In this second post in a multi-part review of God’s Word Translation (GW), we will take a look at the Old Testament as translated in GW. If you are not familiar with GW, please read my first post on the history and philosophy behind GW.
As far as I know, the text layout in all editions of GW is identical: single-column, black lettering with textual footnotes. I have not seen an edition that includes cross-references, and the God’s Word Study Bible is the only edition I find in the catalog that includes them. With respect to readability, this layout is fantastic. The single-column layout allows narrative text to read like a book instead of a technical manual and allows poetry to be formatted in such a way as to clearly bring out the parallelism so important and prominent in Hebrew poetry. The only thing I find distracting are the section titles, but these appear in just about every edition of every translation, so this is nothing specific to GW. Because of the choices made in the text layout, GW gets high marks for formatting and readability.
In my opinion, GW has achieved very good readability without sacrificing readability or breaking markedly from traditional English bible translations. While there are certainly places in every translation where one could suggest stylistic revisions for one reason or another, overall GW is a comfortable read falling somewhere in my totally unscientific scale of readability between the NIV and the NLT. In other words, someone familiar with the NIV or translations leaning more toward ‘formal equivalence’ may find that GW sounds more ‘familiar’ than the NLT. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, merely my attempt to place GW in the context of versions many readers are more familiar with.
The narrative in GW reads as one would hope narrative would — smoothly. While I haven’t read through all of the OT in GW, I have enjoyed what I have read. Consistent with its goal of readability without oversimplification, the narrative portions sometimes shorten sentence length over what is found in the original languages, though translators have aimed not to shorten sentences for the sake of shortening them if such edits compromise or blur their meaning. The narrative also tries to avoid piling up clauses or prepositional phrases, both of which create more difficult reading.
One of the most important literary devices in Hebrew poetry is parallelism (see this great Wikipedia article on Biblical Poetry for a primer on the subject). Especially over against rhyme, meter, rhythm or other devices that are not readily apparent in any translation from Hebrew to English, understanding parallelism helps provide significant insight into understanding the significance of the Psalms, songs, and some prophetic sections in the Old Testament. The poetic sections of GW are one place, in my opinion, where the editors have really made good use of the additional real-estate allowed by having a single-column format. The wider, single-column layout allowed editors to use multiple levels of indentation to group together multiple parallel phrases nested within a section of poetry. While this indentation is not original to the Hebrew, it definitely allows English speakers whose poetry uses parallelism less than rhyme to easily (and visually) see its structure and better understand its meaning. I have seen no other single-column layout that so effectively utilizes indentation to organize and present poetry. This is one area where GW really shines!
In its attempt to remove easily misunderstood technical language (see my first review), GW breaks with translation tradition in some places. This is more apparent in the New Testament, as we’ll see, but there are several important areas where non-traditional wording is used in the Old Testament. One significant departure from traditional English translations is the use of ‘instruction’ as the translation for the Hebrew ‘torah’. While ‘instruction’ is almost the universal lexical definition of ‘torah,’ most English translations routinely translate it as ‘law,’ and even non-technical commentaries are quick to point out this important difference. Making this change was an excellent choice.
Another traditional phrase appearing in the Old Testament is “Lord of Hosts” (‘Yahweh Sabaoth’). Here ‘hosts’ is a reference to angelic beings, i.e. the hosts of heaven. It is an archaic phrase that few Christians are truly familiar with and even fewer, if any, non-Christians would implicitly understand. GW has chosen to translate this phrase “Lord of Armies,” which I think is midly unfortunate, as there is no explanation that these armies of the armies of heaven and not the armies of men or earthly politics. There is room for misunderstanding here, in my opinion, and translating this “Lord of Heaven’s Armies,” as the NLT has done, is a better choice.
A final non-traditional translation choice was made in Deuteronomy 6.4. This verse, commonly known as the ‘shema,’ is an important part of daily prayer for the Jews. Traditionally this verse is translated as, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (ESV), which serves to emphasizes the unity of God. In the context of a polytheistic culture and God’s constant warnings against worshiping other Gods, Dt 6.4 is better understood as Israel’s ‘pledge of allegiance’ to Yahweh. As such, GW (similarly to the NLT) translates this verse, “Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God. The LORD is the only God.” Again, in my opinion, this was an excellent choice by the translators.
Overall, the Old Testament of GW is very well done. The narrative is crystal clear and the poetic sections are wonderfully presented. While not all aspects of non-traditional word choices are necessarily more helpful than traditional English renderings, in two areas at least, I find the changes refreshing and, quite honestly, more accurate.
Stay tuned for our look next time at the New Testament!