The New Living Translation
Who cares who translated my Bible?

In the past there was a tradition of not listing the names of the translators of the Bible. After all, translators didn’t write the Bible; they simply render into a modern language what is there in Hebrew and Greek (with a bit of Aramaic). Humility would seem to call for anonymity.

So why does the NLT list the names of its ninety translators? It’s not to stroke the egos of the scholars. Indeed, I get embarrassed when people ask me to autograph their NLT because they see my name up front.

The main value of knowing who translated the Bible you are reading is to let you know the theological perspective of the work. (Yes, it is also to tell you that the people who did it are highly trained specialists in the language and literature of the Old and New Testaments). But what difference does the theological perspective of the translator make?

A big difference. After all, as I like to say, a translation is a commentary without a note. Well, not quite, but what I mean is that to translate requires interpretation and interpretation means that exegetical decisions have to be made. Much of the Bible is crystal clear and easily rendered into a modern language like English, but not all of it.

Let me give an example from the very first verses of Genesis (1:1-2) and let’s do so by comparing the NLT and the NRSV.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. (NLT)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” (NRSV)

Notice the difference? In the NRSV at the time (when) God created the
heavens and earth, the earth was formless and void. In other words, it was
already there and ready for God to use. The NLT hints at a creation from
nothing. There was nothing and then God created a formless earth which he
then shaped into the habitable planet described in the rest of Genesis 1.

Here’s the rub. This important theological point cannot be solved by reference to the rules of Hebrew grammar. They both can be defended. The NLT (and other translations by evangelical scholars) base their rendering on other, later Scripture passages that clearly teach creation from nothing. The NRSV rather takes its cue from the cultural environment. The surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Canaanite, Mesopotamian) all describe primeval waters from which creation derives.

This is just one striking example, but it does indicate that you should know something about where your translation came from. It is also a good idea to use multiple translations when doing serious study, but more about that in the future.

One Response to “Who cares who translated my Bible?”
11th November, 2010 at 1:56 am

I am a great believer in the value of translation, and also in giving due credit to those who offer this particular expertise to the church of Christ. Of course a ‘neutral’ translation is every bit as impossible as a’neutral’ sermon. Our personalities and backgrounds dictate the linguistic choices we make and steer the path we choose between over and under translation. (See “there’s a fish in my pulpit http://bit.ly/aEy9i4 ) I have always found Nehemiah 8 v.8 an interesting verse – were Ezra’s assistants ‘translating’, ‘explaining’…or something in between? Apparently the Hebrew literally means they were ‘chopping up’ – presumably into bite-sized morsels? God bless the translators.

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