My issue with the NLT

From what I hear, the New Living Translation (NLT) is slowly gaining respect as a legitimate, “authoritative” translation for use in study. The release of the NLT Study Bible, which gets very positive reviews, has probably helped. I certainly commend it as a very readable translation and have been using it more lately than before. Gus Konkel, president of the college and seminary and one of the NLT translators, has said that the quality of a translation should be judged by how well it achieves its aims (so read your Bible introductions). The NLT, which he has said (as I recall) aims to make what the author is saying as clear as possible, minimizing the questions which will arise out of reading, certainly in my experience is successful in this respect.

But how far should this be taken? I remember several years ago my brother saying that the NLT editorializes too much, and every so often I run into a verse that reads completely differently than I have ever read it. This, I suppose, is as a result of the translators trying to bring clarity to the text. For example, last night I was reading John 1 in the NLT and I came across this in verse 51:

Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.” (NLT)

The final clause, “the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth”, does not appear anywhere in the Greek text. The Greek text ends with “Son of Man”; from what I can tell, everything that follows in the NLT is explanatory text, to clear up the meaning of the imagery of heaven opening and angels ascending and descending.

My question is, does this kind of material rightly belong in the body of the text, implying that this is what the author said, or should it go in the footnotes, thus clearing up (at least from the translator’s/editor’s perspective) the textual questions while keeping the explanation separate from the text? My vote is for footnotes.

I realize that I need to be careful here, knowing that in translating from Hebrew or Greek to English, sometimes words–such as “is”–need to be added in order to make the English make sense, and I’m certainly don’t think that a woodenly literal approach to translation is the best approach. However, adding an entire clause seems to me to take this to an extreme.

What do you think?

(When Dixie saw me writing this, she said, “Are you trying to scare people away from your blog?” I am not. And neither is this a “big deal”. It’s simply something interesting I noted in the text. Though I suppose it is a question of translation ethics, if there is such a thing.)

5 thoughts on “My issue with the NLT

  1. Joel

    I would argue that the particular rendering you pointed out has officially left the realm of “dynamic translation” and has entered into “paraphrase/commentary.” It’s an odd decision, especially because I don’t think that last clause adds any real clarity to the verse. That’s a bit different from, say, adding the word “spiritual” into Matt 8:22: “…Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.” I guess it’s hard to say when a translation has gotten “too dynamic” and everyone seems to have a different tolerance level. I was reading a review on Amazon today where the ESV was accused of being too “free” with the text! In the end, I guess every translation is something of a commentary. Still though, I agree that that last clause should probably have gone in a footnote, especially since the added imagery is powerful enough to linger in one’s mind and possibly affect one’s thinking about how Jesus relates to heaven and earth. (“And she’s buying a stairway…” ok, never mind).

    In general, the NLT is a nice translation. And I’m glad they use footnotes to specify when they’ve strayed significantly from the original. All English translations seem to have a few things that raise eyebrows – or worse for us, things that send us back to the bookstore hoping to find that ever-elusive “ideal” translation.

  2. Marc

    “hoping to find that every-elusive ‘ideal’ translation”

    So true. And the more I look, the more I realize how little difference there really is between the translations, particularly those with a similar translation approach (such as “dynamic equivalence”).

  3. Andrew

    “…Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.” Does the NLT actually add spiritually? If so, wow, that is terrible. I mean, not only is it not a translation then, but it’s terribly condescending to the reader. Let me figure it out – just give me as much of a straight translation as possible. What’s wrong with “let the dead bury their own dead”?

  4. Marc

    What’s wrong with it, I suppose, is that it continues to vex people. The aim of the NLT is to make the meaning “plain” (through a particular interpretive grid, I suppose). I am similarly uncomfortable with adding words to the text beyond those that are implied.

  5. Marc Post author

    I should add, however, that even though I’m uncomfortable with the notion, I also recognize that giving “as much of a straight translation as possible” (by which I assume you mean “as word for word as possible”) does not necessarily produce a more accurate representation of the original text. For a translation to reflect what the original says is not the same as a translation reflecting what the original means.

    So I guess it’s a question of where the locus of “accuracy” lies.

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