Every Translation of the Bible is a Paraphrase

So says Abraham Piper. It bothers me a bit that when NLT-haters attack my favorite translation, they use this word as if it is an mark of scorn and evil. Kinda like a red ‘P’ on the the cover of a bible. When these people issue their attacks, they usually do so from this website. They really don’t bother to read all of the site, as it notes that the 2004 is more literal than the 1996 version. (I like the 1996 version in some areas, more so than I do the 2007). I mean, the New Living Translation is more literal in places than other ‘literal’ translations.

I don’t like using that word, paraphrase, and will not use it.

On a side note, I brought my NLT Cambridge with me to visit my older relatives in Baton Rouge who still use the KJV (primary, not only) and they loved it.

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24 Replies to “Every Translation of the Bible is a Paraphrase”

  1. I don’t have a problem with the word paraphrase in regard to biblical translations because all translation is paraphrase to some extent. I was lucky in that the first book I picked up on biblical translation used the word paraphrase liberally and it really struck me that all translation is more paraphrase than word for word interpretation. Paraphrasing does not take away from the message, unless of course it is too broad or erroneous.

    Now it’s one of those church words that will have different meaning to those using it – paraphrase vs a Paraphrase. The more I enter into discussion with folks on the ground, the more I find they haven’t done their own research but have listened to someone (like a pastor) who obviously hasn’t done appropriate research either.

    1. Well said, Bitsy. I should qualify my statement in using that word. I don’t use it because of the negative connotations attached to it.

  2. The term “paraphrase” was once used for what we now call “functional equivalence translation”, as opposed to what was once called “metaphrase” (which is what we now call “formal equivalence translation”). Of course, every translation is partly a “paraphrase”, as you say. It would equally be true to say that every translation is a “metaphrase” to some extent. But both terms don’t apply simultaneously when identifying versions according to their underlying translational philosophies, and in that respect the NLT is a “paraphrase” in the way that other translations are not. That is to say, the sense in which your claim obtains is really trivial, and does not overturn the meaningfulness of the term when applied to the NLT.

    Of course, this is to use “paraphrase” differently from how it is usually applied today to (e.g.) *The Living Bible*. That is a technical usage, which basically means “not an original translation”. If the point of those who call the NLT a “paraphrase” is that the NLT does not ecape the charge thrown at *The Living Bible*, then they are using the word in two different ways.

    But you cannot deny that the NLT is a “paraphrase” in the older sense of the word, in a way that excludes many other translations. (In my book, that automatically makes it an inferior translation.)

    Can you give some examples of passages that the NLT renders more literally than other translations?

    1. John,

      I wouldn’t say my arguments are trivial in any sense of the word. People use ‘paraphrase’ in a slanderous way to cast doubt on excellent translations such as the NLT, as if it is man’s thoughts rather than a good translation. This is my point about using this word. Until people can get it through their heads that ‘paraphrase’ is not a bad word, I will not use it. Further, the NLT 2007 is hardly the paraphrase that the Living Bible was. Further, the LB was never meant to be read as the primary text. The 2007 is not even like the 1996. It is more literal, and yet readable.

      The idea that the NLT is an ‘inferior translation’ because it is a ‘paraphrase’ is what is troubling. People have this idea of ‘literal’ when in reality, no bibles are literal. Further, ‘word for word’ misses the meaning of the text, and while I do not support extreme translations such as the Message, the NLT is not like that.

      Quickly, Luke 9.37 and 2nd Peter 2.2 are literal.

      I am planning on a series of posts on the literalism in the NLT for next week. I look forward to your interaction.

  3. Thank you for your reply.

    I looked at the two verses you mentioned, and I don’t see how the NLT is “more literal . . . than other ‘literal’ translations” at these two points. Below is a comparison, based on what I found on unbound.biola.edu:

    Luke 9:37
    εγενετο δε τη εξης ημερα κατελθοντων αυτων απο του ορους συνηντησεν αυτω οχλος πολυς

    Luke 9:37 (NLT)
    The next day, after they had come down the mountain, a large crowd met Jesus.

    Luke 9:37 (NASB)
    On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met Him.

    Luke 9:37 (NRSV)
    On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.

    Luke 9:37 (KJV)
    And it came to pass, that on the next day, when they were come down from the hill, much people met him.

    2 Pet 2:2
    και πολλοι εξακολουθησουσιν αυτων ταις ασελγειαις δι ους η οδος της αληθειας βλασφημηθησεται

    2 Pet 2:2 (NLT)
    Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of truth will be slandered.

    2 Pet 2:2 (NASB)
    Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned;

    2 Pet 2:2 (NRSV)
    Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned.

    2 Pet 2:2 (KJV)
    And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.

    In Luke 9:37, the NLT is fairly literal, but it substitutes “Jesus” for the pronoun, so that it is, after all, less literal than the NASB, NRSV, and KJV. The KJV, however, has “people” instead of “crowd”, so it is less literal in this respect.

    In 2 Pet 2:2, the NLT renders αυτων ταις ασελγειαις as “their evil teaching and shameful immorality”, which is to make one item look like two. This is less literal than the rendering of the NASB, NRSV, and KJV.

    There’s no need to argue about these verses. I’m just saying that I don’t see any reason to say that the NLT is “more literal” than other “literal” translations at these points. Do you have a different “literal” translation in mind?

  4. Alright then, what about Luke 9:31 and 2 Peter 1:2. Here they are in parallel versions:

    Luke 9:31
    οι οφθεντες εν δοξη ελεγον την εξοδον αυτου ην ημελλεν πληρουν εν ιερουσαλημ

    Luke 9:31 (NLT)
    They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.

    Luke 9:31 (NASB)
    who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

    Luke 9:31 (NRSV)
    They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

    Luke 9:31 (KJV)
    Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.

    2 Peter 1:2
    χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη πληθυνθειη εν επιγνωσει του θεου και ιησου του κυριου ημων

    2 Peter 1:2 (NLT)
    May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord.

    2 Peter 1:2 (NASB)
    Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord;

    2 Peter 1:2 (NRSV)
    May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

    2 Peter 1:2 (KJV)
    Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord.

    I have a few comments regarding whether the NLT is more literal in these instances.

    In Luke 9:31, the NLT uses the word “exodus”, which is certainly more literal than “departure” or “decease”. In fact, this is very welcome improvement, as the word “exodus” plays an important role in that verse.

    Unfortunately, the translators of the NLT ruin this gain by what they unwarrantedly *add* to the text: the words “from this world”. Readers of the NLT have no way of knowing that the words “from this world” represent an interpretative gloss. Luke’s unadorned, unqualified use of “exodus” in this context was most likely intended to explain why Peter suggests to the transfigured Jesus that they build booths there on the mountain: he mistakes the overheard reference to an “exodus” that Jesus was “to fulfill” as having to do with plans to commemorate Israel’s exodus (as done yearly in the feast of Sukkoth) in Jerusalem, and Peter, wanting to avoid the trouble that awaited in Jerusalem, suggests that Sukkoth could be celebrated *there*, as the mountain on which he stood was obviously a holy mountain. For the translators of the NLT to add the words “from this world” to the text therefore serves only to spoil Luke’s narrative purpose in using the term “exodus” in the first place, for if Peter had heard Jesus refer to an “exodus from this world” *per se*, Peter never would have mistakenly heard a reference to celebrating Sukkoth. (All this presupposes, of course, Luke’s widely recognized departure from the Markan notion of a “Passion week”.)

    I briefly discuss this understanding of the reference to an “exodus” in an encyclopedia article: John C. Poirier, “Transfiguration of Jesus,” in Craig A. Evans (ed.), *Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus* (New York: Routledge, 2008) 653-56, esp. 654-55. The Exodus associations of Sukkoth are traced out in Håkan Ulfgard, *The Story of Sukkot: The Setting, Shaping, and Sequel of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles* (Beiträge zur Geschichte der biblischen Exegese; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1998).

    So I would be happy to support the NLT’s translation of Luke 9:31 if it didn’t add those words. (Or I would have been happy if the translators simply italicized them. I don’t understand why translators no longer use italics the way the KJV translators used them.)

    I have less to say about 2 Peter 1:2, but I don’t see how it is more literal. The words “May God give you more and more grace and peace” explicitate a dimension of divine agency that is not explicit in the Greek text of 2 Peter 1:2, or in the NASB, NRSV, or KJV.

    I’m looking forward to your discussion of literalism.

    1. John, thanks for the comments, especially in seeing the importance of ‘exodus’ as a translation.

      What NLT are you using, btw?

      1. I’m just using the NLT boxes that pop up in your comments, and responding to them. I assume they represent the latest improvements.

        I don’t own an NLT myself, but I have seen enough of it quoted on blogs, and heard it quoted in Sunday school classes, to form an opinion.

  5. I think there’s an important distinction between trying to convey what the text is and summarizing or rewriting its content. I use “translation” for the former and “paraphrase” for the latter.

    In a post on Bible versions, I suggested that some English Bible versions are “paraphrases,” and Dannii countered that “paraphrase” only means a same-language rewrite, for example, rewriting an English translation in English. It’s not how I use the word, but I guess others might differ.

    Either way, I think it’s helpful to distinguish two different kinds of metrics. The first is the goal of the English text (accuracy? readability? a particular register? fidelity to one ms.? inclusion of commentary?) and the second is the success of the project.

    I agree that “paraphrase” is sometimes used to mean “bad translation,” so maybe we need a new term, but I still insist that there can be good translations and good paraphrases, and that they are not the same thing.


    1. I try, but I cannot disagree. I like Keith’s suggestion (on your post) that the NLT would readily fall into the ‘full translation’ rather than a paraphrase, the 2007 even more than the 1996.

      Instead of paraphrase, that phrase actually seems to work, I believe.

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