Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 2)

In my first post on translations, commentaries and the NLT,  I mentioned the question that arose in a Bible study with friends over the phrase in Romans 5:5, "hope does not put us to shame". I decided recently to look at a translation like the NLT to see if its wording would help clarify what Paul meant. What I saw and learned prompted these posts on the accuracy of the NLT (its faithfulness to the original languages) because I know a lot of people use it and depend on it.

So I wrote last time that some Bibles are translated using the "essentially literal" word-for-word method (like the ESV and the NASB), and some are translated using the "dynamic equivalence" thought-for-thought method (like the NLT and the NIV). You can a read a short and helpful article about that from Ligonier Ministries here. I said previously that translating the original Greek or Hebrew using the thought-for-thought method involves making editorial decisions, decisions that will be guided by the personal views of the translators, and leading to changes and adjustments in the wording of the text. This amounts to commentary, but sort of an undercover kind, since many readers won't know the issues.

Maybe it will help to see a comparison of the two translations I used to study Romans 5:5-6. First, the ESV's word-for-word translation: 

(5)... and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (6) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

And the NLT's thought-for-thought translation:

(5) And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (6) When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.

The first difference I noticed was that the NLT changed the phrase "put us to shame" to "lead to disappointment" in verse 5. As I read on I noticed other things, including the omission of the Greek word gar in verse 6, which is translated "because" or "for". This is the issue I'll talk about first. In the original Greek gar occurs twice in this passage, once in verse 5 and again in verse 6. In verse 5, it connects us with the reason this hope does not put us to shame: God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given us. In verse 6, it connects us with the reason the Holy Spirit was given to us: at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

But unaccountably, the NLT leaves out gar in verse 6. The result is that the reader will not connect Christ's great accomplishment as being the reason for the wonderful benefits just listed. The connecting word "for" makes it clear that it was Christ's coming and dying that accomplished all that's described in Romans 5:1-5 (all those wonderful benefits of the new birth). Aside from the spiritual implications, this doesn't even make literary sense. In any text a connecting word like "for" or "because" is quite important. How especially true this is in the Bible, where truths vital to our knowledge of God are being connected together. If a "for" is deleted by the translators, the reader can't make those connections and will miss something the Holy Spirit wanted them to see and understand.

This is how the NLT acts like a commentary in its editorial decisions. The unwritten commentary here must be that the translators believed the connection made in the original Greek to be unimportant, and so they left out the connecting word. This one little Greek word, gar, conveys a great deal of beautiful and crucial truth about the accomplishment of the Lord Jesus Christ. Most important of all, the Holy Spirit inspired it to be placed right where it is. I learned, sadly, that this is a common problem throughout the NLT, and in other dynamic equivalence translations as well.

I began this research on Romans 5:5 simply to check out the NLT's rendering of one phrase, "hope does not put us to shame". I wanted to see if its thought-for-thought method of translation could shed any helpful light on the meaning of that phrase. In doing so, I came across problems in the NLT's decisions concerning this passage, the most glaring being their decision to omit the important connecting word "for" in verse 6.

But there were other problems with the NLT's decisions, as I realized upon further investigation. Next post I'll explain what I mean (you can find the next post here).

I found this article very helpful-- "Dynamic Equivalence: The Method is the Problem". Jim Hamilton explains some things you may not have realized about why this matters.

Also, if you are feeling scholarly and want to read a more detailed paper on the subject, see Wayne Grudem's essay "Translating Truth".

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