Adding to the Text, or Interpreting the Text?

Translating the biblical texts into English (or any other language) is not as simple as it may sound. For starters, the translator has to determine which philosophy of translation to follow. The two basic options are formal equivalence (also called word-for-word, literal, or essentially literal) and dynamic equivalence (also called thought-for-thought). And there is also a combination of these two basic philosophies (as often exemplified by the NIV and the HCSB).

The difference between the two translation philosophies can be seen in lots of ways. One is the question of whether it is appropriate (or even permissible) for the translator to add specificity in the translated text. Here’s a simple example in 2 Kings 24:19. I’m quoting first from the NASB, which generally provides a good word-for-word translation of the original text, and then from the NLT (dynamic equivalence):

2 Kings 24:18-19 (NASB95)
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Hamutal the daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.
19 He did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that Jehoiakim had done.

2 Kings 24:18-19 (NLT)
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. His mother was Hamutal, the daughter of Jeremiah from Libnah.
19 But Zedekiah did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done.

Look at the first word of v. 19. The NASB translates the Hebrew text literally with the pronoun “He.” Incidentally, all formal-equivalence translations (e.g., KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV; also NIV) join the NASB in rendering it “He.”

The NLT (joined by NCV, TEV; also HCSB) replaces the pronoun with the proper name Zedekiah. These dynamic translations feel free to translate beyond the literal wording to ensure that the meaning is accurately conveyed. (Everyone would agree that the antecedent to “he” is Zedekiah, who is named at the beginning of v. 18, even though the masculine name that immediately precedes the pronoun is Zedekiah’s maternal grandfather, Jeremiah.)

Is each approach appropriate? Is each permissible? Is one preferable to the other?

My answer is that each translation is simply following its own basic philosophy. The literal translations render the passage with a word-for-word correspondence. The dynamic translations render it with an expansion of the wording to ensure that the meaning is accurately conveyed.

If you use both styles of translation, you get the best of both worlds.

8 thoughts on “Adding to the Text, or Interpreting the Text?

  1. I appreciate the differences in translation philosophy, and while I use literal translations more often I enjoy from time to time a “fresher” perspective dynamic translations can bring to a passage.

    I am bothered, however, when the translators allow personal theology to override good translating. A good example is from the NLT’s own history. In the first edition, Acts 2:38 reads (in part) “…and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” However, those responsible for this passage in the second edition changed it to read “…be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ to show that you have received forgiveness for your sins.” This is a prime example of theology (errant, as I read the Bible) trumping good exegesis and the reason why I reach for the first edition when I want to use the NLT.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Jim, you’ve given a great example of a passage where the translators inadvertently let their own interpretation of the text influence the translation. After the second edition of the NLT was published, the translation team got comments similar to yours on this verse. That caused us to go back and reexamine what we had done.

    In 2007 we released a further revised text with several hundred technical changes to the text and footnotes–including Acts 2:38. Newer printings of the NLT that contain these further revisions are identified by the addition of the date 2007 in the copyright notice.

    So the upshot is that Acts 2:38 has now been changed back to the wording from the first edition of the NLT.

  3. Thank you both for your comments! I am truly excited to learn the Bible translators are open to re-evaluating for their biases! I will definitely look for the newer version to replace my 2nd version.

  4. Jim,
    If you will send me your mailing address (contact me at, I will send you a complimentary copy of the NLT Study Bible. (The study Bible includes the 2007 revisions to the NLT text.) Incidentally, anyone who gets a physical copy of the NLT Study Bible also gets automatic access to the same content in the online edition (

    Mark Taylor

  5. I have a question about the NLT’s translation of Romans 2:13 concerning which I wanted to solicit the feedback of others. The latest edition of the NLT has:

    “For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight.”

    Whereas a previous edition has:

    “For it is not merely knowing the law that brings God’s approval. Those who obey the law will be declared right in God’s sight.”

    The second quote is from I guess they haven’t updated their translation to the 2nd edition. At any rate, do you know why the translators would do away with the first translation above? The NIV2010 has:

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

    Thanks a lot for your time and help.

  6. I tend to read from the NLT 1st edition. One reason is because in John 7. In the 1st edition, Jesus says “I’m not going YET…” YET is removed in the 2nd edition which turns Jesus into a liar, because he in fact did go later. Why in the world would the NLT translators remove YET, I have no idea. I’ve read ridiculous comments from people trying to explain why it was removed, but the reasons are silly. I was alarmed when I discovered this. Hopefully later editions will correct it. To me, there’s way too many Bible versions as it is. How many ways do we need the Bible translated into English! I pray its not because of money-hungry greedy people trying to make money off the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.