I’ve now had a chance to read the Gospel of Matthew and 1 Corinthians in the NLT-CE. This translation reads very smoothly and easily. In its best moments, it does a good job of expressing the emotional and rhetorical strength of a passage in a way that many literal translations cannot touch. In my view, that is one of the main strengths of a well-done dynamic translation. A literal translation can obscure the rhetorical power of a passage under difficult or stilted language. A reader can intellectually understand the force of the words in a literal translation, but a well-done dynamic translation can convey the rhetorical power in an immediate, intuitive way. Here’s a passage where this quality struck me:
Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.'”
Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?”
Jesus replied, “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted, so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.” – Matthew 15:3-14 NLT-CE
This passage is an excellent sample of how the NLT-CE reads throughout Matthew and 1 Corinthians. The text is easy to read. It communicates sharp criticism and rhetoric forcefully, but it also shows the translators’ tendency to explain the text as it goes, introducing interpretations to aid understanding which do not exist in the original text. Consider Matthew 15:11. The NLT-CE reads:
It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.
By comparison, the NABRE reads:
It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.
The NLT-CE has added the clarification that Jesus is talking about the words that come from a person’s mouth. Literal translations leave that implication to the reader.
There are many examples of these interpretive clarifications throughout Matthew and 1 Corinthians. Here are a few others, with interpretive words highlighted in bold and the NABRE listed for comparison:
Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. – NLT-CE
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. – NABRE
But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am — so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. – NLT-CE
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. – NABRE
You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ – NLT-CE
You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ – NABRE
But many Israelites — those for whom the Kingdom was prepared — will be thrown into the outer darkness , where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – NLT-CE
but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. – NABRE
“Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. – NLT-CE
He said to him, “follow me.” – NABRE
So far, these clarifications are minor, and they don’t change the meaning of the passage. On balance, I think they’re valuable, since our culture is so far removed from Judea and Galilee in the first century. In the case of Matthew 3:11, the extra words help to communicate the implication that a slave would be the one carrying sandals. A modern reader might otherwise miss that connection. However, the NLT-CE also introduces clarifications in places where they narrow the meaning, as compared with the NABRE:
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him – NLT-CE
Blessed are the poor in spirit – NABRE
You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. – NLT-CE
By their fruits you will know them. – NABRE
Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell – NLT-CE
be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. – NABRE
To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. but for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. – NLT-CE
To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. – NABRE
This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ – NLT-CE
This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. – NABRE
Finally, I noticed a couple instances where the NLT-CE substitutes modern examples or images for similar ancient ones:
But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. – NLT-CE
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face – NABRE
After they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice. – NLT-CE
After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots – NABRE
In both of these cases, the NLT-CE includes a footnote indicating the literal translation of the Greek. This is fairly common throughout the text. If the translators decided to paraphrase a passage, they often included a note with a more literal rendering for reference. Frustratingly, they did not include notes for many of their clarifying additions, such as in Matthew 3:10, 3:11, 7:16, 9:9, 10:28, 13:12, and 22:38-39.
As I noted, many of the clarifying additions are reasonable and good, but the clarifying additions that narrow the meaning of the text are a sticking point for me. Sometimes a text allows multiple interpretations, and sometimes scholars continue to debate the meaning of difficult passages. In these cases, I would strongly prefer that the translators retain the ambiguity and provide the explanatory reading as a footnote. If scholars struggle to understand the meaning, the translators should not smooth away the difficulty.
That being said, I believe the NLT-CE still has value as a translation — especially for readers who want to read the Bible at length and are not aiming to study passages in-depth. After moving through the Gospel of Matthew carefully with a fine-toothed comb, I decided to read the passion narrative and 1 Corinthians with less concern for individual word choices, trying to experience the translation more broadly. As I noted at the outset, the translation reads very smoothly. I read through swaths of 1 Corinthians effortlessly, and the NLT-CE clarifies Paul’s language in a much more natural English style. Here’s a good sample from 1 Corinthians 9:22-27:
When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.
Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.
In Part 3, I’ll say a few words about the physical construction of this US hardcover edition from Tyndale, and I’ll touch on the quality of the book introductions, which were produced by a team from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India.
14 thoughts on “A Few Days with the New Living Translation – Catholic Edition: Part 2”
The impression I am getting is that the NEB is less interpretive and more literal than NLT-CE? Is that correct?
I have very little experience with the NEB, as opposed to its successor the REB, so I can’t give you a good answer. Even if I were to compare the NLT-CE to the REB, I would want to do a similar analysis to the above for the REB first. In my reading of the REB over the last few years, I’ve noticed that its Old Testament renderings are usually quite similar to the NRSV with minor discrepancies that help clarify meaning. In the New Testament, the quality of the REB’s English becomes a bit more conversational and less formal, in my experience. It would be interesting to analyze it the same way I did for the NLT-CE. If you’re interested, I could tackle that in an upcoming post.
I actually meant REB :). Yes I would be intersted in a comparison.
I had meant to say the REB. Yes, I am very curious of the comparison between the REB and NLT. I have recently obtained the REB and I am comparing it to the CTS JB. I am personally a bit weary of dynamic translations but do enjoy the smoothness of those translations. I also realize that there are differing degree of to any translation. I guess, I am personally searching for the most literal of the dynamic translations or inversely, the least literal of the formal equivalence translations.
It sounds like you’re searching for the holy grail of Bible translations — something that is sufficiently dynamic to express the biblical text fluently in English while avoiding heavy-handed interpretation by the translators!
I like your suggestion to compare the NLT-CE and the REB. I’ll read through Matthew and 1 Corinthians in the REB this week and report on the results.
Thanks for posting these! I’ve been wondering what the NLT-CE was like ever since hearing about it from our dear Timothy on his site. I find myself really enjoying the style! It translates into interpretations that took me awhile to catch on my own, and I find it pretty fun.
You’re very welcome, Cody! I was in the same boat. I’ve been curious about the NLT-CE ever since it came out. I’m glad to finally get my hands on it!
I’m going to be the Negative Nancy here and explain why I dislike the NLT, using, as an illustration, a point from your breakdown, where you say
“The NLT-CE has added the clarification that Jesus is talking about the words that come from a person’s mouth. Literal translations leave that implication to the reader.”
Another way of saying the same thing would be to say that the NLT has a rather annoying tendency to overexplain things which really don’t need to be explained at all. Why it does this, I don’t know, but I tend to think it is because the translators have a rather unfortunate tendency to think that the reader is kind of stupid and won’t understand everything that isn’t explicitly spelled out.
Overexplaining things is a sure sign of a bad writer, whereas a good writer knows exactly how much detail to provide, and often leaves little things unexplained with the assumption that the reader can read between the lines.
At times, the NLT is like the satirical Bible passage read aloud during the ‘holy hand grenade’ scene in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ “Count to three and then throw the hand grenade, three shall be the counting and the number of the counting shall be three. To two, do not count, unless it is on the way to counting to three. Counting to four is right out.”
Another, to me infamous, example of the NLT’s desire to overexplain things is the way it handles the death of David and the other king of Israel and Judah. A literal translation would be ‘and David rested with his ancestors’, which is the way almost every translation words it. This is a turn of phrase which is at once memorable, poetic and in its own way, beautiful. No one, I think, has ever read it and wondered what it means for someone to ‘rest with his ancestors.’
The NLT destroys this beautiful metaphor by translating it dully as ‘David died’. What a horrible decision!
I recently restarted reading the bible again after about a decade of being away (long story). It was very common for me to get lost and become frustrated, and as a result I found myself gravitating to more dynamic translations like the Jerusalem Bible. After a couple of months I found out the following:
1. I was reading too fast. With all the modern communications (internet, e-mail, etc) we have so much info infront of us we tend to speed read or scan. This works well when tackling a full inbox, but is quite counterproductive with scripture. Slowing down really helped.
2. Familiarity with the text really, really helps. Reading the same few chapters in a second and third transulation is well worth the time. Also, reading the footnotes as you go sheds a lot of light on the passage. My favorites so far are the RSV-2CE Didache and the NABRE.
These two techniques both make my reading more fruitful and more appreciative of formal equivalance transulations. As time goes on the JB stays on the shelf more, even though I love it. If a dynamic eq transulation makes getting started easier, then they have a useful function. Eventually a more formal transulation may very well be more satisfying.
I think translations like the NLT are okay when you’re just starting out reading the Bible for the first time, especially if you don’t have great reading skills. But I think after one gains some familiarity with the text, one should move on to a more mature translation.
I mean, I would say that it kind of depresses me, not just the state of modern Bible translations, but of popular literature in general. Compare the most popular authors of the 19th century, Dickens, Twain, Poe, or look at the popular authors around 1950, Lewis, Tolkien, Graham Greene, George Orwell, in both cases we are talking about authors who are fairly sophisticated, and this isn’t the high faulting stuff read by intellectuals, these were the POPULAR authors, the stuff that appears on the best sellers lists. Now compare them to the popular authors of today, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, John Grisham, it seems impossible to deny that there has been a general decline in the quality and sophistication of popular literature in the last 60 years, which goes along with a decline in the reading level of the general public. To me, that we’ve gone from the RSV to the NLT is a similar decline as going from Graham Greene to Dan Brown.
I agree with your critique, Biblical Catholic. As a rule, I’d say the NLT-CE adds too many interpretive glosses, and some of them narrow the meaning of the text in a way that seems unnecessary. Most readers can handle double-meanings or ambiguous meanings. If they exist in the original, by all means keep them!
I also share your reaction to “David died.” It’s very bland compared to the more literal translation.
That being said, I’m striving to keep the NLT-CE’s flaws in perspective. For all the cases when it explains too much or translates a unique phrase into a bland one, it also translates stilted phrases into emphatic, flowing English. I think the passage above from 1 Corinthians 9:22-27 is a good example. Look how the NABRE translates verses 24-27:
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
The meaning is the same, but the language in the NLT-CE punches the reader more strongly. I think it conveys the deeper emotion of the passage very well!
I really appreciate this series on the NLT:CE. I’ve been using it for extended daily Bible reading for the last few months now and have come to love it, even got it recovered in leather (sadly I didn’t realize it was a glued binding until it was stripped down for page gilding and then sent off to Leonard’s, but they were nice enough to insert some cords into the spine)
I’ve read through the Bible multiple times at this point, but I’ve recently found it difficult to stick with a single translation all throughout. I’ve tried literal translations like the RSV, RSV2CE, NABRE, and even the KJV (including deuterocanonicals). I’ve also tried more fluid translations like the NJB, REB, and the Knox. I respect what others are saying here about the sometimes clumsy nature of the NLT and other dynamic translations, and I’d be lying if I hadn’t occasionally come across a new passage in the NLT that I have memories of reading, in say the RSV, and groaning at the NLT’s apparent attempt at simplification, the “David died,” comment above is a good example of this.
But are we really going to pretend that the more literal end of the spectrum isn’t also guilty of a few eye rollers as well? Fr. Knox’s tirade on “righteousness” in his “On Englishing the Bible,” essays comes to my mind for a start. I think what I appreciate about the NLT is that it really is a “Reader’s Bible,” as this article series says I think in Part III. That’s obvious not only in the style of translation, but also even in the way they format certain passages. I love for example, how they tend to lay out genealogies, with each name in a literal list instead of a paragraph with a million commas. It’s touches like that that really help keep me engaged in the text, while I’m trying to squeeze by daily bible reading in between Liturgy of the Hours readings, various chaplets, a full time job, and family life.
So yes, if I’m going to settle in with a nice glass of whiskey at the end of along day and unwind with some Bible reading, I’d probably reach for my RSV, Knox, or KJV. But when I’m trying to get my Bible time in at the end of a short work lunch, I’ll be glad it’s the NLT in my bag.
Just my thoughts.
Have you (Marc, or anyone) looked at the Good News Bible? What do you think of it?
I’ve never done an in-depth look at the Good News Bible. I’ve compared a few verses here and there, but I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion.