Bible Translation: May 2009 Archives

NLT thoughts

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I've spent some time in recent weeks reading parts of the 2nd edition of the New Living Translation of the Bible. See my Review of Bible Translations for more information about the translations and terminology I use in this post, along with background about translation philosophy and a discussion of what I like about the NLT and what its editors intended it to be. Several features of the NLT have begun to annoy me about how it does things that I don't think I've blogged about before. Some of these are more objectively problematic than others, but I thought it would be worth recording my thoughts on them.

In the Corinthian letters, Achaia becomes Greece. At first I was a little puzzled about this. Why would they rename a particular region with a term that describes a much larger area? Is it just because one name is obscure and the other not? Do the translators care so little about precision? But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that maybe it's because the area we now know as Greece was called Achaia at the time. I have no idea if that's even true. Is it? If so, I don't have as much problem with this, even though in that time they would never have called that area Greece. It was one part of Greece. Macedonia was another part.

In the Psalms, Zion becomes Jerusalem, and Jacob becomes Israel. If all you care about is what city or nation/people you refer to, this is ok, since the names refer to the exact same thing, but it's a huge sacrifice in poetic quality, in diversity of names, and in accuracy of language. We don't usually translate names. We transliterate them. Sometimes we do so inconsistently, but there's no reason to artificially remove an entire name from the Bible just because it refers to a city that has a more common name. The only reason I can think of why they did this is that they think the purpose of translating is to make things easier to understand rather than to convey what's there in the original language. It's true that not every biblically-illiterate reader knows that Zion is Jerusalem, and that can be confusing, but it would be confusing to a Hebrew speaker who was ignorant of the same fact. This is about historical ignorance, not about the language. Should a translation change such things? This isn't a huge deal, but I don't like it.

I'm finding their treatment of saints/holy ones language to be a bit more problematic. Its occurrences in the epistles usually become "believers" and such things in the NLT, at least in the books I've been reading (especially the Corinthian letters, which I just finished, but I think the Thessalonian letters and maybe Galatians do this too). Do these translators really think the original readers would have understood what saints or holy ones were but English speakers today don't in virtue of their speaking modern English? The problem understanding this is a problem that early readers could just as easily have had. You lose actual content when you don't have this holiness language appearing as a matter-of-fact description of all believers. You do leave room for confusion by having it there, but the original Greek has that same room for confusion. Is the goal of translating the Bible really just to make it so there are no difficulties in interpretation? Or is it to convey what the original means? The NLT completely fails at the latter on this score while doing the first in terms of referent but failing even to do the first in terms of meaning.

One translation decision that especially annoyed me was Paul's "I know a man" in II Corinthians 12. It's simply "I" in the NLT. There's something Paul is doing in this passage by referring to himself in the third person and not saying that he's talking about himself. Almost all commentators accept that he's referring to himself, but there's a reason he speaks this way, and NLT readers would have no idea that he's even doing this if they don't happen to know either the original Greek or how other translations render it. It's not as if the expression usually translated "I know a man who" has an underlying meaning more like "I" when you understand how the Greek language works. In this passage, then, the NLT has failed at their goal of producing a dynamic translation and has simply paraphrased in a way that doesn't preserve the original content very well.

The goal of the NLT was to have something as readable as the original Living Bible without its being a paraphrase. This was to be a scholarly translation. When I read the original NLT, my immediate impression of its treatment of the Corinthian letters was that they were the worst of the NT books by their own criteria for what makes a translation good. I was hoping they would be improved in the second edition that I'm now reading. Perhaps they are in some ways, but this is indicative of a translation trend that makes me a lot less positive about it than I had hoped I would be when I heard they were moving the NLT a little more in the direction of the NIV and TNIV, which I see as about halfway between the formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence translations.

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