How reliable are paraphrases?

I have pondered whether to get a Message bible. I had a Message New Testament but got rid of it and do not plan to get one in the near future. When I preach, I rarely quote from the Message or the Living Bible. And upon hearing a verse or passage quoted from the Message, I might suddenly get the feeling that something is wrong. When this happens, I will go to one of my trusty translations, NRSV, ESV or TNIV. The difference can sometimes be shocking. Sometimes, the whole idea of the verse has been completely changed. The purpose of paraphrases is to render a hard-to-understand verse more understandable and still remain accurate. Sometimes, in paraphrases, accuracy gets thrown out the for the sake of trying to be contemporary as possible. When accuracy is discarded, reliable is gone too.

Personally, I think many of us have a pretty big tolerance for what can be considered as reliable. As far as gender-accuracy or gender-neutrality is concerned: the difference between “brothers” versus “brothers and sisters” is minimal. I still consider both reliable. I would also consider both “fallen asleep” and “dead” as accurate. Where I draw the line is a complete change in idea. Let’s take a passage from The Message with the theme of food.

Isaiah 29:8

Like a hungry man dreaming he’s eating steak and wakes up hungry as ever, Like a thirsty woman dreaming she’s drinking iced tea and wakes up thirsty as ever, So that mob of nations at war against Mount Zion will wake up and find they haven’t shot an arrow, haven’t killed a single soul.

as when hungry people dream they are eating, but they awaken, and their hunger remains; as when thirsty people dream they are drinking, but they awaken faint, with their thirst unquenched. So will it be with the hordes of all the nations that fight against Mount Zion.

Where in the world did “steak” and “ice tea” come from?

The usefulness of paraphrases is debatable. It is useful for those who have absolutely no understanding of biblical language (or Christianese). Paraphrases can easily lead one into confusion and a dumbing-down in Christian theology. I can tolerate almost any difference in other translations but this is an example of where I draw the line.

21 thoughts on “How reliable are paraphrases?

    Whether we are authors or readers, we all react according to our own concepts, concepts which lead us to make various analyses on given subjects.
    There are subjects which lead to different analyses, because they call upon our subjectivity.
    . If this subjectivity is tendentious, it will lead, very often, to the rejection of the reasoning of others.
    . If it is well based, it will make it possible to accept – or at least to recognize – the logic of reasoning of those others, even if this logic leads to different conclusions. This subjectivity could be described as open-minded.
    Thus, there are subjects for which it is difficult to establish only one analysis, accepted by all, because they call upon the subjectivity of each individual.
    But there are other subjects which call upon an analysis of facts. From these subjects should thus appear a consensus of ideas, on the condition, however, that one’s objectivity is not influenced by a strong subjacent subjectivity, coming from a sectarian spirit.
    The analysis of my study “Between Galileo and the Church: the Bible” demands that the various commentators follow grammatical and semantic rules, which are well established.
    Who are these commentators?
    There are:
    those who have read the study,
    those who have not read it.
    . The first group, although there have been few of them, have all expressed favorable comments.
    . Concerning the second group, it will be necessary to consider:
    – those who, because of the subject and for personal reasons, did not show any interest,
    – those who, although they did not read the book, criticized it sharply a priori or simply rejected it. Ill-advised they intermingled objectivity and subjectivity, rejecting from the start the bases of analysis which this type of work demands.
    Why such an a priori rejection?
    This rejection comes from people belonging to different groups:
    . some belonging to Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or Jewish communities,
    . others to agnostic or atheistic groups.
    But there is a surprising fact: all of them, whether they are religious or not, had the same reaction, that is an almost complete silence with regard to the book.
    Religious people have concepts according to the group they belong to, and so have atheists or agnostics. But why is it that they all react in the same way: silence?
    . Protestants and Evangelicals, who profess their confidence in the Holy Scriptures, should have been delighted owing to the fact that this thorough semantic study shows that the original Texts of the Bible have expressed clearly, for more than 3000 years, that which Copernicus and Galileo discovered a little more than three and a half centuries ago: the Sun not turning around the Earth.
    But this truth disturbs them, not from the scientific point of view, but from the Biblical point of view – their Version of the Bible, to which they are strongly attached, affirming the rotation of the Sun around the Earth and which is contradicted by my study. Not wanting to correct their translations, they thus persist in the error and the discredit which wrongly fell upon the Bible at the time of the trial of Galileo.
    . Catholics, also refusing the comforming of their Versions with the Original texts, share the same responsibility of error and discredit of the Bible.
    It is quite obvious that the Catholic Church (not only in the past but also today), not having detected these mistranslations and being supposed to hold supremacy on the matter, will have to recognize this gap officially and solve it. Until now, It has only developed arguments which do not put an end to this problematic affaire, Galileo having not been rehabilitated yet.
    . The atheists or agnostics, even if they have good reasons to criticize religious people and the Versions of the Bible, are embarrassed by learning that the original Texts, even in this scientific discipline, cannot be contested. They, like the others, abstain from any comment.
    The goal of my study is thus to obtain:
    . not only the official rehabilitation of the astronomer Galileo,
    . but also a real rehabilitation of the Bible – Its original Texts having never proclaimed the error of the rotation of the Sun around the Earth. For more than six years, I have been reiterating these arguments in my various letters and e-mails, without success.
    Apart from a few exceptions, the media (press, radio, television), Associations organizing Book exhibitions or Conferences adopt this same “law of silence”.
    Galileo deeply marked history. During 2009, many scientific demonstrations took place in his honour and others are programmed in 2010. But why is it that the question of his rehabilitation is so little discussed? Wouldn’t one like to see him rehabilitated one day?

    In conclusion:
    An end must be put to the unjust trial of the astronomer. Not only must his rehabilitation be officialized but also that of the Bible regarding Its original Texts.
    Recently, I contacted the competent authorities.
    I remain at the disposal of any person desiring to see Truth triumph.
    I express my thanks to those who helped me and encouraged me in this delicate task. I also thank the booksellers who have agreed to sell my book.
    Joel Col
    For more information please consult:
    Also do a search with “Joel Col” Galileo


  2. Rotation of the Sun around the Earth in the Bible OR: Mistranslation?

    “One day, the whole Church: Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Assemblies, will have to be willing to make their translations of the Bible agree with the original Texts”.

    It is my pleasure to inform you of my Biblical study that I have entitled in French ENTRE GALILÉE ET L’ÉGLISE : LA BIBLE. I have translated it into English (Between Galileo and the Church : the Bible) and Spanish. Only the French version is published for the moment.
    I studied this subject referring to the original Texts of the Bible – in Hebrew, for the Old Testament, and in Greek, for the New Testament. And in this study, I demonstrate that in these Texts the Sun does not turn around the Earth, contrary to what the Versions of the Bible assert.
    In other words, if the Translations of the Bible had been faithful to the original Texts, Galileo would not have been condemned for “having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scriptures”.
    This is, in a few words, the content of this book.
    In my work, I seek to show that not only did this mistranslation wrongly involve the Bible in the condemnation of the Scientist but that it also regrettably brought discredit onto this Holy Book. This important fact cannot be neglected.
    According to the conclusions I am able to draw from the many discussions and large correspondance I have had over the last few years, it appears that generally there is a refusal to measure faithfully this discordance between the original Texts of the Bible and their translations.
    Publishers carry out revisions of their versions with the help of specialists in old languages and, most of the time, they replace right words or right expressions with other words which are more appropriate or less appropriate – they also use words more current today. But, I cannot fail to note that nobody seems willing to correct these mistranslations which participated in the unjust trial of the astronomer Galileo.
    I have been publishing this work for 6 years and I can assert that, to this day, no one has contested my semantic study. On the contrary, I have received precious words of encouragement from those who have read it. This book has been read and approved by experts in Hebrew and Greek. Hence the necessity of returning to the source of the Writings.
    When the Lord Jesus said to his Father: ” Your word is Truth” (John 17: 17), He referred to the original Texts. So, why do most people today refuse even to consider them and, consequently, persist in this error?
    It is admitted that in the official Churches and Assemblies the knowledge of the original languages of the Bible has decreased. But people can call upon those who have a real knowledge of these languages.
    My goal is clear. I want Christians to take their share of responsibility. If my study is erroneous, I should be put straight, but if it is right, it must be taken into account.
    I would be very grateful if you were willing to inform your friends, so that they can consider the problem with care.
    For more details concerning the study, please consult my web sites

    I am at your disposal to answer any question concerning my study.
    Yours faithfully.

    Joël Col


  3. Kevin, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everything I read in the Message I agree with, but some I do like.


  4. L. Wells, I’ve also heard that said about the Living Bible. Look where it’s at today. No where. That’s why I believe paraphrases may be popular for the short-term, but they will disappear from popular usage very quickly.

    Robert, it also doesn’t sit well with me to attach the word “translation” to “paraphrasing”. It is trying to legitimize something that isn’t into something that looks like a real thing. Isn’t it almost kind of like a counterfeit to call a paraphrase a translating paraphrase?


  5. Peter, that’s a good example. I’d say Jonah-fish is an anachronism but that’s debatable too. This can get complicated. There are so many factors: culture, language, and timing. I’m glad I’m not a bible translator who has to make all these decisions. I stick with critiquing translations.

    TC, for a paraphrase, it’s not bad. The colloquialism really stands out in The Message: “pushing the old system of circumcision”, and “swept along in the charade”. Maybe that’s why some people like it?


  6. Peter, the term “paraphrasing translation” is just confusing to me. I understand paraphrase, and also what I learned in college as to a translation, but putting them together makes no sense to me. I know, I’m probably out of touch. But to me, even if one goes back to the original languages to do the initial work, but winds up being very interpretative in the end, that to me is still a paraphrase.

    It’s not that I discount any value for such, but to add the phrase translation to the finished work, no matter where it started, is just confusing.


  7. Well said Kevin. Personally I have zero interest in paraphrases. There are simply too many more literal translations available today that are very understandable, so I just fail to see the need for something that goes so far beyond the original texts.

    Unwittingly, people could potentially develop dangerous doctrines from passages that actually skew the original languages (not that this hasn’t happened on occasion with literal translations as well, but it seems much more likely to occur with a less reliable version), so I’d rather stick to more scholarly, trustworthy versions.

    I don’t mean to sound abrasive, but in my view The Message should only be used as an example of a Bible NOT to own. But this is only my humble opinion.


  8. Kevin, here’s the Message on Gal 2:11-13:

    11-13Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends. That’s how fearful he was of the conservative Jewish clique that’s been pushing the old system of circumcision. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jews in the Antioch church joined in that hypocrisy so that even Barnabas was swept along in the charade.

    That’s a great paraphrase in my opinion.


  9. Personally I prefer my tea hot whatever the season. As for exactly which descriptions are anachronistic depending on their names, that is an interesting point. There have always been steaks, surely. Hamburgers are a more recent invention, and named after a city, Hamburg, which was not around in biblical times, so this might be counted as an anachronism; but Abraham very likely ate something very similar to the Turkish dish Urfa kebab which comes from the area around Harran – and is very like lamb hamburgers! So should the name be rejected as an anachronism if the concept is not? Consider this: in Turkish a dolphin is literally a Jonah-fish. Was it an anachronism to use this word for the skins used in covering the tabernacle because the name Jonah-fish could not have been in use before the time of Jonah?


  10. Peter, I really like your explanation and analogous example of “a wild flower or rainbow”. Thanks for your valuable input on this.

    I see how “iced tea” is an anachronism and “steak” is not. Now, I’m wondering about more specific descriptions like filet mignon, or beef stew, or hamburger? Could they be anachronistic?

    The Message attempted to be gender-inclusive. It can lead to inconsistencies when trying to include both genders. TNIV’s gender-neutrality can go a little too far. I guess the question is where do you find the balance in trying to be gender-neutral , -accurate, or –inclusive?

    Iced tea is okay for summer time but when it’s winter or fall, I think I’d prefer a nice cup of hot tea. 😉


  11. Joe, thanks for commenting and welcome to New Epistles blog. The GNT was my first bible I enjoyed reading as a kid and it may always remain a children’s bible in my mind.

    Robert, individual biases are so hard to avoid when there are only a few translators. Yes, even though it may be a work of one person, it is amazing how God can use it to edify believers. You might see it almost parallel to a person’s sermon where interpretation comes through a single person.


  12. The Message is officially referred to, on the dust jacket of my 2002 copy, as a “paraphrasing translation”. And that is a good description. Technically it is not a paraphrase but a translation because it is based on the original language texts. But it has many of the characteristics of a paraphrase. Another good description would be “free translation”.

    But I would never want to rely on a paraphrasing translation, and so would not ask the question whether it is reliable. I would not call a wild flower or a rainbow reliable either, but that does not stop both being things of beauty which help us to know to God – and so is The Message.

    As for this particular example of non-literal translation, note that the adaptation is only in the comparison side of a simile. According to the translation principles I learned to be a Bible translator, adaptations of this kind are permissible as long as they don’t introduce anachronisms. And yes, iced tea is an anachronism, so this goes beyond that bound, although the steak does not.

    I note also that the second dreamer in The Message is a woman, although both are explicitly masculine singular in Hebrew. TNIV makes both generic plural. But since they are being compared with male warriors later in the verse, these really should be men.

    But for me the more important reason to reject this adaptation is that the comparison with drinking iced tea doesn’t work at all, as it’s the last thing I would dream of drinking.


  13. I would not criticize anyone using anything that would lead them to God and wanting to follow Christ. However, I have found the more people start studying, however, the more they want to get into a deeper study of the Word, they need a more literal translation. Paraphrases too easily allow the individual biases of the author, where committees working together offer more balance. Of course, no system is perfect. But it’s amazing how God can use our imperfections to accomplish His goals.

    I don’t recall the source, but I remember reading in the past where Eugene Peterson referred to the The Message as a paraphrase, but the publishers spoke of it as a translation. I wonder if they did’t do this for marketing.


  14. When I first started reading the Bible, I read from the Good News Translation. I still read from it occasionally, especially through long stretches of the Old Testament (Kings, Chronicles, etc.) But I think the GNT is about as far away as I’d like to get from the more literal translations. I also agree with you that the NLT is a better alternative.


  15. Nathan, I just picked this verse because it was the first one I ever heard from The Message. Most of it is still okay though. It can still convey the word of God.

    It’s easy to mislabel a paraphrase as a translation. But it depends how you qualify a translation. Some say that as long as the translators use the original Greek, it qualifies as a translation but I would disagree with this. Peterson likely would have consulted the Greek.


  16. TC, there are so many people who like it and I don’t blame them because it is so different.

    Thanks Stan. It’s good to know we’re not alone.

    Jeff, I don’t like to malign translations either but I also found the Message very funny. When the Message first came out, a friend in seminary introduced it to me. He read me this verse and I couldn’t believe my ears. We just couldn’t stop laughing. This is why many people can’t take the Message seriously. Yes, you’re right about keeping an open mind because there are those with tastes like TC’s who like it. That is why I occasionally quote passages from the pulpit. It’s such a popular paraphrase but I don’t see this popularity being long-term, e.g.,Living Bible. For an easy-to-understand translation, I’d prefer to quote the NLT.


  17. Today the pastor read a passage from Ephesians. I don’t remember the details, but he introduced his reading as “from The Message translation.” Now I’m not keen on paraphrases, but I was blown away at his statement and don’t recall a thing from that point on. I hope it was a slip of the tongue, but it is just one more discouraging thing for me. It was the only scripture he quoted, and it wasn’t too colloquial but entirely misrepresented. Maybe I’m just overreacting.


  18. I hate to malign the translation because I feel like I’m being disrespectful to the translator.

    But we had a copy of The Message that we got for free. I looked at three or four passages and couldn’t help but laugh. I figured I shouldn’t have a Bible that makes me laugh so I gave it away. I also saw a quotation of a verse with the brand name Brand-aid. That’s just plain freaky.

    I did find one verse in it that I like though. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

    So I will look at it as a last resort but 99% of the time I can’t take it seriously.

    I assumed everybody who was serious about Bible study disliked it (because everybody is like me, right?) but because of people like TC and others I see that I could possibly have a more open mind.

    Iced tea???


  19. I like occasional steak and ice tea.

    Kevin, I understand your point, but I personally don’t consider this one as crossing the line.

    I tend to like it.


  20. You and I are standing behind the same line.

    The Message goes way past the point of reasonableness in too many places for my comfort level.


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