There is no such thing as a perfect, ideal, or ‘correct’ translation. A translator is always trying to extend his knowledge and improve his means of expression; he is always pursuing facts and words.Peter Newmark, Manual De Traduccion / A Textbook of Translation
“Which translation of the Bible should I use?” is a question frequently asked by those who want to read and study the Bible. The Baby Boom was followed by a Bible Boom. As a result, there are so many Bible translations that trying to select one version can lead to the paralysis of analysis—like trying to choose a box of cereal, an ice cream flavor, or a new car. The options are overwhelming.
So how do we make an informed choice? Here are four helpful guidelines to use when making your decision.
Look for a Recent Publication Date
Choose a translation that was made or revised within the last ten years.1 Newer translations will have taken advantage of the latest insights into Bible backgrounds—be they historical, archaeological, or linguistic.2
Older translations are only as accurate and appropriate as they could be in their day. This does not mean they should be ignored. Sometimes older versions contain interpretations that newer translations have obscured.
Remember that any translation reflects the expectations of the faith community for whom it was made at that point in history. While you need a standard and recent translation for regular use, it would be beneficial to have several different translations from different times on hand to compare and contrast when doing personal Bible study.
Check for Creation by a Translation Team
Select a translation completed by a diverse team of biblical and believing scholars, not by one individual or denomination.3
A translation created by one person or even one group within one denomination will be handicapped by that person or group’s particular narrow interests and interpretive idiosyncrasies. A diverse translation committee means that there will be checks and balances against individual or institutional biases. The approach of the translator or translation committee is typically identified in the preface of most Bibles.
Chose a Translation That Is Both Readable and Close to the Original Text
If you are looking for one translation to use regularly or exclusively, then opt for one with a translation philosophy that falls between a rigidly literal (word-for-word) and a highly interpretive paraphrastic approach.4
A word-for-word translation has the limitation of trying to represent every word in the source text (the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament) with a word in the receptor text (the language into which the biblical text is being translated). On the surface, this sounds very useful. But since languages like Hebrew and English are so different, a strictly literal translation is often difficult to understand. In addition, during a word-for-word translation, the technicalities of the original text can sometimes take precedence over the text’s overall meaning.5
At the same time, though a paraphrastic translation is easier to understand, the very nature of paraphrasing may give the reader more of the translator’s interpretation than the text’s actual meaning.
By contrast, a meaning-for-meaning translation follows the original text but not too rigidly.6 It makes adjustments so the modern reader can experience the content and essence of the text in the same way the ancient audience would have. What the text says takes priority over its structure. However, a downfall of this approach is that it can make interpretive decisions as to the meaning of the text for you.
Rather than trying to find the “right” Bible, I again recommend getting two or three different translations in order to compare and contrast interpretations. Another option would be to get what is called a “parallel Bible,” which presents the same biblical text in several different translations side by side.
Make Sure There Is No Specific Theology or Theme Associated with the Translation
While a Bible with extensive notes can be helpful, it is wiser to choose a translation without added commentary as your primary Bible. Critical notes that help you understand technical aspects of language and culture are valuable, but additional commentary can significantly impact your own thoughts—almost doing the thinking for you, in some cases. It is better to read the text and do your own prayerful study than to risk being controlled by a commentator’s bias.
In addition, built-in commentary usually does not and cannot—due to space limitations—offer insight into interpretive debates but instead follows only one school of thought.7 Such Bibles have a place within the wider world of Bible study and within churches with specific, agreed-upon beliefs and theologies. But when choosing a main translation for personal reading and reflection, you need one that presents clearly what the text means.8 In particular, avoid using a Bible with commentary by only one person as your main Bible.
Of course, it should always be remembered that Bible translation is a human endeavor. By definition, all translations are to some degree imperfect. As a result, using only one version all the time can be limiting. Thankfully, technology now allows us to enjoy a preferred version while easily and inexpensively comparing it to others.
The full texts of many versions of the Bible are available online.9 Several platforms exist to allow you to compare different versions quickly and easily; some software products even highlight and color code the different readings instantly.
In the end, the Bible you choose will still contain what Christians believe to be the Word of God. The goal is to acquire a Bible that will provide you with as accurate and trustworthy a translation of the essence and meaning of the original text as possible while leaving room for you to pursue your own thoughts and interpretation.10
- Be sure to distinguish between a new or significantly revised publication and simply a reprint of an old translation.
- One Bible in particular is noteworthy in this regard: the NIV’s Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003) contains not theological but mainly, as the title suggests, archaeological (historical and cultural) background information. This aids the reader in understanding the social context in which the biblical text was written or spoken. Therefore it offers insight that can help with independent contextual interpretation without dictating modern belief or behavior for the reader. The NIV (New International Version) is a functional—or what is called a dynamic equivalent—translation, which means it mediates between literal word-for-word translation and paraphrase.
- The NIV/CBT site provides a good example of how a translation committee is defined. Do not miss the arrival of a very unique American English translation called The Voice Bible (can be found at HearTheVoice.com). It attempts to make the Bible accessible to the current generation by taking a more artistic and theatrical approach (through an interdenominational team of artists and scholars) so that the Bible becomes more readable as a story. As an illustration of the importance of meaning-based translation, controversy surrounded the translation of “Jesus the Christ” as “Jesus the Anointed One.” “Christ” comes from the Greek word Christos but it means “anointed one” and relates to the Hebrew word meshiach (“messiah” in English letters, but “anointed one” when translated).
- See Bruce M. Metzger, “Theories of the Translation Process,” Bibliotheca Sacra 150: 598 (1993): 140-150, available at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_trans_metzger2.html, accessed July 1, 2013.
- See Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Literalism When It Comes to Translation,” Patheos, November 5, 2012, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/11/05/the-problem-with-literalism-when-it-comes-to-translation/, accessed July 1, 2013.
- The meaning-for-meaning approach to translation is called “dynamic equivalency.” The word-for-word approach is called “formal equivalency.” A popular formal equivalency translation today would be the English Standard Version (ESV), while a popular dynamic equivalency translation would be the New International Version (NIV)—though some literalists would consider it a paraphrase. Technically speaking, paraphrased Bibles such as The Message or The Living Bible are not translations, though they are often called translations.
- I say this even though I have contributed commentary to a published study Bible.
- Interpreters sometimes distinguish between the original or historic meaning of a Bible passage (what it meant) and the current application of it (what it means).
- Websites like YouVersion.com or BibleGateway.com offer full-text versions of all major Bible translations.
- For further reading, see D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979); Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2007); and Jack Lewis, English Bible from KJV to NIV, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991).
- Photo Credit: maradonna 8888 / Shutterstock.com.