God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Value of a Paraphrase instead of a Translation

Paraphrases like The Message and the NLT are regularly among the best Bible editions sold in the U.S. What is their merit?

Just the title of this post shows you where I stand based on training an experience. A paraphrase is not the same as a translation. (I could have written “the value of a paraphrase as a translation.”) Still, as with word for word translations, I think it’s worth while to understand both sides of this debate.

I can think of two ways a paraphrase might be valuable.

First, a paraphrase might be a nice “Bible-like” thing to read, sort of like a movie based on a book. The movie isn’t the same as the book, and everyone agrees that reading the book will give a better sense of the book than any movie, but the movies can still be fun, or informative, or what not. Similarly, a paraphrase, though not the Bible, might have spiritual worth.

I hold this first position, but I don’t think it’s how the paraphrase publishers intend their work. Rather, I think they believe that their work is more accurate — in some sense — than (other) translations.

And this brings us to the second way a paraphrase might have value.

Most translators agree that words are more important than letters even though letters form the words, because it’s the words that convey meaning. Equally, the words themselves combine to create phrases. Failure to recognize either of these basic tenets is to misunderstand how language works.

But what if the Bible is different than other kinds of writing in that the point of all those clauses (or sentences, or verses) doesn’t depend on the smaller units?

For example, what if the only point of a particular passage is to bolster belief in God? If so, the translation may not need to preserve all of the literary nuances of the original. Even if the original is poetic, for instance, perhaps the poetry is irrelevant, just as the individual letters of a word are meaningless by themselves.

A concrete example will demonstrate. In describing Matthew 12:9-14 (“The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma“), I wrote that a good translation should “convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.” But what if the rhetorical style and the irony are as irrelevant as the letters that make up a word? What if the point of the passage (let’s say) is simply to reinforce a difference of opinion between Jesus and the Pharisees?

Similarly, what if the point of Psalm 23 is simply to explain that God uses might to bring about tranquility? If so, “shepherd” and “still waters” and “staff” and so forth don’t need to be in the translation.

I don’t subscribe to this second approach, but I do think that it’s an intriguing possibility.

What do you think?

And can you suggest other reasons to prefer a paraphrase?

June 1, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , | 16 Comments