Monday, April 16, 2007

Judging a Paraphrase by Its Purpose

In the final paragraph [Part 1, Part 2] of his preface, Dr. Stephens posted several disclaimers for his paraphrase. First he wants us to know that he was constantly referring to the Greek text and other scholarly material. And this was necessary because he was looking for the “exact meaning” of the Greek.

Since a paraphrase (or thought-translation) is not interested in the words used by the author, but only the broader thoughts, finding and knowing the “exact meaning” of a passage becomes much more critical than if you are only producing a literal translation. In this sense, it is necessary for the man who sets out to create a paraphrase to have a very thorough knowledge of Greek and the critical tools for working with it. If he can not ascertain the “exact meaning” of the original, then he can not claim to have represented the thoughts of the author.

One interesting disclaimer is the sentence, “Where different interpretations are current among scholars the paraphrase has been based, without justification or comment, upon that interpretation which commended itself as the best.” In other words, “Since the interpretation of most every sentence in the Bible is currently disputed, I am in this very sentence giving you the only notice you will receive, that what you find here is my own interpretation of the exact meaning of the text.” You have to love the man for his honesty.

The penultimate sentence in the preface is crucial for any discussion of the marketing of translations and paraphrases: “The book should be judged by its purpose and used in accordance with it.” What is the purpose of this paraphrase? First, it is to represent the main points of Paul’s arguments. It is not intended to be a substitute for a literal translation. Its purpose is to be a complementary tool for understanding the literal translations.

And so, by the purpose clearly stated in the preface, this paraphrase is recommended to the general reader. I’ve looked through several passages in the paraphrase and it seems to me that the author has done a fairly good job given his purpose and his disclaimers. It should be one among many on your shelf (if you can find a copy).

On the other hand, almost everything Dr. Stephens has written in his preface could resonate with the thought-for-thought translations on the market today, all except the statement, “This book should be judged by its purpose and used in accordance with it.” It is here that I believe thought-for-thought translations miss the mark. Many have set themselves up as the equivalent of (or even a better option for) a literal translation. As such they are recommended as the primary translation for reading, study, preaching, and teaching. However, when they are judged according to this purpose, they fail the test.

This is why I love The Living Bible and recommended it as one among many paraphrases a person should consult when looking for the meaning of a passage. Yet, I do not recommend any thought-for-thought translations or if I do, I recommend them as good paraphrases and recommended that they be used as such.

More later.

Above: I received this numbered copy (mid 200s) shortly after my grandfather's death in 2005. I love it because it clearly stated its purpose in its preface.

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