N.B. This article was published in Notes on Translation 14:4 (2000): 1-8, and is used by permission.
In Notes on Translation 13:4 (1999): 42–54, Phil Fields wrote a review entitled, “The NET Bible, an Important New Bible Study Tool.” Because of the impact of this article as well as many other contacts with SIL in the last two years, the NET Bible editors have received a great deal of input from field translators, scholars, and layfolks. As Phil Fields’ review notes, the NET translation team is listening to any and all suggestions on how to improve this translation. This is the first translation in history that has been open to outsiders to investigate and criticize while it is in process. In other words, it is the first translation ever to be beta-tested!
Hundreds of thousands of people have seen the NET Bible at its website, www.netbible.org, and many of them have contributed suggestions. (To send your input to the editors, go to our comments database)1 From high school students and non-native speakers of English to doctoral students and world-class biblical scholars, we have received compliments, suggestions, questions, and criticisms. All of this input is important to us because the Bible is meant for the masses; the challenge of reducing the best scholarly insights into language that the average English reader can grasp means that responses from both ends of that spectrum are crucial in making a Bible translation both accurate and readable. Among Wycliffe and SIL members, a special thanks must go out to Wayne Leman: his hundreds of e-mails to the editors, systematically working through various New Testament books, have been immensely valuable. And, of course, Phil Fields’ article, to which this is a response, has been quite helpful as well.
Largely because of the input from field translators, we have become more sensitive to several issues. We have also come to see more clearly the multitude of translation objectives that different groups bring to the task. This present article is intended to address some of those issues, show how the NET Bible has already improved because of input from SIL translation personnel and others, and to articulate more clearly what our objectives are in this work. No translation of the Bible will satisfy everyone. Indeed, no committee-produced translation will completely satisfy even all those who worked on it. And even though the NET project has several stated principles, these must not be seen as occupying airtight compartments. The ultimate objective of the NET Bible is to be accurate, readable, and elegant. Yet these three principles are all too often in conflict with each other. Even a universal taxonomy will not work, because some passages pose special problems (such as liturgical use, familiarity, connections with the Old Testament, theological richness, and the like) that would override any rigid taxonomy.
As an illustration of the complexity of competing principles, consider the Lord’s declaration in Mark 1:17: “I will make you fishers of men.” This wording, found in the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV, REB, and ultimately going back to Tyndale, is familiar to church-goers. But in modern English it communicates a meaning that slightly deviates from the point: Jesus did not just want his apostles to evangelize adult males, but all people (the Greek is ποιήσω ὑμᾶς γενέσθαι ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). But there is a second problem with this verse: “fishers of men” is archaic. The NRSV opts for “I will make you fish for people.” This resolves the two problems of the older translations, but introduces two others. First, it sounds as if Jesus will force the disciples to “fish for people”; second, the conversion of the objective genitive to an object of the preposition results in a subtle shift from a focus on a new occupation to a mere activity. The NLT and TEV get past the first problem but not the second (“I will show you how to fish for people,” “I will teach you to catch people”). So, how best to solve the dilemma? The full meaning of Jesus’ declaration includes both non-exclusive evangelism and implications of an occupational shift. It is too cumbersome to express this as “I will make you fishermen of people,” though the archaism is removed. Nor is it correct to translate this as “I will make you fishers of mankind” because that would imply a mission to gentiles which the disciples could not have conceived of at this time in redemptive history. This text illustrates the clash of the translational objectives of accuracy, readability, and elegance. At bottom, we believe that the great value of the NET Bible is its extensive notes that wrestle with such issues, for the footnotes become a way for us to have our cake and eat it too. But on this passage—for now—we have settled on the translation, “I will turn you into fishers of people.” We have retained an archaism both because of its familiarity and because the alternative “fishermen” was too inelegant. The object complement construction was rendered “turn you into fishers” instead of “make you fishers” both because of its clarity and the hint of the disciples’ conversion as a prerequisite to their new occupation. We chose not to go with the more natural but less accurate rendering of “I will teach you to catch people.” In this passage, accuracy was more important than readability or elegance. But a decision was not easy; we are still open to suggestions.
Consider another passage, Romans 3:22, in which the controversial expression διὰ πίστεως ᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ was rendered “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Virtually all other English translations have “through faith in Jesus Christ” here. A decision was difficult, but the NET editors felt that scholarly opinion has been turning toward a subjective genitive view in the last twenty years. In addition to researching the issue, we were also concerned with producing a translation that represented the best of current scholarship. So we corresponded with scholars who have written on this problem—in England, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Fields’ review of the NET praised our treatment here because we had the courage to go with our convictions. But he contrasted this with our handling of 2 Peter 2:12, where, because three plausible interpretations present themselves, we chose to leave the translation ambiguous. He comments (1999:52): “If one is going to have the two stated aims in translation of faithfulness and clarity, one must have the courage to make choices in the translation…[The translators] have left the more literal form in the text, with the result that none of the possible interpretations of the text is clearly communicated.” What he does not realize is that this is exactly what we intended to do: the meaning of the original at this point is both sufficiently ambiguous and capable of a variety of interpretations that we felt it best to leave to the English reader the same interpretive options that the reader of Greek has. That is a part of the “faithfulness” objective.2 This is quite different from Romans 3:22, for there a neutral translation—“by faith of Jesus Christ” (the KJV rendering)—would communicate a nonsensical meaning. The NET editors make an interpretive choice if a more literal rendering is nonsensical or if there is something of a scholarly consensus on the meaning of the text. What we did in both Romans 3:22 and 2 Peter 2:12 is consistent with this principle.
There are, in fact, many times where an author intentionally uses an ambiguous expression, employing double entendre, puns, and the like. To collapse these texts into a single meaning is to destroy part of the author’s meaning. “The love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 is one such instance;3 Paul’s frequent “in Christ” formula is another.4 Another broad example is the use of the divine passive and other oblique references to deity. This is a large category of uses that many translators (not to mention ancient scribes!) simply do not feel comfortable with leaving as is. But to add the name of God in many places is to destroy the author’s intentional literary subtlety—he is purposefully engaging the readers to think about who is behind the scenes. Philippians 4:13 affords a classic example: “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” The TEV and NLT have “Christ” here—a rendering which paints with black and white what Paul originally communicated with a full palette of colors; further, it may even be referentially inaccurate (perhaps the Spirit is more in view).
At issue here is whether clarity about the essential meaning, or fidelity to the fuller meaning, is more important. (Further, clarity often moves toward naturalness but away from elegance and rhetorical power.) To field translators (i.e., those who are making a first translation in a language where no Scriptures have previously been available), often the former is the higher priority. To those who translate into major European languages, especially English, and particularly with the goal of providing a Bible that is suitable both for study and pulpit reading, the latter is more important. It is this very issue—and the assumption that the NET editors have the same goals as field translators—that has produced the majority of Fields’ negative examples. For example, he criticized our handling of Ephesians 2:8 (“by grace you are saved”) because it used religious jargon; apparently he prefers the translation of God’s Word: “God saved you through an act of kindness”—a translation that, though clearer, has decidedly softened the full force of the apostle’s words.
Yes, it is true that the NET editors strive to rid this translation of religious jargon. On the other hand, if a term or phrase has both a certain theological import and is repeated in a number of contexts, then deletion of that expression may become a hindrance in seeing the rich tapestry of biblical revelation.
A similar issue faces us when it comes to figures of speech: Do we retain the fuller meaning or clear the figure and opt for its basic idea? If the figurative language communicates nothing to the modern English reader, then we must opt for an alternative. But if the figure is part of English usage or can be understood from the context (even if this may require some effort), the NET translation usually retains it. (Again, this goal is different from that of field translations in situations where there has been no previous exposure to the Scriptures.) Thus, in Matthew 3:8 the NET has “produce fruit that proves your repentance” both because fruit-bearing is a very common biblical idiom that is linked to several passages and because its meaning is clear enough from the context. (This can be objectively tested with the intended audience.)
At the same time, since those responsible for this new translation are primarily exegetes, our perspective is often so entrenched in the first-century world that we are blind as to how the English reader would look at the text today. Exegetes tend to produce a wooden translation without realizing it. That’s a weakness that SIL folks and others can help us overcome significantly. Your sensitivity in these matters is legendary. And we have already changed the text in hundreds of places because of such input. On the other hand, sometimes field translators (or anyone whose work is not primarily in exegesis), thinking that they have grasped the meaning of the text well enough, will make alterations in the wording that actually misconstrue the author’s intention. Several popular English translations already do this. The NET Bible is a conscious effort to be natural and idiomatic while retaining the full meaning of the original if at all possible. We almost always have greater freedom in narrative than in didactic literature, but suggestions are welcome for every genre.
A word is necessary here about those who have produced the NET Bible and about the latest revision. All of the scholars who worked on this translation teach biblical exegesis in seminaries and graduate schools. Further, the original translator for each book was chosen in every instance because of his work in that particular book—often extending over several decades. Many of the translators have participated in several other translation projects as well. Hence, the notes alone are the fruit of hundreds of thousands of hours of research.
In the last sixteen months, another revision of the NET New Testament has been under way. The version on which Fields’ review was based was produced early in 1999. The NET team has made thousands of changes to the text and notes of the New Testament since that last version, most of which move toward a more idiomatic and/or elegant rendering. Again, much of the impetus for such alterations has come from Wayne Leman and those he sent our way. We have enjoyed genuine mutual cooperation in this endeavor. We have also received a great deal of input from laypeople, such as high school students, Sunday school classes, English stylists, and others. All of the translators were encouraged to read their translations out loud to their families and others. How a text sounds is just as important as how it reads. Even though this kind of exchange has been encouraged, the final decisions have always been in the hands of the editorial team because communication of meaning is at stake.
As illustrations of the decision-making process in the revision, consider the following. A reader sends in a suggestion that the wording in Mark 3:27 is confusing: “enter into the house of the strong man.” Although the article is found in Greek, the expression is generic, and English often—and increasingly so—uses an indefinite article to communicate a generic idea. Thus, something that was quite clear to the translators was confusing to lay readers. The wording was changed to “a strong man’s house.” Here is a classic example of the reason why a symbiotic relationship is needed for this translation project: the problem here is easily overlooked by exegetes. Again, a reader sends in a suggestion on Luke 1:64 where the NET has: “Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue released, and he spoke, blessing God.” The reader correctly notes that this is a Semitism, but incorrectly suggests that a simpler, more natural rendering would communicate the same meaning. The reason a simpler expression (such as the NLT and TEV have) changes the meaning is that, as one of the assistant editors noted in discussing this point, “[Luke] slowed the whole thing down by speaking of the opening of the mouth and the loosing of the tongue. The point is that his vivid description recalls Isaianic language and is important for it sets up motifs consistent with the arrival of the kingdom in Luke-Acts including loosened tongues and praising God. The language heightens the miraculous aspect of what happened, which seems lost somewhat in this reader’s suggestion.” It could be added that the first two chapters of Luke are intentionally Semitic in tone and wording—even though this style of writing was somewhat foreign to Luke!—and that one of our tasks is to reflect as faithfully as possible both the meaning and the “feel” of the original for modern readers. The challenge of the editors is to listen to readers’ suggestions and filter them through solid exegesis, bending as much as possible toward natural, idiomatic English, but without destroying motifs, themes, and theologically rich expressions.
Besides interacting with input both from without and within, the chief issue the NET editors faced in this latest revision was a rigorous comparison of the synoptic Gospels. First, a completely color-coded synopsis of the Greek text was constructed along the lines of William Farmer’s Synopticon (i.e., exact parallels were highlighted in the same color, inexact parallels were underlined in the same color; what color was used depended on which combination of gospels were parallel). John’s Gospel was also compared, and the whole process was based on the critically constructed text that stands behind the NET New Testament. The Greek comparison alone took several hundred hours to do. Then, a comparison of our current translation of the synoptics was made against the Greek synopsis. If the Greek of two or more Gospels was the same, then either the corresponding English needed to be the same or else justification for the differences needed to be made. Indeed, many times the similarities in the Greek were only snippets, and the English collocations were sufficiently different that harmonization was linguistically inappropriate. But at other times, the differences in the English were not justified. As far as we know, the NET Bible is the only English translation that has gone through such a rigorous process of synoptic (and Johannine) comparisons. (Some translations that would be expected to have done something like this [viz., the more literal ones] would be so inconsistent as to render παιδίσκη in the pericopae about Peter’s denials as “maid,” “servant-girl,” and “slave-girl”—Matthew 26:69, Mark 14:66, 69, Luke 22:56, John 18:17—when there is absolutely no reason for a different rendering each time.) The last step in the process was to have conformity of notes in parallel passages when appropriate. Each of these steps increases the labor exponentially; the whole process took over a year to complete.
One of the elements that contributes to good writing is the use of collocations that draw the reader into mental engagement with the author. But this is often in tension with other factors in a translation that may be the first and only translation a group of people will have for decades. Hence, field translators do not always have the luxury of retaining the theological richness and rhetorical power of the original text. Because they have the noble task of making the Bible plain and simple for those who have not heard, literary quality and/or literary level must often be sacrificed at the altar of clarity. This philosophy of translation has been transferred, without the deepest reflection, back into English Bibles in the last several years. The impetus toward simpler sentences and vocabulary, conversational or even vernacular English, and the removal of theological jargon seems to come largely from linguists and translators. I think that is commendable to a degree, and I have often told my students that the first translation of the Bible into a language must be of this ilk. The problem, as I see it, is that the philosophy that should drive field translation has been brought over into European-language Bibles, when the religious heritage of speakers of these languages is often decidedly different from that of language groups where first translations are being made. In fact, I would say the religious heritage of English-speakers—especially in America (where this translation will have its greatest impact)—comes close to what the first readers of the New Testament had.
In sum, I am grateful to Phil Fields for the stimulus his review provided, and for the many who have come forward to assist us in this great task. We continue to ask for your assistance because the mutual cooperation benefits us all. And with nearly three quarters of a million words in the text and notes, the NET team needs all the editorial and proofreading help we can get!
Farmer, William. 1969. Synopticon: The Verbal Agreement between the Greek Texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke Contextually Exhibited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fields, Phil. 1999. The NET Bible, an important new Bible study tool. Notes on Translation 13(4): 42–54.
Moule, C. F. D. 1977. The Origin of Christology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1 The NET Bible is available on-line at www.netbible.org. It may be downloaded free of charge. The New Testament (with over 16,000 footnotes and 800 pages of text) may also be purchased in paperback, hardback, or leather-bound ($24:95, $34:95, and $44:95, respectively), or as a Logos-searchable CD with the search engine included ($39:95). The beta version of the Old Testament is also available at the website and will shortly be available in other formats too.
2 It is a non sequitur that faithfulness in translation leads to “the courage to make choices in the translation.” The courage to make choices is really more a part of the clarity objective. Hence, Fields’ error in his critique of the NET translation of 2 Peter 2:12 is that he assumed a certain taxonomy of principles because he saw it played out that way in other places. This led him to see certain inconsistencies that were not there. To be sure, there have been and still are many inconsistencies in the NET! And that is why we seek the help of SIL and others in this great task of translating the Bible into English afresh.
3 The meaning is probably both “Christ’s love for us” and “our love for Christ”—that is, the genitive is probably both subjective and objective, or plenary. It is Christ’s love for us that produces our love for him.
4 The meaning of this expression is multivalenced, picking up our incorporation into Christ in some places, an eschatological note in others, not to mention individual and corporate notions, etc. The language, in some ways, is distinctively unGreek. And yet, the very fact that it is a bit mysterious was intentional: the readers had to probe to uncover the depths of this expression. Much like puns or figures of speech, to reduce “in Christ” to a flatter expression would be to destroy part of its meaning. C. F. D. Moule made much of this idiom in his magnum opus, The Origin of Christology (1977). His chapter on the incorporated Christ shows how English readers have seen this expression as bizarre—just as Greek readers did! He points out that one simply is not in another person. The language, however, is meant to show that Christ though a man is more than a man; the language points to him as deity. Field translators would probably prefer to reduce this to something else. I have no quarrel with that; but for a translation in English, I believe we should usually maintain the idiom and let English readers grapple with its force just as the original readers had to.