Bible Translations

I have been reading my Bible for devotions using the New Living Translation (NLT). I also have been listening through the Bible with the podBible daily netcast which uses the Contemporay English Version (CEV) translation (not to be confused with podBible.org – an iPod copy of the ESV). Both NLT and CEV are considered to be a dynamic equivalent translation (DET) — meaning for meaning instead of word for word translations. Translations such as the English Standard Version (ESV) on the other hand attempts to be “essentially literal.” Despite the advantage of DETs for being understandable, and I do consider this to be a significant advantage, sometimes they drive me crazy. Why?

All translations will have a theological bias but some of the more modern DETs seem to really show their bias. This bias can gloss over more difficult passages or even mislead. A dynamic equivalent should be just that, an equivalent to the meaning of the original language, not a theological interpretation of the passage.

The NIV publisher says that its translation is a DET. In my opinion it is a weak DET, meaning, it leans towards a word for word translation rather than obscure a passage with a dynamic equivalent if it would show a theological bias. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is considered by many to be the best study Bible since it is a word for word translation (as best as it can be). It reads sometimes very wooden, that is, it is hard to read out loud without sounding unreal. The ESV in my opinion is trying to be a more readable NASB. I find the NIV to be a good balance for heavy duty Bible study because the translators took extra effort to prevent theological bias to affect their translations yet the dynamic equivalency also helps.

I also am looking forward to the International Standard Version‘s final release as well. It is an interesting project in and of itself and the translation seems to be excellent for serious Bible study. It is also trying to have that balance between accuracy and readability. It has free downloadable (PDF) copies of the current revision (it is now about 93% complete). I have been using the ISV as one of my parallel reading versions now.

Hmm, maybe I should mention that real quick. When I am doing Bible study, I try to have at least three versions open side by side when looking at a passage. This way, any translation difficulties are easy to spot. Currently, when using hard copy, I use the NIV, NASB, and NLT. I often have the PDF of the ISV open on my computer as well. If I am reading the Bible on-line at Bible Gateway, which I am using a lot more for parallel reading, I switch quickly between many of them (there are like 20), primarily the NIV, NASB, ESV, NLT, and even King James.

Ok, now back to the example. The NLT translates Ecclesiastes 6:10 as “Everything has already been decided. It was known long ago what each person would be. So there’s no use arguing with God about your destiny.”  The NIV says “Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he.” (You should be able to click the show link and also see the ESV translation).

The NLT takes a couple proverbs in Ecclesiastes and spins them with a distinct Calvinistic theological spin. The first proverb which the NIV translates “Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known”, could be summed up with the common proverb, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” The NLT instead gives it the theological interpretation of “God has predetermined everything.”

The second proverb “no man can contend with one who is stronger than he” is a generic proverb. It states the law of the jungle, the strong dominates the weak. It has to be noted here very clearly. The Hebrew never say “God” anywhere, just as the NIV translates. The NLT gives this passage a very distinct theological bias by translating the Hebrew “So there’s no use arguing with God about your destiny.”

In the end, I suppose the basic message and God’s truth of Ecclesiates is still clear in any of the translations mentioned. But it really bothers me that one could take a theologically biased version like the NLT and base their personal beliefs around it thinking that is what the Bible says instead of what the translators believed. On the ESV’s website, they explain why DETs can be problematic and I think this passage demonstrates it.

I will continue to use the NLT for my daily devotional reading. I find that I read “outloud” in my head a lot lately. It slows my reading down which is good for my devotionals. Speed reading is for fiction. Since I am reading “outloud” in my head, the NLT is a lot easier to read and comprehend. This allows me to move directly into prayer and asking God to help me apply it to my life.

When reading even the NIV, I find myself sometimes getting distracted by trying to figure out what it said (that in and of itself is “a good thing”), pulling out commentaries, digging through the Greek, and grabbing all my other translations. This distraction takes away from the “devotional” nature of what I was originally trying to do, read and pray. Further, because I end up spending so much time chasing after the obscure or interesting, other things in life can intrude (phone calls, appointments, etc) so that I never finish.

On the otherhand, for serious Bible study, I will contine to use the NIV as my base translation (since I have multiple hard copies of it), supplimented with translations such as the ESV, NASB, and ISV. And of course, I am slowly getting my Greek back as I did more and more into it which is alway “a good thing.” I have found I am using the Bible Gateway a lot more since it allows me to switch quickly between translations instead of trying to have 3 or 4 Bibles spread around on the table.

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