I want to make it clear right off that I’m not a Bible scholar. I’m a Bible teacher with a passion to make the word of God understandable and, along those lines, I have some thoughts on Bible translations.
Let me also add quickly that we are blessed beyond blessed today with so many Bible translations available at our fingertips. When I was a student in Bible college and I wanted to read a different Bible translation it meant a trip to my local Christian bookstore to buy it. Later, when technology made digital copies of God’s Word available, we still had to purchase the version of our choice. Today, with apps like the Youversion, suddenly we can read pretty much any Bible translation we want — and they’re all FREE. It’s really incredible!
But that still raises the question: which one is best for you?
Methods of Bible Translation
To answer that question it might help to know how Bibles are translated. (Note: A glossary of Bible version names and abbreviations is listed at the end of this article.)
Have you noticed that some Bible versions read very differently than others? Some sound pretty much like the way you and I speak in everyday conversation, and others are a bit more formal and rigid. The reason for that difference depends on the method of translation that each group decides to take when setting out to translate God's Word. Essentially there are two, dissimilar methods.
The first is called the “Formal equivalence” – or “word-for-word” approach. In this case, every effort is made to keep both the word order and sentence structure of the original Hebrew or Greek. Bibles that use this method include the ESV, NKJV, and the NASB. These are the Bibles that tend to sound a little rigid and often include words that you and I don’t use in common day-to-day conversation.
Then we come to the second method which is a “Functional equivalence” or “thought-for-thought” rendering of the original text. This is also referred to as ‘dynamic equivalence’ — in case you weren’t confused enough already — and it’s what you’ll find in the International Children’s Bible (ICB) and the New English Bible (NEB) just to name a couple. The goal of a thought-for-thought approach is to produce the most natural and readable style possible in the reader’s language.
But then there are translations like the NIV, NLT, and NRSV which confuse the process even more by trying to balance the concepts of word-for-word and thought-for-thought in a single translation. Sheesh!!
(Note: Bibles like The Message and The Living Bible are not translations at all, but rather paraphrases.)
For decades I read and taught from the NIV (1984 revision). I really loved that Bible, and still do. It remains both readable and accurate. My first NIV came out of the lost and found at the church I was attending back in the early 1980’s. It was a paperback and I used it and wrote in it until it was literally in tatters. So, I marched down to my local Christian bookstore and bought my very first NIV Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. It was very cool!
The Problem with word-for-word
Have you ever noticed that Bibles that claim to be word-for-word choose different English words to translate the text? How can that be? I mean, if they’re rendering a passage word-for-word then their translations should be identical, right?
Wrong! And the reason is that many times Hebrew and Greek words may require multiple English words to accurately convey their meaning. Each translating committee has to determine which words they're going to use, and sometimes they're very different from another translation.
Here's an example of how the meaning of a word can vary:
Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3 (NASB)
Seems pretty straightforward. But although the Greek word that is translated born occurs exactly that way some 41 times in the NASB, it is also rendered as:
father (37 times),
begotten (4 times),
became the father of (4 times),
...and by approximately 10 other English words or phrases.
Greek and Hebrew words can have variations of definition depending on the context of the passage. It’s up to the translators to determine that context and then choose the English word (or words) they feel best expresses the original meaning. Obviously, different translations choose different words, which takes the whole idea of word-for-word and sort of tosses it up into the air.
Here’s the point: word-for-word translations are wonderful and incredibly useful for studying the Scriptures, but they’re not always the most effective way to convey the meaning of the passage.
Check out this example of how 1 Kings 2:10 is rendered in these different translations:
KJV: “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.”
NIV1984: “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.”
NIV2011: Then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.
NLT: “Then David died and was buried in the City of David.”
You can tell by reading all these different versions that the challenging phrase here is “slept with his fathers” which, by the way, is the most word-for-word accurate rendering of the original Hebrew. It was used in those days to refer to someone who died and was buried in the same area as his deceased relatives.
But does that word-for-word rendering really say it best? In our culture, the idea of sleeping with someone has a sexual connotation, but that’s obviously not what the author was trying to say. For that reason, of the four translations listed, I find the NLT probably does the best job of conveying the simple meaning by saying, “David died.” But it doesn’t tell us everything, does it?
If I had my way, I would merge the NIV and NLT so that the verse reads this way: “Then David died and was buried alongside his ancestors in Jerusalem, the City of David.” In this case, we have a sentence that contains everything the author wanted us to know in a way that is clearly understood by a modern English-speaking reader.
Is there a danger to the thought-for-thought approach?
Even though I believe that a thought-for-thought translation often does a better job of conveying the meaning of the text, the method is not without its potential dangers. Questions arise, such as, how far should we go to make the passage easy to understand? And is it possible to go too far?
The answer is, unfortunately, yes.
Back in 2011, when the publishers of the New International Version (NIV) released their latest revision, I was troubled by some of the changes made to the text. Although I really like a thought-for-thought approach, the fact is, it doesn’t always bring clarity to the passage and, if you’re not careful, it can do the opposite. Up until the 2011 revision, I always felt the NIV did a good job of giving the reader the meaning of the text without compromising accuracy. But with the latest changes, I felt they stepped over the line by adopting a new gender-inclusive approach. That’s why I switched to the ESV.
I’m not saying the new NIV is a bad translation. Not at all. I wouldn’t hesitate to give a copy to someone who needed a Bible. But in terms of accuracy, I feel that Bibles like the ESV, NASB, and NKJV do a better job of staying faithful to the text, despite their somewhat rigid and inflexible reading styles.
Is there an absolute best translation?
I’ve always believed the best translation is the one you read. But with any of the modern-English translations, it’s hard to go wrong. And because they are all so easily available you really don’t have to choose. Even though you may have a favorite, I would encourage reading through the Bible every year in a different translation. If you’re up for that kind of a challenge you will certainly get a well-rounded view of the Scriptures.
Glossary of Bible translation names:
NIV - New International Version
NASB - New American Standard Bible
ESV - English Standard Version
NKJV - New King James Version
NLT - New Living Translation
Click here for a short video explaining the history and character of the English Standard Version.
If you have someone in your life who is pressuring you to only read and study from the King James Version of the Bible, I would recommend you get a copy of James Whites book The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations?