Bible Translations: Best vs. Useful
Wherever there are people there are differences of opinion. Friendly debates are had (in person and online) about sports teams, cars, diets, and so on. These kinds of arguments don’t really matter all that much (unless you’re talking about the Vikings current Quarterback situation).
When it comes to Bible translations, similar differences of opinion arise—but these differences of opinion carry far greater significance. Most Christians have a favorite translation of the Bible, and any suggestion to deviate from that translation would likely be met with hesitation, if not outright resistance. That response is not necessarily bad, but it could be misguided. In coming to favor or love a particular translation, especially after years of memorizing, reading, and studying from that translation, many conclude that their translation is the best translation. All others are bad.
When we approach Bible translations we must avoid the tendency to declare one translation to be the best. In his recent book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, Mark Ward argues, “English speakers are looking for the wrong thing when we look for best. We need to look instead for useful” (Ward, 127). Instead of trying to find the best translation—one that we will use in every situation—we should be determining which translations are the most useful in differing situations.
For instance, using the same translation for your personal study and for your evangelism efforts may not be advantageous. Imagine that you are trying to share the gospel with someone who is learning English as a second or third language. The KJV or the NASB may not be the most useful for that encounter. Perhaps the NIV or the NLT would be easier for that individual to understand—more useful.
Ward goes on to argue, “We need to ask: Which English Bible translations are useful for preaching? Which are useful for evangelism? Which are useful for reading through in a year? Which are conducive to close study? How about for reading to kids? For memorization? We can even get very specific in our search for useful. Which English translation is most useful for evangelizing this person I just met? Which one is most useful for reading through this year, given that I just read a more formal or more paraphrastic version last year?” (Ward, 127).
In order to determine which translations will be useful for differing situations, we must understand the spectrum of Bible translations. Every translation falls somewhere between two general categories: formal equivalence (a focus on form) and functional equivalence (a focus on meaning). Each category has inherent strengths and weaknesses, but these strengths and weaknesses have more of an impact on usefulness than on quality.
Translations in this category are frequently referred to as literal, or word-for-word translations. While they are not strictly word-for-word, they do seek to prioritize the form of the original languages into the English translation. A formally equivalent translation generally seeks to translate the same Hebrew or Greek word(s) with the same English word(s). This style of translation generally retains the original terms for weights and measurements, original metaphors, and follows Hebrew and Greek grammar and syntax.
An obvious strength of a more formally equivalent translation is that the translators make interpretive decisions less frequently. Ambiguous and difficult passages are translated more literally, instead of being smoothed out for readability and help in interpretation. Of course, this also means that formally equivalent translations are more difficult to read. Translations that fall into this category include the KJV, NASB, ESV, and CSB.
When picking a translation for careful study, formally equivalent translations will be the most helpful. Although they will be more difficult to read, you will be able to work through difficult interpretive decisions, recognize literary markers, and follow logical arguments more accurately. Churches will generally pick a translation in this category for preaching and teaching so that the word can be studied and explained carefully and thoroughly.
Translations in this category are sometimes referred to as thought-for-thought translations because they focus more on the meaning of a text than on the wording or the form of the text. This style of translation tends to be more readable because it reflects more modern English grammar conventions and word usage. More interpretive decisions are made and ambiguous and difficult passages are clarified and simplified. Translations that fall into this category include the NIV, NLT, and NET. Both the NLT and NET include helpful footnotes that include more literal renderings of phrases that are translated in an especially functional way.
When picking a translation for general reading (such as for a yearly Bible reading plan), functionally equivalent translations prove helpful. If you read through a more formally equivalent translation last year, you might consider reading a more functionally equivalent translation this year, and vice versa. This style of translation may also be more useful for reading with your children, or with people who are unfamiliar with the Bible.
While much more could be said about Bible translations regarding both philosophy and practice, here are a few practical tips for utilizing the wealth of Bible translations that are available to us:
- Read the preface and translator’s notes at the front of the Bible. These notes will help you to know where the translation falls on the equivalence spectrum. These notes often include information relating to translation philosophy, translation issues, textual footnotes, and even information about the people involved in the translation committee.
- Pick a primary translation that you use for careful study and for memorization. There’s nothing wrong with having a go-to translation; in fact, it will probably aid in memory and study.
- Regularly compare multiple translations in your Bible study. While you may have a go-to translation, pull out other translations to read alongside it. This can be done easily with free Bible apps and websites.
- Use different translations for different purposes. Try to determine which translation will be the most useful for studying the Bible with your next door neighbor, for reading to your children, or for evangelizing that person you just met. Consider which translation will be most useful for incorporating God’s word into every aspect of your life.
- If you have questions about a translation, ask someone! If you aren’t familiar with a translation, ask a pastor or someone you trust. While there are many excellent translations, there are translations that are not faithful or true (e.g. the New World Translation, made popular by the Jehovah’s Witnesses).
- Thank God regularly for the abundance of Bible translations that are available. Translating the Bible takes hard work and extensive education. Thank God for the people he has gifted with language skills, education, and the desire to translate his word.
May God bless you as you seek to know him through his word.
Bible Translation Abbreviations Key:
KJV – Kings James Version
ESV – English Standard Version
NIV – New International Version
CSB – Christian Standard Bible
NLT – New Living Translation
NASB – New American Standard Bible
NET – New English Translation