How the New Living Translation Is Better Than the English Standard Version
(Gasp!) Oh no, he di’int!
Well… I might not have. I wouldn’t dare question the neo-Reformed law that reads, “All neo-Calvinist Driscolites, Piperites, Carsonites, Chandlerites, Deverites and Mohlerites shall read the ESV.”
Of course not.
This blog post is not titled, “Why the New Living Translation Is Better Than the English Standard Version.” It’s titled, “How the New Living Translation….” It’s an extremely dicey issue to pit two translations of the Bible that are trying to do two very different things against each other and call one of them “better.” I don’t think either the ESV or NLT are better than the other. In fact, I think both of them represent the best of their particular translation philosophy.
Quick Bible translation primer: The ESV is what’s called a “formally equivalent translation.” It tries to preserve, as much as possible, the number of words and grammatical constructions of the original Greek text. This allows the reader to get a good sense of what the original wording said in more minute detail. On the other hand, it can sometimes result in an English translation that is barely English. Enjoy the horror of this sentence: Eph. 6:18-20: “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
Quick: Say that in your own words. … You can’t, can you? You’d need to go back and read it several times to comprehend that one sentence. It likely made easier sense in Greek and was more immediately memorable, but in trying to follow the Greek sentence structure the English translation has made it very difficult to comprehend. “English minds” comprehend ideas in English sentence structure and grammar, not Greek sentence structure and grammar. Which means that while I still use the ESV as my primary teaching Bible (for reasons detailed below), at least 4-5 times during my messages I have to say, “In other words…” and then render the text into common English myself so that people can see the apostle’s point. For that reason I might move to the NLT as my primary preaching Bible eventually. We’ll see. The jury is out.
The NLT is what’s called a “functionally equivalent translation.” It tries to convey accurately the same meaning and “sense” of the original language, but is less concerned about preserving the same number of words in the sentence or literally rendering figures of speech.
For example, in Matthew 23:31-32 (ESV) Jesus says, “Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.” Fill up the measure of your fathers? What does that mean? Would any common English speaker understand you if you told them to fill up the measure of their fathers? Try to imagine it:
“Dude, fill up the measure of your fathers!” What the…?
Whatever the meaning of the idiom, Jesus’ hearers clearly immediately understood it. The ESV preserves the actual wording of the Greek idiom. The NLT instead tries to preserve the force of Jesus’s statement (not just the literal word-for-word meaning) by using a commonly used English idiom with a very similar meaning: “Go ahead. Finish what they started!”
So, one might say that the ESV is often better at helping the reader see the words that are actually there in the original Greek, while the NLT is often better at helping the reader see the meaning that was actually there in the original Greek. But even that distinction is slippery. After all, it’s the words themselves that convey the meaning of the text.
So, should you use the ESV or NLT in your preaching, teaching and personal devotional life? My answer: Yes. Who said you have to choose one? That’s not in the Bible. At least, not in my ESV or NLT. But I hasten to say this: There are some preachers who tend to make a habit of constantly choosing (often from a dozen translations) whichever translation happens to make their point for them the best. Rick Warren slips into that sometimes in The Purpose-Driven Life, for example (NB: I like Rick). That can become dangerous because it steers close to trying to get the Bible to say what you want to say, rather than trying to say what the Bible says. So, it’s probably wise to limit yourself to the use of two, maybe three translations that you regularly resort to.
And since you asked for my advice: The ESV and the NLT are the best formally equivalent and functionally equivalent translations (respectively) out there. Own and read them both. Make one of them your primary and read the other when you need a little more clarity. Carry around a paper copy of one and have the other on your iPhone/cool kid phone.
That’s how I roll, anyway.