My Problem with Paraphrases

Our finance course (which, so far, can be encapsulated in the sentence “Don’t go into debt”) includes Bible memory verses. Committing the Bible to memory is, of course, a laudable exercise, but in this case the effect is marred, because the verses come from a random assortment of translations. The last few have been from the Living Bible. The Living Bible is not a translation; it’s a 1971 paraphrase of the 1901 American Standard Version.

I greatly dislike paraphrases. The most important reason for this is that, in order to paraphrase, you must interpret, and as soon as you interpret, you are inserting your own ideas about what the Bible means into the Bible itself. This is inevitable in the translation process as well, though good translations ameliorate it through use of text notes, but there’s no need to exacerbate the problem by creating more opportunities to interpret than there already are.

The main justification for the use of paraphrases is that they make the language fluent to the modern reader. This seems reasonable. My primary Bible is a New American Standard Bible, an ultra-literal 1960 update of the ASV. It’s excellent for study, but it can make poetic passages sound stilted and awkward. I wouldn’t mind having a less literal translation around that I could use, not for study, but for simply enjoying and meditating on the words.

There’s only one problem: Paraphrases don’t sound better. Poetic passages in the TLB and other paraphrases sound just as clumsy as they do in literal translations, often more so. Consider some poetic passages in parallel. The first translation is a widely used literal translation; the rest are paraphrases:

Psalm 8:3-4:

3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him? (NIV)

3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
4 what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them? (The Living Bible)

I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way? (The Message)

1 Corinthians 13:6-7:

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (NIV)

6It does not rejoice at injustice and unrighteousness, but rejoices when right and truth prevail.

7Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person, its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening]. (The Amplified Bible)

It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (The Living Bible)

Isaiah 40:12:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance? (NIV)

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?
Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?
Who else knows the weight of the earth
or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?  (The Living Bible)

Who has scooped up the ocean
in his two hands,
or measured the sky between his thumb and little finger,
Who has put all the earth’s dirt in one of his baskets,
weighed each mountain and hill?  (The Message)

John 1:14:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (NASB*)

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish. (The Message)

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. (The Living Bible)

Song of Solomon 2:7:

Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you
by the gazelles and by the does of the field:
Do not arouse or awaken love
until it so desires. (NIV)

“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
By the gazelles or by the hinds of the field,
That you do not arouse or awaken my love
Until she pleases.” (NASB)

[He said] I charge you, O you daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field [which are free to follow their own instincts] that you not try to stir up or awaken [my] love until it pleases. (The Amplified Bible)

Oh, let me warn you, sisters in Jerusalem,
by the gazelles, yes, by all the wild deer:
Don’t excite love, don’t stir it up,
until the time is ripe—and you’re ready. (The Message)

I included both the NIV and the NASB in that last verse to illustrate the problem of interpretations forced by the translation process. Is the lover referring to the concept of love, or to his love? The meaning of the verse changes from an admonition not to have sex before marriage to a simple warning not to wake up his wife because she wants to sleep in.

Looking at the paraphrases, the Living Bible is clearly the best option. The Amplified Bible attempts to draw one’s attention to multiple possible meanings with its intertextual brackets, but I think it just muddies the waters and a proper literal translation with notes explaining major ambiguities would work better. Neither of these, however, is poetic. The Message sounds like poetry in a way: it sounds like bad poetry. None of them make the words sound beautiful and fluent. Perhaps it’s an inherent problem with using modern, idiomatic English: Modern, idiomatic English is itself not very beautiful or poetic. We just don’t talk that way anymore.  (Mentioning this hypothesis makes me want to test it by trying to write my own poetic paraphrase, but Jordan is giving me a look that says that he doesn’t think this is the solution to my having too much spare time.)

In support of this thesis, by far the most beautiful English translation is still the King James. There’s a reason, other than tradition, that we still leave the thee’s and thou’s in the Lord’s Prayer: they just sound better. See how the KJV renders some of the above verses:

3When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:3-4)

Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? (Isaiah 40:12)

Still, linguistic changes are making the KJV more and more inaccessible to the modern reader.  In the end, I think the humble NIV is the most fluent and poetic translation in contemporary English.  Its word choice is sound and many passages have a nice cadence.  I love the rhythm of “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth.”

To summarize, if you’re looking for an accurate Bible, use a literal translation.  If you’re looking for a fluent or poetic Bible, use a literal translations.  Paraphrases do neither.


One more reason I use it: the NASB excels at cross-references. That one verse contains six, some of which list more than one verse.


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