What Translation Is?
For the past dozen years I have been active in a number of different Bible translation projects, but none more than the New Living Translation (NLT). I serve as the General Reviewer of the poetical books of the Old Testament and sit on the Central Bible Translation Committee.
In the late 1980s I got a call from a friend in the field asking me if I wanted to participate in a project that would retain the readability of the Living Bible, but work toward a greater accuracy. I couldn't resist the invitation. After all, this version had a great influence on my life and still enjoyed a considerable readership. If we could make it more accurate and retain its readability, then that would be a great service. The Bible market was already fairly glutted even at that time, but we would not be creating a new version, rather making an important translation even better.
To put it pointedly, my interest in translation work is energized by a desire to make the Bible as accessible as possible, and the NLT's concern for readability serves that interest. Of course, the intention to combine accuracy and readability in a translation is extremely difficult. Though space doesn't allow me to explain here, I have elsewhere described these as "warring impulses" (see my "Accuracy and Readability: Warring Impulses in Evangelical Translation Tradition in Biblical Translation in Context, ed. Frederick W. Knobloch, pp. 165-78). Nevertheless, the attempt is worth it, in my opinion, if it encourages people to read the Bible and struggle with its meaning for their lives. The fact that the NLT sells well over a million copies a year indicates that that is happening.
An example of the challenges of a thought-for-thought translation like the NLT may be found in our rendition of Song of Songs 8:5-6. Unfortunately, this short space does not permit me to discuss questions that may be raised in the minds of some readers, but I think that the clarity of the following translation stands out if it is compared to other popular versions.
We have a little sister
too young for breasts.
What will we do for our little sister
if someone asks to marry her?
If she is a virgin, like a wall,
we will protect her with a silver tower.
But if she is promiscuous, like a swinging door,
we will block her door with a cedar bar.
This translation is actually from what we in-house are calling the NLT 2.0, a revision that will appear at the beginning of 2005. It admittedly expands the Hebrew at points in order to explain the metaphors, which the vast majority of modern readers would not have a clue as to what they meant. Nonetheless, the translation, we believe, evokes the same thought in the modern reader as it did in the ancient reader and conforms to the understanding of this verse held by the consensus of modern commentators.
I do believe we are near a saturation point in new Bibles. I think there is a need for a wide variety of Bibles done along different translation philosophies; however, it is hard to think of a niche that is not yet filled. Even so, there will be a continuing need to update the various English translations that range along the word-for-word to thought-for-thought spectrum as well as representing different faith communities within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Tremper Longman III
Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies
Santa Barbara, California
Citation: Temper Longman, " What Translation Is?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=90