Monday, August 13, 2012

Bible Translations

Thanks to my sister, I am now the proud owner of a beautiful ESV Bible. That's why I loved it at first: it was from my sister (it even has her name on it), and it was beautiful. One of the first things I did was open it up to Philippians. Some time ago, I memorized most of chapters 3 and 4 of the book, and I wanted to experience the familiar words in a new way.

I expected the wording to be different, but I didn't expect to get new meaning out of verses I had been over so many times. The surprises, however, started early in the passage. Here's a comparison of Philippians 3:2.

NLT: Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved.

With this text, I always took it to mean that "those dogs" were mutilating the Christian faith.

ESV: Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Ooohhhhh. So they're mutilating the body (though, it seems clear that they are also mutilating the faith...)

Having studied French for my major in college (useful degree, no?), I know that translating from one language to another can change meaning. You always lose a little something, or, at the very least, have to work hard to convey the full meaning. As a writer, I know that just translating a thought or experience into words also takes careful consideration. For example, if I say, I strive to live my life happily, that means something different than if I say, I strive to live my life joyfully. It starts to seem like, to get the real picture of what the Bible says, I would do well to learn the original languages it was written in.

Unfortunately, with Bible translation, there's not just a language barrier. There's a full-blown cultural barrier. Consider Revelation 3:20: "Look! I stand at the door and knock." (NLT)

Simple, right? Not necessarily for Bible translators. A couple who are involved with translating for a people group in Mexico explained that in that culture, when someone knocks on the door, it's usually a thief, knocking quietly to test and see if anyone is home. There, a well-meaning visitor will stand at the gate and shout. The question for translators, then, is, "Do I translate the meaning or the actual words?"

Both kinds of translations exist. So what kind do you and I have? Thankfully, in both of my Bibles, there's a portion at the front explaining the mindset behind the translation. The ESV states that it is mostly a literal translation, though it makes mention of staying true to the poetic heritage of it's predecessors (the King James Version). The NLT gives the impression that translators tried to balance the two schools of thought - being as literal as possible while also attempting to make clear the meaning the text would've had on it's first hearers/readers. Not all of this is done right in the text - this Bible is full of footnotes and sidebars - but clearly, it also changes the wording of the text as shown in my first example above.

Which is best? Frankly, I like them both. My NLT Study Bible offers a lot of insight that I wouldn't have otherwise. The ESV is, as it promises to be, more poetic and concise. I feel like I get a more complete understanding when I use them together, if I'm trying to really study a passage. Are these the best two translations out there? Aren't there more tools I could use to get an even clearer understanding? Well, one step at a time... For now, I'm grateful to have an expanded understanding of God's Word in a world where, in some places, Bibles are scarce and dangerous to own.

Your Sister


  1. It seems to me that the context of "mutilators" ( "those mutilators who say you must be circumcised") makes it perfectly clear that "mutilators" are mutilating the body, specifically through circumcision, and that it is therefore completely logical and good translation for the NLT translators to leave exact nature of the mutilation implied.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Ed! I didn't mean to imply that the NLT wasn't a good translation, just that I misunderstood what the verse literally meant until I saw it rephrased in the ESV. I think what threw me was that after the quote you mentioned, the verse ends "to be saved." If someone is telling people the wrong way to be saved, that's a mutilation, too. In any case, I still enjoy and plan to use my NLT Bible! :)