by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee
Greek: κοιμάω (koimaō)
English: fall asleep; die
The verb koimaō is used eighteen times in the New Testament. The literal meaning of the word is “to fall asleep.” An example of this usage is found in Luke 22:45, where Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: “At last he stood up again and returned to the disciples, only to find them asleep, exhausted from grief.”
Similarly, the verb is used with this literal meaning in Acts 12:6: “The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate.”
But in most instances in the New Testament, this word is used as a euphemism for dying. So Bible translators must determine whether to translate the term literally—allowing the euphemism to stand in the English text—or to translate the meaning of the euphemism.
The translation philosophy adopted by many English Bible translations is to render the original language texts literally or “word for word.” For example, the publisher of the English Standard Version calls the ESV an “essentially literal” translation. So generally, they translate metaphors and euphemisms literally, which allows English readers to see the terminology that was used in the original context. Accordingly, the ESV translates koimaō as “fall asleep” or “slept” in nearly every instance that koimaō is used—either literally or as a euphemism.
Similarly, the New International Version usually renders the euphemistic use of koimaō as “fall asleep” or “slept.” For instance, when Stephen comes to the end of his sermon before the religious leaders and sees the heavens opened, the NIV allows the euphemistic use of koimaō to come through with a literal rendering:
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60; emphasis added)
The NLT, on the other hand, consistently translates koimaō as “die” or “died” when it is used as a euphemism. For example, here’s Acts 7:59-60 in the NLT:
As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died. (emphasis added)
In a section of Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4, the word koimaō is used repeatedly as a euphemism. And again, the NLT renders the meaning to which the euphemism points rather than translating the euphemism literally. But note the footnotes (marked in the text with an asterisk), which help the reader also see a more literal rendering of the text:
13 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died* so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. 15 We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died.* (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15; emphasis added)
4:13 Greek those who have fallen asleep; also in 4:14.
4:15 Greek those who have fallen asleep.
The NLT translators were concerned that a literal rendering of the euphemism (“those who have fallen asleep”) would not clearly communicate the text’s meaning to modern readers, since this is not a euphemism we use in contemporary English. This concern—that the text of Scripture should be understandable to readers today—is one reason that we have various English translations with different translation philosophies. Taken together, the rich variety of English translations allows readers to capture with clarity the life-giving truths and literary qualities of the ancient originals.