An Argument for More Literal Bible Translations

Here is one argument in support of more-literal Bible translations:  looser translations have a tendency to soften difficult sayings in the Bible.  I am not suggesting anything subversive here; simply that one of the natural pitfalls of trying to translate the Bible more dynamically is a tendency to soften hard sayings.  A convenient way to demonstrate this tendency is by comparing the New American Standard Bible (NASB, a more literal translation) with the New Living Translation (NLT, a more dynamic translation) in a few passages that have been identified as “hard sayings of Jesus” by F. F. Bruce.[1]  Please note that I happen to like both the NASB and the NLT, and utilize each translation frequently.  But the NLT tends to soften the hard sayings of Jesus (though not always), whereas the NASB tends to allow the reader to sit with the hardness (though not always).  Notice the following four examples from Bruce’s list (and one additional item from outside the Gospels) where the NLT has softened the hardness of the saying.  Pay attention to the words I have italicized.

Luke 14:26

NASB:  If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.

NLT:  If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.

Luke 9:60

NASB:  But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”

NLT:  But Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”

Luke 16:9

NASB:  And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.

NLT:  Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.

Matthew 5:22 

NASB:  “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

NLT:  “But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”

Let me add one more from outside the Gospels:

1 Timothy 3:2

NASB:  An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife…

NLT:  So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife.

Now, one might argue—and I might even agree—that the NLT has correctly interpreted each of these sayings.  Regardless, in each verse listed, the NLT has softened the inherent edginess of the saying, even though such tension may have existed in its original setting.  And, in my opinion, that softening tendency suggests that we should prefer more literal translations over those that tend to be freer.


[1] F. F. Bruce, Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1983).

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