Different Bible Translations
With popular versions these days including the NIV, the NLT, the NKJV, NRSV and ESV, the NCV and the NET, it’s not quite as easy as ABC to get your head around the many different Bible translations that exist today. (Unless it’s The Message, which has managed not to suffer the same fate of acronymisation.)
The Bible consists of 66 books in three ancient languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Unless you happened to study all of these languages, they’ll need to be translated for you, and that’s where the many different Bible versions come in.
After a few pioneering English translations between 1300-1600, the famous King James Version set a high watermark with publication in 1611, and remained the standard in the English speaking world for a few hundred years.
The language shifted and changed, though, presenting a need to update the translation of the Bible. Add to this the discovery of older (ie. more reliable) manuscripts in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it increasingly became the project of academic departments, publishers and churches alike to seek fresh, and often more readable, translations. More new translations were seen in the second half of the 20th century alone than had perhaps been produced at any other time in the English-speaking world.
With a multiplicity of translations comes the need to understand their different aims. Why is one translation different from another?
There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to take when translating into English from ancient languages (or from any language):
- 1. To literally translate, word-for-word, exactly what the text says, with perhaps only a bit of rearrangement of the words so that they make sense in English. This is what is known as a ‘literal’, or ‘formally equivalent’ translation. Examples in use today would be the NASB (favoured by Roger Forster and others), the NKJV, the NRSV or the ESV.
- 2. To translate the meaning of the phrases, sentences and paragraphs of the original text, trying to get the correct meaning out of a phrase, employing different words in English if necessary. Less focus is placed on translating each individual word; what’s important is that the reader understands the meaning that the original writer intended. This is what is known as a ‘dynamic’ or ‘dynamically equivalent’ translation. Examples in use today would be The Message, the NLT, the NCV or the GNB (Good News Bible).
There are, of course, the cons as well as the pros on each side. In the case of literal translations, they are often found to be clunky and difficult to read; their language can easily sound archaic, and it can be possible to lose or not understand the sense of a phrase which has been transliterated.
In the case of dynamic translations, readability is traded off against reliability: much of the time, what you might be getting is the translator’s interpretation of the text, which obscures other possible meanings that could be there if you knew what the literal rendering would say.
Other translations fall somewhere in the middle, such as the popular NIV or the increasingly popular NET (an online translation with many excellent translators’ notes). This is because they see value in both approaches, and want to achieve a healthy middle ground in conveying the original text into English. Surely these are the best ones to go for, you might say! I certainly think the NET has some significant value. But sometimes these translations can end up falling off the fence they’re sitting on, rather than being strong for holding the ‘middle ground’! Really they should just be another tool in your box for studying the Bible.
So which Bible version should I read?
If you want a fresh approach to the Bible, to help you engage with and enjoy the meaning of a passage, try reading it in a dynamically equivalent translation. But if you want to study a passage in greater depth, think about the meaning of specific words and phrases, and perhaps look up where else those words and phrases occur in the Bible, try one of the more literal translations. Both kinds are good, but it is helpful to know which approach is being taken by the translation you’re reading.