How To Translate a Bible

I will never forget the meeting at the airport hotel in the late 1980s. With the encouragement and blessing of Kenneth Taylor ’38, Litt.D. ’65, I and five other biblical scholars were there to discuss a revision of The Living Bible. Ken had produced this work, a paraphrase of the American Standard Version, specifically to communicate biblical truth to his children. We all know what happened. The Living Bible became much more than an aid for promoting spiritual growth in one family in Wheaton, Illinois. With Ken’s determination to cast the Scriptures in language and forms that people actually speak and understand, it broke down barriers between the sacred text and modern readers.

Ken Taylor was sharply criticized, and in many circles The Living Bible was viewed as a sinister project that not only represented idiosyncratic interpretations of one individual, but with its loose renderings of treasured texts also undermined the authority of the Scriptures. For his part, Ken felt that scholars often were more interested in preserving formal equivalence in translation than actually communicating the Scripture’s life-giving message. Nevertheless, Ken authorized the leaders in his company, Tyndale House Publishers, to engage evangelical biblical scholars to address the problems the critics had raised.

We spent that first weekend asking each other what it was about The Living Bible that gripped the imagination of millions of people in the English-speaking world, and exploring how that quality could be preserved even as we addressed the problems that many—especially biblical scholars—had with Ken Taylor’s work. The decision was made to appoint a Bible Translation Committee (BTC) that included six biblical scholars (general reviewers) to lead the project. In addition, three scholars would assist in drafting a base translation of one or more books for the BTC to discuss and approve. Unlike the original Living Bible, which was a paraphrase, this New Living Translation (NLT) would be a true translation, based off the original Hebrew and Greek. Since all translation involves interpretation, however, sometimes we on the committee would disagree on how a passage was rendered; but after a discussion a vote would be called, and in the end the majority ruled.

Although the translation philosophy underlying the NLT is generally classified as a dynamic equivalence theory, for us the question was more practical: If this biblical book were written today, how would the author have written it? The question applies both to vocabulary and syntax. Formal translations (“word for word”) are not necessarily more accurate, because few words in any source language have the same semantic range as the words in the target language. Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5 demonstrates that the Savior himself had adopted NLT’s translation theory:

Deuteronomy 6:5Luke 10:27
You must love the LORD your God with all your heart (leb), all your soul (nephesh), and all your strength (me’od). You must love the LORD your God with all your heart (kardia), all your soul (psyche),
all your strength (ischus), and all your mind (dianoia)

How could Jesus render a statement that had three critical elements in the Hebrew original with four Greek words? The answer is obvious when we realize that Hebrew leb cannot be fully represented with a single word “heart.” In almost half the occurrences in the Old Testament, the word represents primarily the seat of thought, rather than the seat of the will or emotion. Therefore to represent it with only one word in the target language is to skew the meaning, which apparently led Jesus to add “with all your mind” at the end. Here a word for word translation would have been lexically precise, but inaccurate in meaning.

The first edition of the NLT was formally celebrated in 1996, and a thoroughly reworked version was published in 2004. More than 27 million copies of the NLT have been sold over the past sixteen years. As a participant in this project almost from the beginning, I must say there is no greater honor than to be involved in the communication of the Word of God, and there is no greater blessing than to hear the stories of those for whom the Scriptures have come to life, and actually for whom the Scriptures have brought them to new life in Christ Jesus.

This article was originally published in the winter 2013 issue of Wheaton magazine, a publication of Wheaton College (IL).

Adding to the Text, or Interpreting the Text?

Translating the biblical texts into English (or any other language) is not as simple as it may sound. For starters, the translator has to determine which philosophy of translation to follow. The two basic options are formal equivalence (also called word-for-word, literal, or essentially literal) and dynamic equivalence (also called thought-for-thought). And there is also a combination of these two basic philosophies (as often exemplified by the NIV and the HCSB).

The difference between the two translation philosophies can be seen in lots of ways. One is the question of whether it is appropriate (or even permissible) for the translator to add specificity in the translated text. Here’s a simple example in 2 Kings 24:19. I’m quoting first from the NASB, which generally provides a good word-for-word translation of the original text, and then from the NLT (dynamic equivalence):

2 Kings 24:18-19 (NASB95)
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Hamutal the daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.
19 He did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that Jehoiakim had done.

2 Kings 24:18-19 (NLT)
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. His mother was Hamutal, the daughter of Jeremiah from Libnah.
19 But Zedekiah did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done.

Look at the first word of v. 19. The NASB translates the Hebrew text literally with the pronoun “He.” Incidentally, all formal-equivalence translations (e.g., KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV; also NIV) join the NASB in rendering it “He.”

The NLT (joined by NCV, TEV; also HCSB) replaces the pronoun with the proper name Zedekiah. These dynamic translations feel free to translate beyond the literal wording to ensure that the meaning is accurately conveyed. (Everyone would agree that the antecedent to “he” is Zedekiah, who is named at the beginning of v. 18, even though the masculine name that immediately precedes the pronoun is Zedekiah’s maternal grandfather, Jeremiah.)

Is each approach appropriate? Is each permissible? Is one preferable to the other?

My answer is that each translation is simply following its own basic philosophy. The literal translations render the passage with a word-for-word correspondence. The dynamic translations render it with an expansion of the wording to ensure that the meaning is accurately conveyed.

If you use both styles of translation, you get the best of both worlds.

How much was the widow’s mite?


We find the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. In both passages (which are nearly identical), Jesus makes the point that the widow’s gift to the Temple treasury was very costly to her, because it represented everything she had. But the challenge for the translator is to determine how best to translate the technical terms for the coins she dropped into the box.

The Greek text in Mark 12:42 says that she dropped in “two lepta, which is a kodrantes.” So if we simply translate it that way in English, everything is clear, right? Sure, if the reader has an intuitive sense of the value of two lepta! And Mark even gives us a clue by telling us that two lepta (Jewish coins) are equal to a kodrantes (a Roman coin). But most of us would still have to reach for a Bible dictionary to make sense of those terms. So translators have resorted to numerous solutions.

KJV: two mites, which make a farthing
RSV: two copper coins, which make a penny
NASB: two small copper coins, which amount to a cent (with a footnote)
NIV: two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny (with a footnote)
ESV: two small copper coins, which make a penny (with a footnote)
HCSB: two tiny coins worth very little (with a footnote)
NLT: two small coins (with a footnote)

Which translation is correct? I would argue that the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV, and ESV communicate the wrong message. After all, a penny has very little value in our current economy. But in the first century, a kodrantes was equal to 1/64 of a denarius, and a denarius was considered fair pay for a day’s wage. If today’s wage for a laborer in the USA is $15 per hour, that comes to $120 for an 8-hour day. At this rate, 1/64 of a day’s wage is $1.88. Round it up to $2.00, and we could say that the widow dropped two dollar-coins into the collection box. That feels very different from “two coins worth only a fraction of a penny.”

It’s for that reason that the NLT simply says “two small coins” [footnote: Greek two lepta, which is a kodrantes (i.e., a quadrans)]. After all, the point of Jesus’ teaching was that the widow gave everything she had. And if her two small coins were worth a couple of dollars in our economy, let’s not give the impression that she had only two pennies.

Sentence Structure in the NLT

By Mark D. Taylor

The issue of sentence structure in English Bibles is interesting. On the surface, one might assume that an English Bible could/should simply follow the structure of the sentences in Hebrew and Greek. But the very concept of a “sentence” differs from language to language.

Let’s look at the prologue to Romans (Rom 1:1-7) as an example. We begin by reminding ourselves that koine Greek does not actually use punctuation or paragraph breaks, nor does it differentiate between upper case and lower letters. This might surprise you, because the UBS Greek New Testament uses paragraphs, capital letters, and punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, and semicolons). But this is because the editors of that Greek text have made judgment calls as to how the Greek “sentences” should be presented in a format we’re accustomed to seeing in English.

In the UBS Greek text, Rom 1:1-7 is presented as one long sentence (i.e., the first full stop comes at the end of verse 7). But does that mean that English translations should also use only one sentence for that passage? Formal-equivalence translations tend to do so. For example, KJV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, and ESV all use only one sentence for this long prologue. Interestingly, the NKJV uses two sentences. NIV and TNIV use four sentences. NLT2 uses nine sentences.

Which approach is correct? I would argue that they all are. Each translation uses a unique translation philosophy, and the structure of English sentences plays into that philosophy. Unfortunately, the proponents of formal equivalence sometimes imply that the only legitimate style of translation is to follow the sentence structure of the original texts as closely as possible. But life isn’t quite that simple.

“Propitiation” in the NLT

Mark D. Taylor

As a dynamic-equivalence translation, the NLT translates the Hebrew and Greek text in natural, understandable English. This means that we try to avoid technical terms that the average reader would not understand.

Two such technical terms not used in the NLT are “propitiation” and “expiation.” The Bible Translation Committee chose not to use these terms because the average reader does not understand them. In fact, I’d guess that only 1% of the population could define the terms “propitiation” and “expiation” with any degree of accuracy.

The table below shows how four translations handle the Greek term hilasterion:

Romans 3:25
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation . . . whom God put forward as an expiation . . . whom God put forward as a propitiation . . . For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin.
Hebrews 9:5
And over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercyseat; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Above the Ark were the cherubim of divine glory, whose wings stretched out over the Ark’s cover, the place of atonement.

These are the only two NT passages that use the Greek word hilasterion. But the word is used frequently in the Greek translation of the OT, where it refers to the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. English translations of the OT render the Hebrew term as “mercy seat” (KJV, RSV, ESV), “atonement cover” (NIV), or “the Ark’s cover–the place of atonment” (NLT).

In Heb 9:5, the term hilasterion is used in the literal sense–describing the Ark’s cover.

In Rom 3:25, Paul uses hilasterion as a metaphor. “God presented Jesus as the hilasterion.” But what does this metaphor mean? Jesus was the “atonement cover.” He was the “place of atonement.” He was himself “the sacrifice for sin,” the means of atonement between God and humanity.

Does the English word “propitiation” communicate this nuance of meaning? Perhaps to 1% of the population. To the other 99%, it communicates very little meaning at all.

That’s why the NLT uses words that communicate clearly to 100% of the readers: “God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin” (Rom 3:26).

By the way, Scripture Zealot has a post on this very subject called Romans 3:25, Propitiation and the NLT (in which he quotes the first-edition text of the NLT).