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Using the Right Bible Translation? A professional translator’s perspective on translation choice, by Jonathan Downie

Given that the ESV seems to have largely achieved its skopos of making the argument structure of the original apparent in the English, we can conclude that the ESV would make an excellent Bible for theologians, Bible students and all those wishing to gain a clearer insight into the patterns of the original languages of the Bible. As the ESV does also display the tension we expected between readability and transparency (Martindale 2008: 2), it must be stated that those using this Bible for study purposes should not take it for granted that the ESV will follow the Greek argument exactly. Despite the beliefs of its translators (ESV 2001: xl), it should also not be taken for granted that such a “transparent” translation will necessarily be less interpretive than translations prepared to fulfil a different skopos, especially since all translation involves interpretation (Taylor 2007: 35; Fee and Strauss 2007: 30, 31) and since the ESV does show signs of theology affecting translation choices (Martindale 2008: 2).

The skopos of both the NKJV and ESV is clearly focussed on producing as many features of the original text as possible, within the bounds of English grammar, even where such features could make the text harder to understand for an English reader. The New Living Translation (called NLT from now on), on the other hand, takes a very different stance. The skopos of this translation can be summed up in one sentence from the Preface.

The challenge for our translators was to create a text that would communicate as clearly and powerfully to today’s readers as the original texts did to the readers and listeners in the ancient world. (NLT 2004: xliii)

This suggests that the features we should be looking for are clarity of expression, especially given the fact that the NLT translators took the extra step of employing professional stylists to check the text at every stage (NLT 2004: xlv) and given the translators’ own statement that “clarity was the primary goal” (ibid, xlv) in their work. The NLT translators also did their best to avoid the use of the kind of technical terminology we came across in the ESV and NKJV (ibid: xlviii). We should therefore expect to see such ideas either explained or replaced with more common modern alternatives. With this in mind, let us refer once again to Romans 8:28-30, this time in the NLT10.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chose them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. (NLT)

It is obvious upon first glance that the translators have indeed managed to avoid the use of the traditional terms found in the NKJV and ESV. Thus, “foreknew” becomes “knew … in advance,” “justified” becomes “gave … right standing with himself” and so on. The NLT therefore does succeed in making these concepts easier to understand for the modern reader. However, where the Greek uses a single, repeated word for these terms, such repetition may be lost due to the necessity to change phrasing according to the demands of context. Similarly, where the original author may have deliberately employed a certain word order or phrasing, this is less likely to be obvious in the NLT than it would be, for instance, in a translation such as the ESV11.

The description of the NLT as a “general purpose text” (NLT 2004: xliii) by its own translators is therefore apt. The decision to avoid the use of traditional phrasing means that the NLT is likely to be most useful when those reading or hearing the text are either not familiar with the traditional terminology or find it confusing or simply when those hearing or reading the text prize clarity above “majesty of style” and wish a translation that reads naturally. This same feature means that the NLT could be very useful in discipling new believers and for devotional use in those cases where ease of understanding is vitally important. On the other hand, this very clarity of expression and dedication to present the Word in language that more closely resembles modern use means that the NLT is less likely to be useful for studies into the occurrence and use of specific words and phrases in the original languages.

The last translation to be examined is the most controversial, with some ministers calling it “a paraphrase rather than a translation” (Collins 2008). The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson positions itself as a “reading Bible” (Peterson 2003: lii), with the emphasis on trying to elicit the same response from modern readers as the original texts would have elicited from theirs (ibid). The translator also makes it clear that The Message is not meant to replace the range of “study Bibles” (ibid) that were available when the translation was published. This is presumably a reference to translations such as the ESV that try to make sure that phrasing and word choice is “transparent to the original” (ESV 2001: xl), thereby making study of such areas much easier.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Summer 2009

About the Author: Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, preacher and church interpreting researcher living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is married with two children and is committed to helping churches reach out to their surrounding multilingual communities using interpreting.

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