Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 4)

This is the last in a series of four posts on Bible translations, commentaries and the NLT; I've specifically been talking about problems I saw with the NLT recently, not because I enjoy being negative, but because there's really nothing more important than having an accurate translation of God's word. If you haven't read those posts and want to, you can find them here. What I'd like to do now is just offer a few concluding thoughts on the whole issue of translations and commentaries.

First, no translation of the Bible from the original languages will be perfect. Essentially literal, word-for-word translations like the ESV, the NASB, the KJV and others will be most true to the Greek and Hebrew and to the true meaning of the text. These should be the translations we use and read and study, though they will here and there contain a "clunky" word or phrase (as in the phrase from Romans 5:5 I was researching). This is usually because the translator wants to preserve the integrity of the word-for-word translation. Often the meaning is made clear by the context (the surrounding verses and passages). But when more clarification is needed a good commentary can be helpful.

Some interesting statistics: the ESV reads at about the 10th grade level. The Holman Christian Standard, another essentially literal translation, reads at about the 9th grade level. The NLT, a dynamic equivalence (thought for thought, rather than word for word) translation, reads at about the 6th grade level, while the Message is at about the 3rd grade level. Though sometimes readers feel they can better understand the NLT or the Message, the reading levels of the literal translations are not that difficult (interesting chart on that here). After all, shouldn't we prefer to read an accurate translation of the Bible, and do the challenging work required to get us reading at that level? Thousands of generations grew up reading literal translations of the Scripture; the first paraphrase was only introduced in 1971. 

The problem with a dynamic equivalence version is that its translating team makes editorial decisions. Where they see fit, they will leave out a word that is in the original language (as they left out the important connecting word gar, translated "for", in Romans 5:6). In doing so, they are saying that they disagree with the connections the Bible itself makes; doctrine is at stake, yet these translators are willing to make these changes when it suits their interpretation. Worst of all, they don't alert the reader that they have translated this way.

The NLT is at least partly a paraphrase, but calls itself a translation; therefore its readers think they have in their hands an accurate rendering of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. The reader should understand that in reading the NLT they are reading varying degrees of paraphrase, as well as the translation team's unspoken commentary implicit in their editing.

A good stand-alone commentary can indeed be hugely helpful. Reading an essentially literal translation and turning to a commentary for clarification is a good method. Of course, the very best way to understand the meaning of the Bible is to read it regularly and widely, in context, prayerfully and reverently and with enjoyment.

However it's worth saying again, that good commentaries are helpful; they're written by faithful scholars who revere God's word as given in the original language, and who seek to let the Scriptures speak for themselves. These commentaries will refuse to omit or change any word or phrase in the text. They will lay aside any doctrinal prejudice, and will come to the text believing that these are the very words of God, as given to the Bible authors under the Holy Spirit's inspiration. The only goal of such commentaries will be to understand, and help the student of God's word understand, what God meant for them to know in the text. Of course, even a good commentary can make mistakes, so ultimately it is up to each Christian to become a good student of the Bible, to learn to study and understand for themselves.

Lastly, finding a good commentary is not that hard, but it helps to get some recommendations. People and their writings get reputations for accuracy, for honesty, and for biblical faithfulness. Two scholars whose commentaries have stood the test of time are John Calvin and Matthew Henry. Following in that tradition of biblical faithfulness are more modern commentaries by John MacArthur, Kent R. Hughes, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, D.A. Carson, and even the study notes of the ESV Study Bible. This article on commentaries at Desiring God may be helpful.

All will be similar in their approach to Scripture; none of them will be willing to omit, ignore or change words from the original language. They will offer their best shot at helping to interpret a passage's meaning. Good comments on Scripture can be immensely helpful and devotional, helping us to grow in the knowledge of God so that we ascribe even greater praise to God for all his wonderful deeds and purposes. This is a good indication that you have hit on the right translation and the right interpretation of a passage!

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