One of the most common misconceptions about the NLT is that it is a paraphrase. It is not. The NLT is, in fact, a translation from Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic; it represents the work of nearly 100 scholars, specialists in the book(s) of Scripture to which they contributed.
The history of the NLT is one reason for the confusion, but another is related to other common misconceptions about Bible translation itself, specifically the philosophy known as dynamic equivalence. In the simplest terms possible, dynamic equivalence is a philosophy of translation that intends to communicate the meaning of the Bible, as it would have been understood in its original setting, as accurately as possible in today’s language. This is often discussed in contrast with another philosophy of translation, formal correspondence or essentially literal. Again, simply, formal correspondence intends to communicate the words and word order of the original as closely as possible in the modern language. Of course, every translation of the Bible is more complex than those definitions imply. A strict formal correspondence translation would be unintelligible in any language, and a dynamic equivalent translation could become overly concerned with the limitations of its intended audience.
The juxtaposition of these two complementary translation philosophies, often with an eye to which of the two is “superior,” often feeds some misconceptions about one philosophy or the other. This can happen from either side of the debate. In a recent post at Tim Challies’ blog, some misconceptions about dynamic equivalence are presented, and I’d like to address them here.
The main idea of Challies’ post is that words are of the utmost importance in any communication. At a basic level, that is certainly true. He begins his post with a few examples to illustrate the importance we often place on knowing and studying the exact words and not simply the message of important documents such as ransom notes, court transcripts, and love letters. Very true, but in all of the examples he cites, translation is not in view. If the kidnappers had written the ransom note in French, I’m sure any parent would insist on getting a fluent French speaker to translate the letter for them in language that made sense. And courts use on-the-fly interpreters to translate witness testimony into English for jurors. So, there isn’t one-to-one correspondence between the emotional examples Challies begins with and the conclusions he makes about Bible translations.
But what about words in translation? First, it is important to understand that there is almost never a one-to-one correspondence between any word in one language and a word in another language (especially when one of the languages is ancient). To point to one example used in the post, machaira is a Greek word that refers to “a relatively short sword or other sharp instrument, sword, dagger” (BDAG), along with related metaphorical meanings. It is unlikely that any English reader, when given the word “sword,” would conjure up the mental image of a 5-inch dagger. So the English word and the Greek word are similar–certainly related–but not equivalent.
So Challies’ concern that the English word “sword” isn’t present in the NLT and other dynamic equivalent translations isn’t quite the problem he makes it out to be. To translate a metaphor in the original with an English phrase that captures its meaning, as the NLT does in Romans 13:4, is not “making a mockery of the words that were breathed out by God,” as Challies characterized it. Rather, it is a transparent attempt to clearly communicate the force of the language to English readers today. When Paul wrote Romans, representatives of the government literally phorei machairan (“carried a sword”). This is no longer the case, at least not in most English-speaking areas of the world. It is appropriate to explain the metaphor in this context. In Acts 12:2, the word machaira is not being used metaphorically. James was probably literally killed with a sword. This doesn’t display an inconsistency in the NLT translation philosophy; rather, it displays a deep commitment to communicate the meaning of Scripture as clearly as possible.
In Psalm 32:1, Challies compares the NLT to the ESV and wonders, “what has become of the word ‘covered’? . . . Is ‘covered’ not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book?” Again, the assumption that an English word is inspired is suspect. The word in Hebrew is kesuh, and “put out of sight” is just as legitimate a translation as “covered.”
More could be said about these issues, but I would like to close by pointing out some of the implicit and explicit claims about the value of dynamic equivalent translations of the Scriptures in Challies’ post. Here is a sampling of his words:
“. . . translations of the Bible that, in many ways, are mere
summaries of the actual words [of God]”
“Why do we read versions of [the Bible] that make a mockery of
the words that were breathed out by God?”
“[The translators of the NLT, CEV, and the Message] have [translated inconsistently] in order to interpret and not to make a more clear translation.”
“I want to get away from the critical translation comparisons. I want to study the Scriptures and use translations for insight and perspective. I want to guard against spending too much time on pitting this translation vs. that translation.”