Why the NLT is Good, actually
It’s common in certain circles to hate on the New Living Translation. That hate is undeserved. I posted about that recently, promising to say more if the tweet got 500 likes, which it did.
unpopular opinion: the NLT is good actually
— Tommy Keene (@tommykeene) September 16, 2021
So, here’s the case I’m going to make: the NLT is good because it consistently follows its clearly stated translation philosophy and thus faithfully renders the Greek and Hebrew text into ordinary English.
What Makes a Translation “Good” or “Bad”?
We should talk a bit about what makes a translation good or bad. There is, of course, some subjectivity here, but we need to appreciate that such an assessment is not bound by personal taste. You may not particularly like a translation, but it might still be a good translation. Alternatively, you may have an emotional attachment to the way some translations phrase a particular line of Scripture, either because you memorized it that way or because it has entered the liturgical grammar of the church. I am thinking here of such “tried and true” wordings like “Hallowed be thy name” for Matt. 6:9. That translation is accurate, faithful to the Greek, time tested, and beautiful. But is it a good translation?
Well, that depends. When was the last time you used the word “hallowed” in an ordinary English conversation? Or I’ll do you one better: when was the last time you read it in a non-religious book? It’s probably been awhile (although the Harry Potter fans out there can testify). Tried and true it may be, but this translation does not represent how we naturally speak and it’s not a normal part of our vocabulary (and the Greek word it translates, ἁγιάζω, is perfectly “normal” in its social-rhetorical context).1
As a working guideline, then, I propose we evaluate translations on the basis of three criteria. A good translation (1) has a well-defined, well-reasoned, and useful translation philosophy, (2) applies that philosophy consistently and appropriately to the “many parts and various ways” God has spoken to us in his word (Heb. 1:1), and (3) uses the “best of what’s around” to understand the original Hebrew and Greek text. The NLT gets an “A” in all three of these categories (edit: “okay, maybe a “B+” in the second category, which is notoriously difficult to “capture” in translation), as I will establish in a bit, but first let’s deal with the elephant in the room.
Why the NLT feels (to some) like a bad translation
Many have an instantly negative reaction to the NLT when they first start reading it. In my experience, this is most true for those who come to the NLT having already been “steeped in church.” Many of us grew up in the faith reading and using one of the more “literal” or traditional translations like the RSV, old NIV, NASB, or ESV.2 As a result, we’ve grown so accustomed to certain words and phrases that we think they are normal. “Hallowed” is a common word in our Christian Social Lexicon, alongside “fellowship” and “grace” and “propitiation” and “righteousness.” Outside of Christian circles those words are all less ordinary, but we are used to them so we don’t think twice when we read them in the Bible. So then we come to the Lord’s Prayer in the NLT and we read
Our Father in Heaven, may your name be kept holy. (The Greek: Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς· ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου)Matt. 6:9 (NLT)
They’ve changed the Bible! Except they haven’t. True, “hallowed” isn’t there, but they didn’t “change” anything; they just replaced the traditional word that you’re used to with a phrase that you might actually use in real life. They “ordinarified”™ it. They had to use more words to do this, but there was nothing sacred about the word “hallowed” (if you’ll forgive the pun), so why stick with it?
This brings us to a second frustration many have with the NLT, and here we have a more substantive criticism. The NLT feels like a bad translation because it’s very interpretive in a lot of cases. Here is where the Greek and Hebrew nerds (like myself) wring their hands and gripe to their fellows. If you consider our previous example, you might see the problem in a small way in Matt. 6:9. The NLT has translated a single word in Greek (a third person singular imperative, ἁγιασθήτω, “be sanctified”)3 with a rather lengthy English equivalent (“may your name be kept holy”). Compared to “hallowed,” the phrase “may [it] be kept holy” seems far more free in its translation. What’s more, in English it no longer sounds like an imperative. The NLT thus seems far removed from the Greek.
However, these are minor issues. Let’s turn to a better example: Rev 2:4.
But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! (The Greek: ἀλλὰ ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὅτι τὴν ἀγάπην σου τὴν πρώτην ἀφῆκες.)Rev. 2:4 (NLT)
The phrase translated “you don’t love me or each other as you did at first” translates a much sparser Greek text: τὴν ἀγάπην σου τὴν πρώτην ἀφῆκες, “you have lost your first love.” What a difference! The NLT has added so much! And I’ll confess that I wish the translators had made some different decisions here, but I understand why they didn’t.
You see, there’s an ambiguity in the original—an ambiguity that is “kept” in many translations. There’s a number of exegetical questions that naturally arise as translators wrestle with the original Greek. This is a bit technical, so bear with me. The problem arises because the noun “love” (αγαπη) is what linguists call a “verbal noun.” That is, it is a noun that used to be a verb. It may look like a noun in the present sentence, but in reality its present form is a “transformation” of its primordial verbal state. As such, it still has verb-like qualities that attach to it. For example, it must have an implied “subject” and “direct object.” Who is doing the loving (the “subject” of our “verb”)? That’s obvious, the “you” being addressed in the passage. But whom are these “subjects” failing to love (the “object” of our “verb”)? That’s not obvious.4 It could be Jesus, or it could be the church, or it could be outsiders, or it could be all three, or it could be unresolvably ambiguous.5
Here’s the rub: it has to be one of those options. No-one gets to not make a decision here. If the translator/interpreter doesn’t make a decision, the reader will inevitably supply the option that they think is most intuitive, probably without thinking about it. Most translations (ESV, RSV, NIV, NKJV, NASB) leave the English ambiguous, which means they are ultimately punting the decision to the reader. The reader has to now puzzle out what “first love” means (or, more likely, blissfully supply a meaning without thinking about it). The NLT snatches that decision away. It makes the decision for you. And to many, that seems like a bad thing.6 It’s bad because the translation committee has made the decision for you; they have “supplied” an interpretation and thus no longer leave the matter in the hands of the reader. In short: the NLT is too “interpretive.”
And the thing is, it is very interpretive. I wish they had left it ambiguous in that verse. Why didn’t they? Because ambiguity is harder to read. Clarity and specificity go together. If you leave it ambiguous you necessarily put the burden of interpretation on the reader. Which means that the NLT isn’t really being interpretive here—that is, it’s not arbitrarily imposing an interpretation on the reader in some sort of arbitrary and unwarranted way—they are just being consistent with their translation philosophy. The Greek necessarily presents a hermeneutical puzzle; the translators weighed the evidence and came to the conclusion that John is being intentionally ambiguous here, that he intends the object of the love to be both Jesus and the church. Having made that conclusion, they represent it in their translation. All translations do this, and they do it all the time;7 the NLT just does it more often because it has to given its translation philosophy, which is to make things easier on the reader. I may disagree with the decision they made, but that doesn’t change the fact that they had to make a decision, given their translation philosophy.
The Usefulness of the NLT’s Translation Philosophy
So a lot of the assessment so far leans heavily on the NLT’s translation philosophy, which of course raises a question: is it a good one? First, it’s worth saying that even if you’re not particularly crazy about the NLT, either in practice or in its philosophy, you can’t deny that it is highly thought through and well described. There is no mystery about what the translation team is trying to accomplish. Here’s a bit from their site:
The translators of the New Living Translation set out to render the message of the original texts of Scripture into clear, contemporary English. As they did so, they kept the concerns of both formal-equivalence and meaning-based in mind.Questions? – NLT | New Living Translation (wpmu.azurewebsites.net)
They work through what that means in some detail, and there’s more technical information should you desire to do a deep-dive. For our purposes, though, let’s simplify by stating that the NLT’s ultimate goal is natural and readable contemporary English. In many cases that means there’s little “change” from the Greek, but when the translators hit anything that might cause confusion for contemporary readers, they are immediately going to shift from a more “formal-equivalence” orientation (trying to remain faithful to the actual words and order of the original text) to a “meaning-based” orientation (focusing on what the text “means” instead of the specific ways in which it is constructed). That shift is going to look more “interpretive,” as I describe it above, but notice that the shift isn’t arbitrary. The goal isn’t to embed the translators’ personal and idiosyncratic ideas into the text, it’s to clarify the meaning of the text for the contemporary English speaker.
Here’s how they put it:
NLT translators rendered the message more toward the meaning when the literal rendering was hard to understand, was misleading, or yielded archaic or foreign wording. They clarified difficult metaphors and terms to aid in the reader’s understanding. The translators first struggled with the meaning of the words and phrases in the ancient context; then they rendered the message into clear, natural English. Their goal was to be both faithful to the ancient texts and eminently readable.
Let’s map this onto our previous two examples. I imagine that the thought process behind the removal of the word “hallowed” was that it “yielded archaic or foreign wording.” Likewise, the more expansive translation of “first love” is justified by the desire to avoid a “misleading” translation, since most scholars hold that the object of “love” in this verse is “love for one another” and most readers casually assume it’s about a love for Jesus. In both cases the translators have prioritized “meaning” over “wording,” and while that might be disorienting at first, the decisions are non-arbitrary, well-reasoned, and useful.
Which brings us to that last adjective, “useful.” While the emphasis on “meaning” over “equivalency” might not be your particular cup of tea, it has a useful function and fills the gap left behind by other good English translations. Almost all other translations assume some level of competency with “the way Christians talk.” All communities develop a kind of “sub-language” that is normal for them. Christians do this too, and that’s not a criticism; it’s a natural function of human language (that sometimes ends up being funny). We’ve grown used to “ancient” words and phrases that the rest of the world finds confusing; we regularly put up with “Yoda-speak” in our translations because neither Greek nor Hebrew utilize word order to establish grammatical connections in the same way that English does. We also have a “specialized” way in which we use words like “grace” and “faith” and “fellowship” and “assembly” that seem foreign to “ordinary” people. That’s not wrong, and it doesn’t make any of the translations that rely on that tradition “bad,” but it does mean that such translations (and the language use) require more from their readers.
So what if you want to create a translation that doesn’t require as much knowledge of “the way Christians talk?” Well, you use ordinary English words combined with ordinary English grammatical conventions, which is what the NLT is clearly trying to do. On this note, it’s worth pointing out that many of the positive comments on the aforementioned Twitter thread. Many noted that the simplicity of the NLT makes it “great for kids, ESL folks, and new believers.” I agree, but I’d like to push back a bit on that. It is, of course, great for all those categories of people. That’s actually how I first began seriously reading the NLT. My kids asked for a “grown-up Bible” and so I gave them both NLTs. But it was while reading the NLT together during devotionals that I began to really enjoy it. Then I wanted my own copy. And since I’m a grown man, I bought my own copy! And now that copy is a part of my regular reading rotation. Why? Because what makes the NLT great for kids and ESL folks and new believers is precisely what makes it great for everybody: it’s ordinariness.
“Ordinary.” I think this is what captures the NLT’s translation philosophy more than anything else. Readable, yes, sure. But what makes it so readable is that it uses ordinary English. It reads like we speak. It’s written within a common register. It’s wrong to say that the NLT is “dumbed-down.” That’s not it at all. It’s no more dumbed-down than a conversation with your spouse is dumbed-down. You don’t use words like “inasmuch” and “hallowed” when you talk to real people. You don’t use semicolons either. You use ordinary language.8 That’s the joy of the NLT: it’s just ordinary. It’s not written into a “higher religious register,” nor does it rest on the reader’s preexisting knowledge of Bible terms and religious idioms (“sackcloth and ashes,” for example). It’s written in the ordinary register within which we modern English speakers think, speak, and write.
What is more, the NLT applies it’s philosophy very consistently. I have found remarkably few verses that seem arbitrarily translated to me. (By “arbitrary” I mean a verse that embeds some precise exegetical decision not warranted by either the text or the philosophy of translation). That’s one of the chief ways in which a translation can end up being “bad,” when it makes translation decisions on the basis of some extra-textual theological ideology, or when it applies its philosophy selectively so as not to disturb the traditional views of its audience or, worse, the idiosyncratic views of the translator. What is more, the NLT is clearly conversant with the latest in linguistic, historical, and theological research. This should be somewhat obvious when you consider the pedigree of translators involved in the project, but it is confirmed in my mind by the number of good exegetical decisions I see the NLT making. Even when I disagree with the decision, there’s a body of literature and research behind it
God’s word is perfect, but no translation is. I do have some gripes. Well, I have lots of gripes. That’s one of the benefits of learning the original languages; you earn the right to gripe about this or that word choice or phrasing. But most of my gripes are minor and not worth the time. Two bigger items are worth mentioning, though, because they are both a direct result of the translation philosophy behind the NLT.
First, placing the priority on “ordinary” language means that certain “special” words don’t get translated consistently. I noticed this the other day while reading John 6:41-43. We are told there that the people “murmer in disagreement” over Jesus’ words, to which Jesus responds “stop complaining about what I said.” The word translated “murmer” and “complain” is the same Greek word–already that’s a problem because you loose the coherence of the people’s actions and Jesus’ response. However, compare this to other translations, the majority of which alight on the word “grumble” as the best translation. The word “grumble” recalls Exo. 16:2 (and other verses) where Israel “grumbled” against Moses (and, by transference, against God). The Biblical-Theological connection is a bit shadowed as a result (although the NLT does reads “complained” in Exo. 16:2). The “ordinariness” of “complain” short-circuits what might be an “ah-ha” moment for the reader. Now, having said that, words are not the sole anchor of Biblical-Theological connectivity, but they do help.
The second gripe concerns genre and authorial style. Translating everything in a “common” or “ordinary” style, as we have described it, has a tendency to strip certain kinds of passages of their unique literary character. Luke 1:1-4, for example, is some of the most literary and sophisticated Greek in the NT, second only to Hebrews. Luke 1:5, by contrast, seems to drop back down into more of an “ordinary” register. Read the first few verses of Luke in the NLT and see if you can spot the difference. I can’t. The stylistic difference is less clear in the NLT than it is in the Greek and even in other English translations. The literary style of the original writer has been “flattened” in deference to the style anticipated by the translation philosophy and the modern audience. Yet this, too, is only a partial criticism, since the “flattening” under consideration is a direct result of the translation philosophy and is to some extent unavoidable. What is more, all translations tend to “flatten” stylistic differences among the various books of the Bible, it’s just that most of these other translations “flatten” them “upwards” toward a more literary style (“hallowed be thy name”), rather than “downward” to a more ordinary style.
One bonus gripe, and for this one I want to take direct aim at Tyndale: why is there no Reader’s Bible for the NLT???? This is your thing! I can help. Call me, maybe.
The claim here is not that the NLT is the best translation—I’m convinced that such debates are pretty useless. We should also appreciate that different translations are useful for different things, and so your “daily carry” might not be the same translation you use for research and study or in the your church’s liturgy. But with these qualifications laid down, I would recommend the NLT as both faithful and useful. It has, in fact, become my go-to “just reading” Bible, and since the end result of that has been that I actually read the Bible more, I would commend it to you.
- “But,” someone might say, “the Lord’s Prayer is, in fact, a prayer, and we should use a higher literary register when speaking to our Heavenly Father.” A fair point, but is that what Jesus is doing in this prayer? The Lord’s prayer is almost obsessively “ordinary.” It’s short, to the point, simple, straightforward. In fact, that seems to be the Jesus’ point! Don’t heap up flowery words and excessive formality and outward show when you pray. Just talk.
- I don’t particularly care for language like “literal,” but it’s a word we appear to be stuck with.
- If I were trying to “literally” capture the Greek, I might do something like “hollify your name,” or “be hollified,” but those are even worse then hallowed, since “hollify” isn’t really a word at all. As another note, all the main-line translations “soften” the imperatives in the Lord’s Prayer, but that’s a side-track we shouldn’t explore at the moment.
- The author could have made it obvious to us by including a prepositional phrase here (for example “love for Jesus” or “love for each other”), but John chose not to. Why?
- Ambiguity is a function of all human language; it doesn’t represent a “mistake” on the part of the author.
- Another example in this verse is the phrase “at first,” translating τὴν πρώτην. Since αγαπη is a verbal noun, this adjective can be read as either a true adjective or as an adverb. It could be something like “your foremost love,” taking it to refer to the love that is higher and better than other loves, or it could be “the love you had at the first,” taking it adverbially as a description of “when” the love occurred. Most translations opt for the latter and, unlike the ambiguity involved in the former example, decide to embed that decision in their translations.
- Don’t even get me started on the ESV and the “faith of Christ” debate in Galatians
- Of course we always write differently than we speak, so this distinction breaks down. All writing will have a literary character to it that the spoken word does not and need not have, but the analogy still holds.