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 | , , , , ,


  1. The Living Bible is a paraphrase, but the NLT (New Living Translation) is not. Many people are not aware that the NLT is significantly different from the Living Bible, though they are related. One example showing the differences (and how the NLT itself has undergone ongoing review and improvement) is available at my post on the NLT Blog from a few years back.

    I can also tell you that while we do think the NLT has an important role to play in the world of English-language Bibles, we do not think it is “more accurate”–or inherently superior in any real way–to other excellent translations that take different approaches. But it is certainly a Bible, not a “Bible-like” thing. Readers of the NLT are getting direct access to the Word of God in their heart language, just like readers of the NIV or NASB or HCSB, etc.

    Comment by Keith Williams | June 1, 2011 | Reply

    • Keith,

      Thanks for your response.

      You obviously know much more about the NLT than I do, so I reply with some reservations.

      I have to say, though, that the NLT, too, seems like a paraphrase to me. For example, when I see in Psalm 23:4 “you are close beside me” for atah imadi (“you are with me”), I wonder where the “close” comes from. (I’m not sure about “beside,” either.) To me, that looks like an English rendition loosely based on the original.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 3, 2011 | Reply

  2. As far as the question at hand, I hate extras. I love minimalism. That’s my bias. If the word is sparse, let the translation be sparse, if hurried, let it be hurried, if verbose, verbose. Avoid over-interpreting if possible. An example from psalm 80 – the ‘wild boar devours it’. I would think of this as reflecting the verb אכל )KL, to eat, e.g. as in psalm 79, but it doesn’t, it reflects רעה R`H, the same word that begins the psalm – hear ‘shepherd’ of Israel. So when it comes to paraphrasing I think the tendency to ‘explain’ produces a shift in the translator’s thinking from ‘shepherd’ to ‘devour’. Devour may be the result of being shepherded by beasts but it is not what the text says, at least not to me. ‘Shepherd’ in this place is ironic. Who expects the wild beast זִיז (ZYZ) to be a shepherd?

    The value of the explanatory translation may be to get some people to read who otherwise would not. But that should not be the case. A translation that preserves irony and creates puzzles should be more rather than less fun to read. I know several people who use NLT. And while there may be some great explanations, I hurt when I hear answers and certainty of interpretation in their voice when there should be questions. I hurt because I think such answers are interpreted from a particular confessional stance and I doubt that it is an accurate representation of the text in its rich history.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 1, 2011 | Reply

    • If the word is sparse, let the translation be sparse, if hurried, let it be hurried, if verbose, verbose.

      I tend to agree with you, but others, apparently, think that conveying the sparse, hurried, verbose, etc. nature of the text is unwarranted. My question is what merit their claim might have.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 3, 2011 | Reply

  3. Without you giving your own definition of a paraphrase, I can only use standard definitions which lead me to say that neither The Message nor the NLT are paraphrases. The NKJV is a paraphrase.

    It is not helpful to use these terms so loosely. That is why I always try to say things like “morphosyntax mimicking translations” “semantics conveying translations” and “pragmatics conveying translations”. Phrases like those are unambiguous, descriptive and non-pejorative.

    Accordingly, I would describe The Message as a fascinating experimental translation which values conveying the pragmatic intent of the author (illocutionary force etc) even higher than conveying the source’s semantics (which is why specific metaphors are sometimes replaced. Not always successfully in my opinion.) Calling The Message a paraphrase completely mischaracterises it, and also misses this very unusual purpose.

    Comment by Dannii | June 2, 2011 | Reply

    • Dannii, in general, how does a translator determine pragmatic intent? What tried and tested principles would one use? Do you believe that one could possibly stray too far and offer an interpretation instead of an honest translation? And if yes, how would you describe the boundary between translating and interpreting?

      Comment by Robert Kan | June 3, 2011 | Reply

      • To be honest, I don’t know how best to determine pragmatic intent, nor that attempting to do so will give better results.

        I that all translation involves interpretation, but not all interpretation is translation. Not all interpretation results in a text for example. I don’t think these types of questions are very useful without specifics. Do you have specific examples where a translation project has, in your opinion, too much/too extreme interpretation?

        Comment by Dannii | June 5, 2011

      • Yes, I personally find The Message to be a form of Bible interpretation when comparing it with other versions (supposing the others are correct of course). I only look as far as the Beatitudes to arrive at this conclusion – and I don’t theologically agree with what’s there.

        Comment by Robert Kan | June 5, 2011

    • Hi Dannii,

      Regarding the concept of “paraphrase,” I know that you believe the word should (or does?) apply only to rewriting one language in the same language. I disagree. I think it’s useful to maintain a distinction between translating and paraphrasing, and my experience has been that most people understand what I mean.

      Again, I return to the example of a book and a movie. Most people know that when a movie is made from a book, the movie can be expected to differ from the book in certain ways but not in others. I think the same thing is true if the book is in one language and the movie in another.

      (As it happens, I think that The Message fits even your more narrow definition of paraphrase. In spite of what they claim, the text seems to have been produced from other English texts. Otherwise, I can’t see why their text would so often match up with the now-wrong but once-right renderings in the KJV. For example, The Message gives us “this is how much God loved the world” in John 3:16, instead of “this is how God loved the world” — more here.)

      I think I understand what you’re trying to do with “morphosyntax mimicking,” “semantics conveying,” and “pragmatics conveying.” But I think it’s a false hierarchy, because mimicking the morphosyntax usually precludes the other two, while I think that conveying the semantics often helps convey the pragmatics.

      My suggestion regarding the worth of paraphrases — and, really, it’s only a suggestion, and I’m open to other possible ways they might have value — is that the Bible’s purpose, unlike (other) literature, is to impact people in a certain way. And if so, maybe the most effective method of doing so is not to translate the text but rather to rewrite it.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 3, 2011 | Reply

      • Rewrite it! That is of course what translators do. And sometimes they have good excuses and sometimes it is wrong judgment (Psalm 82:1).

        Keep the people in their places. Now there’s impact. The Bible is a motivation for all sorts of awful history among all who have read it. I am just reading Diarmit MacCulloch on the history of the 4th to 6th centuries CE.

        I suspect that most paraphrases have an agenda, usually a theological explicatory one.

        We need something with the effect of a good gift. I think of the longing in psalm 14:7, when will the salvation of Israel gift from Zion? O my concordant soul struggling with a transitive use of give!

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 3, 2011

      • I’d really prefer we stopped using the word “paraphrase” entirely in our debates for a few reasons: I personally believe it’s misused, but even if you disagree with me it’s clearly still used without consensus, and I think it’s predominantly used pejoratively. I think it has limited use to describe if the target and source languages are the same, but it’s easy enough to say that in other words (a paraphrase haha!) But even then it’s only of limited use, for how do you describe something like the NLT? It really has multiple sources: both English and Hebrew/Greek.

        Most people may understand what you mean, but most people also believe that real accuracy is significantly linked to surface level morphosyntactic fidelity. We need to communicate clearly, but we must attempt to clear up falsehoods as we do.

        As to The Message, I don’t know the details of its creation and am only going off what the author has said, which is that it was translated from the original languages. Rendering John 3:16 incorrectly doesn’t suggest anything because almost all English translations do that. One man cannot be an expert on every verse and it’s not at all surprising that he follows consensus there. If there were several examples where The Message has problems which are shared by just one other translation then there’d be warrant to suggest that it was a source text, or at least highly influential on Peterson.

        I was absolutely not suggesting any sort of hierarchy, but just listing some phrases which I think help build informed debate. I don’t think these terms should be used as opposites, or even put on a cline – I suggested them as essentially independent terms which can be used together as appropriate. (Opposites and clines IMO don’t serve informed debate because most translations are simply too multifaceted to be so simply described.) My ideal translation would convey both semantics and pragmatics, while being sensitive to register and genre. It would even occasionally mimic the morphosyntax, but only for wordplay.

        Joel, I still don’t understand exactly what you want to use the word “paraphrase” to refer to. It seems you want to use it for texts which impact people in ways which other texts don’t, but I don’t see how you can work back from that to a uniform group of texts which were generated using the same translation processes and philosophies. Even if it happens that most of those impacting texts happened to be translated in the same basic way there’s no reason to think that a new text translated in the same way must impact people as the others do, or that other processes cannot produce texts which also impact people just as much, if not more.

        Comment by Dannii | June 5, 2011

      • Joel, I still don’t understand exactly what you want to use the word “paraphrase” to refer to.

        I’m assuming that you know how I use the word within a language. If I quote Shakespeare as “names don’t matter” instead of “a rose by any other name…,” that’s a paraphrase. Or, for a more mundane example, if I change “gray” to “the hue of slate,” that’s a paraphrase, too.

        Similarly, if we have afor (“gray”) in Hebrew, rendering that in English as “gray” is a translation, and as “the hue of slate,” a paraphrase. The fact that the original word is in Hebrew doesn’t change the situation.

        Returning to the Bible, we have the following from The Message for Genesis 1:1: “First this: God created the Heavens and Earth — all you see, all you don’t see” (my emphasis). That’s a paraphrase. (As it happens, I don’t think it’s a good one, but that’s not really the point now.)

        A more involved example comes from Genesis 22:2. In the original, we find a progression from general to specific: “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, [and sacrifice him…]” (A midrash explains that Abraham feigned ignorance after each word: -“Take your son.” -“I have lots of sons” -“Your only son” -“Still don’t know which one you mean.” -“The one you love.” -“I love them all.” -“Isaac.” “Oh, him.”) When the NLT changes this to, “Take your son, your only son — yes, Isaac, whom you love so much,” that’s a paraphrase. They’ve introduced the new idea of “love so much,” and changed the original presentation.

        I understand that it’s not always easy to distinguish between translation and paraphrasing, but I still think the two are distinct.

        My question is what the value of a paraphrase of the Bible might be.

        Comment by Joel H. | June 5, 2011

      • To add just one more quick thought: I wonder if it might be great if any terms used by Bible marketers were forbidden in Bible translation debates! No “paraphrase”, no “literal”, no “word-for-word”, no “dynamic equivalence” etc. At least, it would make for interesting discussions!

        I’ve realised that I’m becoming increasingly sceptical that any jargon is sufficient to describe the complexities of our translations, and especially to describe the possibilities ahead of us. I think it’s great that we’ve moved past conveying syntax to semantics, but there’s so much more. For example, I’m not aware of any translation which has made conveying information structure a priority. Would such a translation even fit on the formal-dynamic equivalence spectrum? I don’t think so.

        Comment by Dannii | June 5, 2011

      • I think getting rid of some of the terms that are only used by Bible translators might be helpful: “dynamic equivalence,” “essentially literal,” etc., particularly because they tend to refer simultaneously to a theoretical approach and a specific translation. This makes it hard to know when people are talking about theory and when about practice.

        Comment by Joel H. | June 5, 2011

  4. I tend to use a sliding scale with paraphrase as the least literal.

    Hebrew/Greek, Diglot or Hebrew/Greek Reader (NA27, Majority /Byzantine Text, Textus Receptus, MT-Heb)
    Interlinear translation (Brown & Comfort, Marshall, McReynolds, Concordant interlinear)
    Highly literal (AMP, NASB, YLT, Mounce, Concordant)
    Formal (ESV, KJV, ASV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV)
    Balanced (TNIV, NET, NIV, HCSB, Price)
    Tight Dynamic (REB, NAB)
    Dynamic (NEB, NJB, CEV, NLTse, Gaus)
    Loose dynamic (NLT1ed, GNB, Voice)
    Paraphase (MSG, TLB, TAB, JBP)

    You are using paraphrase pretty loosely for most dynamic translation like the NLT.

    As far as the value of loose dynamic translation or paraphrase I’d say the primary value is situations where unfamiliarity is going to be a major hinderance.

    1) First time readers
    2) Outloud reading of a large number of verses, for example liturgical read of an entire story / passage
    3) People with low reading comprehension: children, bad or little education, infrequent readers
    4) Devotional reading
    5) Rapid reading, looking for plot elements or major themes.
    6) Unmotivated readers

    Comment by CD-Host | June 20, 2011 | Reply

  5. Sorry for the delay Joel.

    I’ll just say quickly that your examples of what you call paraphrases look like explanations to me. A paraphrase would be along the lines of “if a rose had any other name…”

    Now it may be that you and many other people think that translation + explanation = paraphrase. If that is a popular definition I’ll just have to get used to it I guess.

    Lastly, colours are interesting, and each language will have a different set of basic colours. How do you translate the Italian basic colour term “azzurro” into English? Use the closest basic colour term English has (blue) or use a non-basic term (azure)? That may not have been your point, but I don’t think thinking about translating colours in terms of paraphrasing is helpful.

    Comment by Dannii | August 13, 2011 | Reply

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