Brief Thoughts on the New English Translation

In my previous post I discussed the merits of the English Standard Version (ESV). This time, I want to comment on the New English Translation (NET) which is remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly to avoid confusion, especially among British readers, be aware that the NET is an altogether different translation to the NEB (New English Bible). The latter was a translation of a few decades back that was particularly common in British Anglican parishes. It never achieved popularity outside the UK and its use today is on a downward trend.

In my opinion, the most remarkable thing about the NET is that few people have heard of it, which is part of the reason I write this post. The other remarkable thing is the abundance of translators’ notes at the foot of every page. Over 60,000 of them provide detailed explanations or alternative renderings of the text. They are a goldmine of information that enable the reader to see behind the English rendering and understand a little more of the original language.

At times, the information is so detailed that you feel as though you have a seat at the translators’ table hearing the arguments for and against a particular rendering. The great strength of these notes is that they help the reader understand some of the difficulties in translating a particular verse.

Here’s an example: Romans 16:7 in the ESV says that Andronicus and Junia are well-known “to the apostles.” On the other hand, the NIV says they are outstanding “among the apostles.” Which is correct? Is it “to” or “among” the apostles? You might think that Greek scholars could just look at the original text and decide but in fact, opinion among them is divided. The Greek could be translated either way and both the NIV and ESV renderings are valid.

It is here that the NET excels because while agreeing with the ESV, the footnotes give an alternative translation together with a lengthy explanation for their decision. It enables the reader to understand that this verse could be translated in a different way. Even if you disagree with the translators’ decision, you would surely appreciate their detailed explanation.

Overall, I deeply appreciate the NET. It’s an outstanding translation with an innovative approach produced by world-class scholars. I have just one complaint: the print version is very expensive and while you can read it online for free (www.bible.org), a single copy will cost about the same as a mini-library of ESV, NASB, HCSB, NLT, NRSV and TNIV.

Andy Cheung is a PhD student researching Bible Translation and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School UK.

Note: see also the interview with Dr W. Hall Harris III on the New English Translation.

  1. Hi Andy. Thanks for your thoughts on these important matters. As I recall from your last post you advocated your preference for the ESV because it is a literal translation rather than a dynamic equivalence translation. As I recall, and I may well be wrong, the NET employs dynamic equivalence: would you say it is more or less literal than the NRSV? Does it employ gender-neutral language? As the translation team set out to produce an evangelical translation do you think this may have limited its use outside of evangelical circles (for example by academic/secular theologians).

    I wonder if you read Bishop Arthur Roche (Catholic Bishop of Leeds’) recent comments about the use of the terms “dynamic” and “formal equivalence”. Although he was speaking in relation to the translation of the liturgy from Latin, he claimed that Eugene Nida has abandoned the use of the terms as he regards them as insufficient in themselves. I haven’t had time to look into finding Nida’s interview, but I wonder what your thoughts are on this?

    My personal preference for meditation in the NJB (I know there are some scholarly issues here, but it is the bible I am most comfortable with). For Academic purposes I have tended to use the standards specified by my institutions, as an undergraduate I used the RSV and in my present setting I use the NRSV: I would welcome any comments you could shed upon these particular translations. My preference for indepth exegesis is to use the original language – after a year of Hebrew and Greek I am able to get buy with a “readers version” of the text in the classical languages. These provide footnotes that define any words that appear less than 50 times in the Old/New Testaments.

  2. Hi Ollie,

    Thanks for the comment! Firstly, you\’re correct about Nida\’s move away from dynamic and formal equivalence. Today, the Nida Institute speaks of a \”Post-Nida\” era where scholars no longer believe that all translation should be conducted according to the theories of dynamic or functional equivalence.

    And it\’s not just the Nida Institute: within the field of Translation Studies, the idea that a translation must necessarily conform to equivalence is now seriously outdated. There is recognition among scholars that the task of translation is very much more complex than previously thought.

    Nevertheless, the terms \”formal equivalence\” and \”dynamic/functional equivalence\” still serve as useful nouns for particular translations even if the approaches themselves are no longer considered to be all-encompassing goals for every translation effort.

    Regarding the NET, it is less literal than the ESV but I still wouldn\’t call it a dynamic equivalence translation. The same goes for the NRSV. When you compare them with the NLT or the CEV it\’s quite clear that they sit in a different place. I think it\’s hard to say whether the NET is more or less literal than the NRSV, they\’re roughly the same to me.

    You asked about the NET\’s approach to gender. I think it takes a good, sensible, balanced approach. At times, adelphoi is rendered \”brothers and sisters\” and elsewhere, participles have been translated as \”the one who.\” On the other hand, I don\’t think it unnecessarily neutralises masculine nouns and pronouns.

    > As the translation team set out to produce an
    > evangelical translation do you think this may
    > have limited its use outside of evangelical
    > circles (for example by academic/secular
    > theologians).

    I think this is undoubtedly an issue but it is something that affects all Bible translations. It\’s true that some may be put off by the NET translators being Evangelicals but other translations have similar problems. For example, Evangelicals have long been suspicious of the RSV / NRSV. Protestants are usually suspicious of the New Jerusalem Bible. I don\’t think there has ever been (or ever will be) a Bible translation that is universally considered \”neutral\”.

    > as an undergraduate I used the RSV and in my
    > present setting I use the NRSV: I would
    > welcome any comments you could shed upon
    > these particular translations.

    I think both are fine translations. In its day, RSV was very impressive but I think it\’s largely superseded by the NRSV. The latter is a very fine translation and I have made good use of it over the years.

  3. Hi Andy and Ollie
    Can I just wade in here. First off, great article Andy; very useful to have this comparison of the NET in the debate on translations.

    That said, I must say that I’m not happy with the NRSV and its (sometimes clumsy attempts at) ‘gender neutrality’. In some cases, for example, it actually changes the meaning of the text.

    A classic example is John 14:21. The NIV reads: ‘Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” However, in the NRSV this ends up as: They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

    In this example, words which began as addressing the individual end up speaking to a group of people! I understand and sympathise with the translators’ attempts to get rid of the gender problem (it would have been ridiculous to have ‘he/she’ throughout the passage for example), but if this means changing the actual meaning of the text then surely there’s something wrong. After all, if we want to understand the bible properly (even if it’s to criticise it!) we must be sure that we have before us an accurate rendering of the original text or we’re likely to arrive at all kinds of weird and wonderful interpretations.

    I wonder what others out there think?

  4. Andy – great resource, thanks. I have passed it on.

    Gender neutral translation which confuses the singular with the plural (using “they” for “he or she”) irritates me immensely even in everyday conversation and I refuse to use it. I certainly wouldn’t use any Bible translation that worked like that.

  5. This replaces previous comment please since I made a mess of that one!

    Andy – thanks for the link, great resource, I’ve passed it on.

    Attempting to use “they” as a gender neutral singular irritates me even in everyday conversation and I refuse to use it. I certainly wouldn’t use a Bible that transalted “he” in that way.

  6. Liz / Chris,
    Fair points – I think I’d prefer my translations to be that way too. My appreciation for the NRSV was meant in general terms. It does have some very good aspects to it.

  7. Andy,
    Just wanted to add my thanks for these two posts. I have been using the ESV for study for the last few years and I agree with the points you have made. Odd though, that for devotional reading I find myself picking up the familiar NIV, equally for public reading, I sometimes find the ESV doesn’t really flow quite as well as it might.

    As for gender neutral translations….arghh!

  8. Hi Keith,

    Yes, public reading leads me to the NIV too. The same when I’m preaching or leading Bible Studies. In my experience, most Christians in the UK use the NIV so it makes it easier if I select that.

    As for devotional readability, the NIV is very good but I prefer the HCSB.

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