When Translation Obscures: The NLT and Romans 4:6-9

The basic goal of translation is to communicate the meaning of the source language into the target language. That is, in the context of Bible translation, to accurately communicate the words of the original language, whether Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic, into the best possible equivalents in English. There are two basic philosophies for trying to accomplish this: formal equivalence and functional equivalence. Formal equivalence gives greater precedence to accounting for the words of the source language, while functional equivalence gives greater precedence to accounting for the meaning of the original language. For a longer look at how these two philosophies practically play out in Bible translation, see my post here.

What I want to demonstrate here is an example of where not giving enough precedence to the words and trying to communicate more of the meaning of the source language may end up actually obscuring the meaning through the loss of the words. This is quite evident when looking at Romans 4:6-9 in the NLT. Now full disclosure, I am personally not much of a fan of the NLT, as I find it to often be overly paraphrastic in nature (which is what I am examining here), though I do understand its usefulness in communicating the Bible in easier-to-understand English. Even so, that easier-to-understand nature may come at the cost of being overly interpretive or in having some instances where the translation choices obscure the text.

Translation Comparison

There are two words in question here: makarios (μακάριος), an adjective generally rendered as “blessed,” and makarismos (μακαρισμὸς), a noun generally rendered as “blessing/blessedness” (the slight differences in the text for these two words are from Greek inflection forms that I won’t bore you with). While it is within the semantic range to understand the words to mean “happy” or “happiness,” the overwhelming majority of English translations render both makarios (μακάριος) and makarismos (μακαρισμὸς) as some form of “to bless,” whether it be blessing, blessed, or blessedness. I have included two other translations in the minority here for comparison: the YLT for illustration purposes, and the Living Bible, which is a paraphrase, because the NLT is a revision of it and grew out of its tradition.

NLT: 6 David also spoke of this when he described the happiness (μακαρισμὸν) of those who are declared righteous without working for it: 7 “Oh, what joy (μακάριοι) for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. 8 Yes, what joy (μακάριος) for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.” 9 Now, is this blessing (μακαρισμὸς) only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith.

The Living Bible: 6 King David spoke of this, describing the happiness (μακαρισμὸν) of an undeserving sinner who is declared “not guilty” by God. 7 “Blessed and to be envied,” (μακάριοι) he said, “are those whose sins are forgiven and put out of sight. 8 Yes, what joy (μακάριος) there is for anyone whose sins are no longer counted against him by the Lord.” 9 Now then, the question: Is this blessing (μακαρισμὸς) given only to those who have faith in Christ but also keep the Jewish laws, or is the blessing also given to those who do not keep the Jewish rules but only trust in Christ? Well, what about Abraham? We say that he received these blessings through his faith. Was it by faith alone, or because he also kept the Jewish rules?

ESV: 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing (μακαρισμὸν) of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed (μακάριοι) are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed (μακάριος) is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” 9 Is this blessing (μακαρισμὸς) then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 

NIV: 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness (μακαρισμὸν) of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed (μακάριοι) are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed (μακάριος) is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” 9 Is this blessedness (μακαρισμὸς) only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.

Young’s Literal Translation (YLT): 6 even as David also doth speak of the happiness (μακαρισμὸν) of the man to whom God doth reckon righteousness apart from works: 7 `Happy (μακάριοι) they whose lawless acts were forgiven, and whose sins were covered; 8 happy (μακάριος) the man to whom the Lord may not reckon sin.’ 9 [Is] this happiness (μακαρισμὸς), then, upon the circumcision, or also upon the uncircumcision — for we say that the faith was reckoned to Abraham — to righteousness?

The primary point here is that the NLT exhibits an inconsistency in its translation that obscures a connection that Paul makes in the original. The NLT translates the cognate nouns and adjectives in three different ways in the span of four verses: “happiness,” “what joy,” and “blessing.” This a type of inconsistency does not clarify, but rather obscures. A comparison with the Living Bible shows the strong influence that the paraphrase continues to have on the NLT. This type of paraphrastic translation provides too much of an inconsistency at this point, as there is no true warrant for choosing to translate these words in a different manner in the successive cases. Even though the YLT has a different word choice (happy/happiness), it is consistent in rendering the cognate noun and adjectives in the same way so as to maintain the parallel wording throughout the argument. 

Interpretational Implications

When we come to Romans 4:9 in the NLT and Paul refers to “this blessing,” we may have a bit of ambiguity as to what “this blessing” refers to since the antecedent is not as clear, as the NLT only referred to happiness and joy. Compare this to the ESV or to the NIV beginning from verse 6: this blessing is “of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” It is clear then that Paul’s reference to this blessing is rooted in his citation of Psalm 32, which carries forward the theme of blessing, that he then relates to his following argument beginning in verse 9. When reading the passage in Greek, it is obvious that Paul wants to connect his discussion of the blessing to those who are considered blessed in Psalm 32 by using this cognate noun and adjective form; the ESV and the NIV both maintain the integrity of the word relationships that he is drawing. In the NLT, which did not shed its paraphrastic roots from the Living Bible, this connection is obscured by abandoning the cognate noun and adjective usage.

Translations cannot (and should not) always translate the same Greek and Hebrew words into English the same exact way every single time. This is not feasible given the fact that words have different meanings in different contexts (known as the semantic range), and to always translate them in the exact same way would actually be inaccurate and miscommunicate the text. Context must determine meaning. With that said, when relationships are being clearly drawn by the usage of the same word and/or cognate verbs/nouns/adjectives, translations should try to preserve those as best as possible because part of the force of the meaning is found in those connections. Obscuring them can make proper interpretation more difficult.

Conclusion

Know what type of Bible translation you are using; different translations come with different strengths and weaknesses. In the case of the NLT, its attempts to account more for meaning than for the actual words sometimes leans into unwarranted paraphrase. There are plenty of tools out there for comparing the underlying original language with the translation, such as using an interlinear or a website like Blue Letter Bible. Using tools such as these and comparing translations can help you mitigate these sorts of translational issues that you may encounter.

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