I frequently get asked which Bible translation I use and then to give recommendations; after all, there are a significant number of English translations of the Bible and it can be daunting wading through them all to find something that works for you. That is what I feel is important in looking for a translation – look for the one that works for you and the work you’re doing. A carpenter working on a construction project will pick the right tool for whatever job he or she is doing, and since there are a variety of translations, each with different goals and uses, you should feel confident selecting a version that helps you engage with God’s word. Not a single translation committee sets out with the desire of getting the translation wrong or leading people astray, so as long as you do your homework and dig into the options, picking the right Bible for your personal study can actually be fun.
Why are there so many translations?
The New Testament of the Bible was originally written in an interesting version of the Greek language called koine (common) Greek, and the Bible itself is one of the few documents available that used that version almost exclusively. It was not written in a formal academic way, but in a way that everyday people would understand. Biblical archaeologists actually find out more about common Greek by sifting through ancient garbage, discovering the common forms in people’s grocery lists, than by comparing the Bible to other Greek texts from that period.
Because of the usage of common Greek for the Bible we still use today, there are a number of ways different words can be translated into English, and in many cases, single Greek words require a phrase in English to get at the intent of the Greek word. Thankfully, entire committees of scholars throughout the ages of the Church have carefully preserved the integrity of the original texts and still work tirelessly to ensure modern readers have the most accurate and readable version possible.
What are the differences between different translations?
It’s helpful to divide the numerous translations into three main categories to keep things simple. Each category deals with different goals for the reader, asking what they hope the reader to appreciate about the Bible when reading it.
1) Formal Correspondence Translation
This sounds super technical, but the equivalency of a translation describes the way it treats the conversion from Greek to English. A formal correspondence describes a word-for-word attempt at translation, trying to put an English word or phrase directly in the place of the Greek. Popular translations that use this approach are the New American Standard (NASB), the New Revised Standard (NRSV), the King James (KJV) and somewhat the English Standard Version (ESV). Typically you will see these translations used for academic and preaching purposes, though personally I have used the NASB for personal study and we often use the ESV here at PurposeCity.
2) Dynamic Equivalence Translation
A dynamic equivalence, rather than attempting a word-for-word translation, approaches the project looking to translate thought-for-thought. While formal translations make use of the same grammar and vocabulary as the Greek text, dynamic translations attempt to convey the original meaning. Considering the commonality of the original Greek that was used to write the original biblical text, such translations can communicate meaning in a way that is helpful for personal devotional study. Popular translations using dynamic equivalence are the New International (NIV), the New Living (NLV), and in part the English Standard (ESV). The English Standard, a newer project seeks to combine formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence.
3) Paraphrase/Free Translation
Free translations take significant liberties with the text, often translating not from the original Greek and Hebrew, but from one English translation to an easier to understand English version. That isn’t to say that a great deal of effort doesn’t go into such projects and translation teams are less in-the-know; The Message translation for example, which is the most well known in this category, was a project headed up by Eugene Peterson who has great skill with original biblical languages. These translations can lend a great deal of color and flavor for personal devotional study, but often take too many liberties to be reliable for teaching and even memorization.
Some Bible Translation Shortfalls
As I have said, each translation and the committees that work on them for years take great care in providing as true and readable document as possible, but that doesn’t mean that their translations are without some challenges that should be taken into consideration.
The King James Version, for example, recently celebrated its 400th anniversary, and has lost some of its intelligibility for modern audiences. 1 Kings 11:1 tells us that “Solomon loved many strange women.” Sounds like fun! However, in 1611, strange meant something closer to ‘foreign’ in English.
The New International Version that was updated in 2011 set out to be the translation meant for those “missing from the church”and as a result ended up using quite a bit of gender neuter language that wasn’t in the original Greek or Hebrew.
The New Living Translation, as a thought-for-thought translation, uses language that can, at times, miss some of the strength or weight of Greek phrases. Revelation 6:7, the Greek translates “who can stand…” meaning standing in the midst of difficulty, but the NLT renders this “who can survive…” which is somewhat weaker and even less poetic than the original.
Formal translations like the NASB and NRSV, while more word-for-word accurate, are often difficult to read. The Bible, as a document for common people, is meant to be intelligible, and if people are put off of reading it because of stilted language, the point can be somewhat missed.
Quick Comparison – Philippians 3:17
For your own reflection, I did a personal translation of Philippians 3:17 from the Greek and will compare it with the other versions.
My version: “Be imitators of me brothers, and watch those walking as a pattern in us.”
ESV: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
NASB: “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.”
NRSV: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”
Message: “Stick with me friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for the same goal.”
NLT: “Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.”
So which one?
Personally, when teaching or preaching I still use the NASB, and that is also the translation I use for Scripture memorization. However, doing my own translations over the years I have actually grown fond of the New Living Translation as one that communicates a meaning closer to what I think the original authors of the books of the New Testament intended, and so I use that more and more for daily devotional reading. Here at PurposeCity we often use the ESV for a variety of different reasons. Remember, there is never one perfect version, but they are all tools that allow us to accomplish different goals.
Selecting for yourself is, as I have said, a matter of your ability to connect to the text and reach the goals you have for the reading. If you teach more or are involved in academic study, a Formal Correspondence would be appropriate, but if you’re more involved in your own devotional reading or small group study, a Dynamic Equivalence would be helpful.
The important thing is that you read the Bible at all, so find a translation that helps you engage with God’s word every single day. What translation do you use and why? Feel free to comment below and offer your own recommendations.