Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Translations, Commentaries and The NLT

A while back I was reading and studying through Romans 1-5 with some dear friends. These chapters are wonderfully important. And they're so important to get right; Romans itself has been called the "crown jewel" of all the Scripture, and a right grasp of the truths taught in the first 5 chapters means a right grasp of the gospel.

In our study when we came to Romans 5:5, the wording of the first phrase seemed a bit strange: "hope does not put us to shame". We were using the ESV (English Standard Version), an "essentially literal", word-for-word translation. Sometimes in any essentially literal translation (which includes the King James, the New American Standard, the New King James, etc.), the word-for-word method of translating won't result in the smooth flow we're used to. This all depends on how the Hebrew or Greek translates into English.

In our study one friend had puzzled over that phrase in Romans 5:5, wondering how hope does or does not put us to shame. We discussed it and moved on, but missed the opportunity to slow down and look at a commentary. I decided to write this post after reading Romans 5 this morning and remembering my friend's question. I'd like to show how, in researching that phrase, I looked at Romans 5:5 in the New Living Translation (NLT), and found it to be problematic. I don't want to be negative for negativity's sake about any Bible translation. But it's so important to read an accurate translation of God's word.

When I decided to see how the NLT translates Romans 5:5, I did so because I had sometimes wondered if referring to the NLT in cases like this could be useful. I knew that one needs to be careful, since the NLT is not a literal word-for-word translation, but a "dynamic equivalence" (thought-for-thought) translation. What I learned is that the NLT is actually a commentary, of sorts. When translators use the thought-for-thought method to translate, they make editorial decisions about what the thought of the original writer really was, and adjust the wording accordingly. These editorial decisions will accord with the personal leanings and views of the translators. You can read a little about that here.

The NLT translates Romans 5:5, in contrast to the ESV's "hope does not put us to shame", "this hope will not lead to disappointment". On first reading that seemed fair enough; but as I considered the word change, read the rest of verse 5, and then read verse 6, I saw problems. The most obvious was that the translators had chosen to leave out the little Greek word gar, which means "because" or "for". That little word at the beginning of  verse 6 has big implications for why we have a hope that "does not put us to shame"! In fact it is of gospel significance, and to leave it out is to radically alter Paul's flow of thought and meaning. Next post I'll continue with how I worked through some of the issues in this passage in the NLT.

(You can read the next article in this series here.)

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