the pastor flirted
With a little NLT.
It made the sermon real;
It spoke so much to me.

But then he shifted back
To old favorite: NIV.
The pastor ended up
Explaining words to me.

Why explain God’s Word
When the explanation’s here–
Waiting to be read
From NLT, the Truth made clear?

So, what’s the point? It’s not really a debate about whether the NLT or NIV is better, or whether the ESV is better than the TNIV or NET. The issue is whether or not someone has to further explain the meaning of a Bible translation to others. Now, obviously, as we have often said on this blog, there are plenty of matters in the Bible which are difficult to understand. Those concepts, such as the nature of the atonement, cessation or continuation of charismatic gifts, the role of Torah in the life of Christ-followers, God’s sovereignty vs. people’s free will, will be difficult to understand no matter what Bible translation we use to study them. But the language structures of Bible translations should not require further translation in order for people to understand what those structures communicate.

Our former pastor has told me more than once about fellow pastors of his who would be asked why they continue to preach from the KJV, whose language is outdated for (most) current speakers, when Bible versions with more current English were available for them to preach from. The answer from these pastors would be, “Well, if I [didn’t] use the KJV, what would there be left to preach about?”

If we view the job of rabbis, pastors, and Bible teachers to be explaining obscure words and non-standard syntax in Bible versions, then we are asking these teachers to waste their valuable time. They should use translations of the Bible which are written in the language of the people they are teaching. Then they can focus on helping people understand how they can put into practice what can be clearly understood by any reader if they use a translation written as they themselves normally speak and write, as well as understand any concepts which the current translation language by itself does not adequately convey.

33 thoughts on “Explaining Bible translations

  1. Bryon says:

    I also might add there is a view out there among some that most to all explanation should be handled from the pulpit. The mileage varies. I’m not sure they want their “sheep” wandering too far into self-discovery. That way they get to control the theology completely. I have to admit self-discovery is good and bad at times.

    If I’m being unclear, the mindset of the type I’m talking about becomes apparent when I quote a certain popular speaker on this topic, “if your Bible doesn’t use propitiation, use it as a door stop.”

    Now just so I’M not misunderstood, I disagree completely with that quote I just supplied. I’m an advocate of the NLT.

  2. Nathan Smith says:

    In a Bible college class once we were asked for an example of a converse of the Jabberwocky: a work with English words but non-English syntax. I answered: “The NASB!” 🙂

  3. Theophrastus says:

    This post makes some excellent points, but I think the main reason the Bible is hard reading is that the underlying concepts are difficult. Reading a book such as Leviticus or Hebrews is just difficult — the underlying concepts are difficult. Following Paul’s logic is difficult. Understanding Torah law is difficult. Seeing the mix of Jewish and Greco-Roman mystery religions in the fourth gospel is difficult. Understanding the mix of different political and religious groups in Palestine at the time of Jesus (and how they interacted in his life story) is difficult.

    So, I think that expositors have guaranteed job security — despite the merits of any translation parishioners use.

  4. codepoke says:

    > Well, if I used the KJV, what would there be left to preach about?

    Presumably, someone’s meant to say the opposite of what is quoted here. And I can almost believe there’s someone who wants attention enough to say something so mind-numb as the intended quote. But to make a convincing point, it’s not enough to thrash straw men.

    I can see complaining against one or more of the dozens of bibles based on UBS4 or Nestle-Aland, but favorers of the Byzantine text have nowhere to turn except the KJV. And it seems charitable to assume most people who preach from the KJV must be familiar with the debate, rather than that they are irresistibly drawn to unintelligibility.

    Let’s gang up on NASB preachers.

  5. John Hobbins says:

    In the hands of a decent preacher, I don’t think it has ever mattered much what kind of translation serves as a base.

    If it did, then believers until recently must have understood very little unless someone explained it all, something I don’t notice in old sermons, the authors of which seem to have expected a lot from their audiences. It needs to be remembered that Bible translations until recently were universally on the relatively literal side of the continuum.

    That said, I’m sure it is the case that the NLT serves the same purpose the Living Bible still does for quite a few in my congregation, only with less distortion: it provides them with a translation they can actually read and make sense out of in real time, without intervening doubts and uncertainty. it’s an illusion, really, but a helpful one.

    Codepoke,

    You may have a point there. Personally, I believe those who prefer the Byzantine text to Nestle-Aland, if a text as close as possible to the pre-third century AD text is desired, are about as sensible as those who prefer reenactments of the Roman past by the Society for Creative Anachronism to those less creative scholars supply. But what does my personal opinion matter? Why not provide a NLT translation of the Byzantine text?

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Codepoke wrote:

    Presumably, someone’s meant to say the opposite of what is quoted here.

    Yes, indeed, Codepoke. Your errant blogger is the one who meant to say the opposite. I’ll go now and insert the “not” in the sentence where it should be. Would you ever consider being a Bible translation consultant checking for errors like this? There is a huge need for Bible translation consultants around the world.

  7. Mark says:

    This only relates indirectly to the post, and I haven’t looked at the NLT, but to use the first chapter of Luke as an example–The transition from verse 4 to verse 5 is quite striking. The first four verses form a balanced periodic sentence in the style of classical Greek; verse 5 and following imitates the style of the LXX “and it came to pass” etc. If modern translations put both sections into a contemporary English style, it seems they lose something Luke intended in his writing.

    But, in general, I agree–you shouldn’t have to translate the translation.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    favorers of the Byzantine text have nowhere to turn except the KJV

    Not quite true, Codepoke. There is NKJV, which has a number of the same disadvantages as NASB but is by no means as archaic in its language is KJV. Both of these are based on the Textus Receptus, which is not the same thing as the Byzantine text. Then there is the World English Bible, which actually is based on the Byzantine or “Majority” text. There are other translations of the Textus Receptus out there, but no good dynamic ones, probably because people who believe in the clarity of dynamic translations reject the obscurantism of relying on a demonstrably corrupt text.

  9. David Dewey says:

    While I fully concur with the sentiment that a Bible teacher/preacher should not have to translate a translation, this doesn’t only apply to more literal versions, but can apply to meaning-for-meaning translations too. In previous pastorates I have inherited the NIV as the pew Bible, and in my present church they have been using the Good News Bible for many years.
    All translations involve a degree of interpretation, and it is certainly not the case that literal = accurate. The question is simply whether the translators have made the right interpretive choices. In this regard, I find I have to do more explaining in the NIV than with either the NLT or GNB. However, the NLT (1996) has been twice revised: NLT2a in 2004 and NLT2b in 2007. Many of these revisions have been to improve poor interpretive choices. I now often find myself using both the ESV and NLT and find it very helpful to compare the two.

  10. Chandler says:

    I am not familiar with the World English Bible, but there is currently a project to translate the Patriarchal Text into English. So far only the New Testament is complete, with the Old Testament due out in about a year. Free to down load.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_/_Greek_Orthodox_Bible
    http://www.orthodox-church.info/eob/download/nt6x9.pdf

    UBS also has the Gospel of John in Byzantine Tradition

    http://www.ubs-translations.org/news/article/the_gospel_according_to_john_in_the_byzantine_tradition/browse/2/?tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=34&cHash=8c018b2443

  11. Nick Mackison says:

    I think the poem has simplified the issue. The NLT uses language that is clear and requires little explanation, and for that it is to be commended. What about the opposite problem caused by translations like the NLT (and to a lesser extent the TNIV) where they over-specify to the extent where the preacher regularly says, “Now I know that your translation says such and such, but in the original it reads, etc.” Formally equivalent translations may be stodgy, but they certainly help engender a little confidence in the text.

    When preacher used NLT
    The word was so simple to me
    The big words got tossed
    But the meaning was lost
    He should’ve just used ESV

  12. John Hobbins says:

    Nick,

    Over-specification and mis-specification are exactly the risks that a translation like NLT takes in spades.

    I prefer to preach from a more literal translation (I currently use NIV, because that’s the Pew Bible of my congregation; I would prefer using a translation that is more adherent to the Tyndale-Geneva-KJV tradition).

    But then it is I, not the translation, that runs the greater risk of over- and mis-specification.

    In short, the same risks are necessarily run, but are distributed differently.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Nick wrote:

    Formally equivalent translations may be stodgy, but they certainly help engender a little confidence in the text.

    Nick, you make an important claim, one which we need to test. Could you give us some examples, please, where using a big word is more accurate than the corresponding words in the NLT? This is an honest question. I’d like to wrestle with it in a blog post.

  14. Dru says:

    Peter, are you sure it isn’t more appropriate to say the NKJV and the WEB are translations of the AV (the latter via the ASV and therefore RV) into different registers of modern English with some checking against selected Greek and Hebrew texts, rather than true translations from either Greek or Hebrew? Or am I coat-trailing?

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    John wrote:

    I prefer to preach from a more literal translation (I currently use NIV, because that’s the Pew Bible of my congregation; I would prefer using a translation that is more adherent to the Tyndale-Geneva-KJV tradition).

    But then it is I, not the translation, that runs the greater risk of over- and mis-specification.

    It’s nice to see such self-awareness, John!

    I have found that literal translations typically under-specify. That’s one of the greatest negatives of using Bible versions which use syntactic forms imported to English from Hebrew or Greek. The round pegs just don’t fit into the square holes, so actual specification doesn’t occur. It takes a great deal of care scholarly study (which I’ve seen you do) of the original biblical texts plus equivalent scholarly attention paid to the language forms of the receptor language to come up with as accurate translations as possible, neither over-specified nor under-specified. Of course, no matter how hard scholars try, the ideal is often missed, but we can at least often get much closer to it if we pay give as much scholarly attention to both the source and target languages. It is only then that true translation equivalence can occur, which is actual specification, neither over- nor under-specification.

  16. John Hobbins says:

    Wayne,

    If there is one thing you have taught me, it’s that weird syntax in translation can be profoundly distorting, or at the very least, obscure a text that is clear in the original. Thanks for that. For the rest, we are on the same page with respect to the goal of true translation equivalence, though we differ, if only relatively, in terms of priorities.

    As I see it, you are particularly concerned to match levels of intelligibility, and prefer to err on the side of producing a translation that is clearer, less complex, and less “valent” than the original.

    I am more concerned to match content, and prefer to err on the side of producing a translation that requires more thought and reflection to process that the original required of its once-intended audience, a translation that runs the risk of being unintelligible to someone without sufficient background knowledge.

    Like Craig Blomberg (see Rick Mansfield’s blog), I have my doubts about recommending NLT as a first Bible translation. For Bible students with any patience at all, it is best to suggest comparing NLT and ESV, for example, rather than sticking with just one.

    On the other hand, I would put the matter in a different way than Craig did. I have no doubts whatsoever about the sufficiency of NLT in terms of communicating the gospel. (I’m sure he doesn’t either.) Therefore, anyone who uses it as their sole translation risks nothing of first-order importance. But I do have doubts about anyone who is unable to hear the Gospel loud and clear through NLT. That worries me. NLT, CEV, and a paraphrase like Peterson have their place. It is their wording sometimes, rather than that of a fuddy-duddier translation, that knocks you right up the side of the head with the truth. It is useless to pretend otherwise.

  17. Wayne Leman says:

    John responded:

    As I see it, you are particularly concerned to match levels of intelligibility, and prefer to err on the side of producing a translation that is clearer, less complex, and less “valent” than the original.

    I am more concerned to match content, and prefer to err on the side of producing a translation that requires more thought and reflection to process that the original required of its once-intended audience, a translation that runs the risk of being unintelligible to someone without sufficient background knowledge.

    Actually, John, my highest priority is matching accuracy of content (i.e. referential meaning). But right up near the top are the concerns I share with you about matching genre, connotational meaning, etc. Intelligibility is a byproduct, IMO, of using the language resources of a target language and only those resources. I don’t believe that we should borrow syntax and import it to any Bible translation. I concede that there can be rare times when we may have to borrow lexical items, e.g. use of transliterated “baptize”, so that a translation will be acceptable to our target audience. (Can you imagine the firestorm which would erupt if mainstream translations translated baptizo as “immerse” or “wash” as is done in some not-well-known personal translations?!) But I can’t think of any examples where we can rationalize borrowing syntax. And that is the main problem with most English Bible versions, IMO. If we would allow more English language scholars to have their rightful place on English Bible translation teams (as we do translation teams for other languages around the world), many of the debates we have over “essentially literal” vs. dynamic equivalence, etc. would become moot. English is just as capable of communicating poetically, and punningly, and precisely, and colorfully, as any of the biblical languages.

    I really do share your concerns, and those of people like Theophrastus, that we attempt to maintain the beauty of the literary features of the biblical texts, rhythm, Semitic poetic synonymy, etc., but if the target language lacks those features or if the wrong content (referential meaning) is communicated by them, then accuracy of content must always trump everything else, ISTM.

    I think we’re really on the same page. I just preach so much about using natural English that it probably comes across sometimes that I am more concerned about intelligibility than I am accuracy. But I would not be true to myself nor the divine author behind the inspired texts if I chose any position which put content in second place to anything else.

  18. Wayne Leman says:

    It looks as like I posted the same comment twice somehow, you can remove one if you like.

    Chandler, the two comments look different to my aging eyes. If you still see the same comment twice please email me so by seeing (with your help) I will believe. 🙂

  19. Nick Mackison says:

    Wayne,
    I suppose it is a big claim I’ve made. I do really enjoy the NLT and the TNIV. Perhaps I’m just a neurotic freak, but I always have this nagging sense that I’m missing out on the meaning of a text unless I’m using something a little more formal. Anyway, some examples I could cite to substantiate my above claim:

    Romans 1:17
    ‘For in it the righteousness of God is revealed’ ESV
    ‘This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight.’ NLT
    The ESV rendering surely includes the NLT rendering but encompasses a lot more. Is ‘the righteousness of God’ merely his accounting us righteous? Does it not encompass his righteousness too, i.e. his righteous way of righteous-ing the unrighteous?

    John 17:6
    ‘I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.’ ESV
    ‘I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world.’ NLT
    The simpler NLT rendering obscures the link with Exodus. Jesus is the one who has declared the name of the Lord, just as YHWH declared his own name to Moses.

    John 17:11
    ‘Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.’ ESV
    ‘Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are.’ NLT
    The NLT is simpler, but does it capture the sense of the passage? The word ‘keep/kept’ has sprung up throughout the passage. Jesus has said, “They kept your word, now you keep them in your name.” Carson believes this means ‘keep them faithful to your name’. Would that the ESV had translated it this way. Mind you, I’d rather go with the ‘not imediately obvious’ rendering than the ‘simple but wrong’ rendering.

    I’m no linguist nor the son of a linguist, so I’m open to correction and to having my nagging insecurity stilled (i.e. the insecurity mentioned before when using a functional bible). Nevertheless, the differences between the ESV and some more functional translations can be quite staggering and perplexing to untrained readers like myself.

  20. Michael Nicholls says:

    In keeping with the style of this post:

    Koine
    A fellow one time told me he had bought an ESV
    Word-for-word, not thought-for-thought, its claim – acc’racy
    It borrowed terms, inserted forms, and things I’d yet to see
    Apparently the standard language of the bourgeoisie

    But why now in their Intro did they not stick to that mould?
    No ‘grinding’ women, no goats in charge, no trembling loins, I’m told
    It seems they plied a different rule when wanting to unfold
    Their message to their readers than the Message from of old

    This standard English Bible teaches us that good translation
    Is a word-for-word from Hebrew/Greek to English imitation
    But what about the other language parts and their relation?
    Like discourse, culture, figures, focus, style, and collocation

    It were that would but wither here that thither God would speak
    Archaic forms of Aramaic, Hebrew, and of Greek
    That He might once for all obscure the meaning that we seek
    And justify the English of the ESV technique

    Should Bibles now be written in the language of today?
    Or do old words and foreign forms do better to convey
    The ‘antiquated’ language that we find in the Koine
    For what’s the meaning of that good ol’ Greek word anyway?

    😉

  21. J. Kevin Walker says:

    The only thing that I can go on is this: Around 2001, when I was beginning my college life, I was introduced to the first edition of the NLT. Within 3 or 4 months, I had read the entire Bible (not that it’s THAT easy to do, but I had such a hunger developing within me for God’s Word that I would read for hours a day). It was life-changing.
    I recognized, again, the call that God had placed on my life at the age of 12 – and, since that time, I’ve moved forward in that call and haven’t looked back.

    So, I’m an advocate of the NLT. At the church I now pastor, I’m slowly using it more and more in my preaching and teaching while using the NIV the rest of the time (don’t want to do too much too fast for a people who were used to the old kjv). I always keep copies on hand of the Abundant Life NLT to give to others, too.

  22. David Ker says:

    The truth of the matter is that Rick is husband of blogger Kathy Mansfield. 🙂 It’s been great to see her poetic angle on blogging and Bible translation.

    Amen to your post. And hurray for Kathy.

  23. Dru says:

    For a dynamic translations of Nick’s three extracts, how about the REB:-

    Rom 1:17a
    “because in it the righteousness of God is seen at work… “.

    Jn 17:6
    “I have made your name known to the men whom you gave me out of
    the world.”, (except that these days I suspect people would want to say ‘those’ rather than ‘the men’).

    Jn 17:11b
    “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you have given me, that they may be one, as we are one.

    On the other hand, from this morning’s OT reading, Job 18 at v 4. Bildad the Shuhite is speaking.

    ESV
    “You who tear yourself in your anger, shall the earth be forsaken for you, or the rock be removed out of its place?

    Technically close to the original, but not conveying the sense (whatever the sense is) at all.

    REB
    “Is the earth to be deserted to prove you right, or the rocks to be moved from their place?”

    Excellent on the second 2/3 of the verse – I suspect that’s what the text actually means – but for some reason omits the first phrase altogether. There’s a footnote saying this, but not explaining why.

    NLT
    “You may tear your hair out in anger, but will that cause the earth to be abandoned? Will it make rocks fall from a cliff?”

    Not too bad, but a bit free. Are either hair or cliff are really there?

    The interesting one is the AV
    “He teareth himself in his anger: shall the earth be forsaken for thee? and shall the rock be removed out of his place?”

    The second 2/3s of the verse are very like the ESV, clearly where the ESV comes from, and like the ESV not clear to the ordinary reader. For the first third of the verse, the part the REB leaves out, it turns out the C17 translators are keeping the original grammar. This is in the third person.

    I don’t have the knowledge to know. I’m fairly ignorant and must defer to those that know what they are talking about. Virtually every other modern translation changes this to a more idiomatic ‘you’. But just suppose the AV is right. Suppose the original is written so as to be read with pauses. Is it just possible that makes the first third an aside, either Bildad addressing Eliphaz and Zophar, or even muttering to himself, but in a way that it is intended Job can hear?

    [aside]”See how he tears himself in anger”
    [turning back to Job again] “Is the earth to be deserted to prove you right, or the rocks to be moved from their place?”

    Oh Weh.

  24. CD-Host says:

    > Nick, you make an important claim, one which we need to test. Could you give us some examples, please, where using a big word is more accurate than the corresponding words in the NLT? This is an honest question. I’d like to wrestle with it in a blog post.

    I’m not Nick but… Romans 11:36 (aion is translated forever) and Romans 12:2 (aion is translated as world). Paul’s entire point is lost in the NLT, because of fear of using “age” which would sound more Greek. Particularly when you start looking at place like 1 Cor 10:11 when he is making the point that now, when he is writing, is a transition point between two aions, and this time the NLT does use age.

    That’s a good example of where meaning is entirely lost by simplifying the text.

  25. kcburgett says:

    Wayne – do you have book that would explain the different translations, and some of the other content you post in the blog?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s