We get a fair amount of questions regarding Bible translation. Sometimes those questions are about the reliability of the translations, and how we can have confidence in our translations. But that involves something called “Textual Criticism” which is going to require its own episode altogether. The most common question is, “Which one is the best translation?” In other words, what the most accurate translation, or which should I use. It’s typically asked because people want to make certain they’ve got the most reliable Bible in their hands.
So on the surface, it’s a very reasonable question to ask, and you’re probably going to get all kinds of responses, depending upon the person that you’re asking. But the problem with the question, however, is that it assumes too little. There’s a whole that goes into Bible translation, and there’s reason for why so many translations exist. Having said that, I would argue that there’s some translations that are completely unhelpful, and that people should just stay away from, but I’m not certain I can say that there’s actually a “best” translation.
In order to answer the question well, we’re going to take some time to talk about something called “translation theory.” And translation theory is the idea that there’s actually a purpose (or a goal) behind why certain decisions are made by various translation committees.In other words, they have certain target audiences in mind, and that, then, is going to dictate how (and why) they choose to translate as they do. Now some of those reasons are good, some are bad, and others just plain annoying. Nevertheless, there’s typically a reason governing why a certain translation has come about.
When it comes to Bible translation, all translations fall somewhere within a spectrum. On the left, you have wooded literal translation (aka “formal equivalency”). This is going to be a more word-for-word translation. It’s also going to work hard at keeping the original structure (and word order) as much as possible.
Strengths of this approach:
Help capture metaphors, verbal allusions, and ambiguities.It also helps the reader know the underlying word behind the English Word (e.g., NASB).
This is important for those who don’t know the original languages, but are interested in doing rigorous Bible study. Also, all translation implies interpretation. There’s no such thing as a translator who doesn’t interpret. By the very definition of what you’re doing in translation, you’re always interpreting at some level. So the more formal equivalency you have, the more the translators are leaving the interpretation up to the reader. This is why these are the better choice for those who want to do serious Bible study.
So the higher the formal equivalency, the better for rigorous Bible study and exegesis.
If you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, but want to do in depth word studies, or structural studies, or tracing out the style of an author’s writing, these would be your choice. They’re always the best for the careful Bible reader.
Can be incredibly clunky to read, and even awkward for people not having any kind bible background (or literacy).
Can create obscurity, and sometimes even ambiguity, because it tries to keep the original structure of the original language Greek and Hebrew have a different word order than English, so when the English tries to maintain the original word order, it can create ambiguity. Anyone who’s had to learn a new language understands the confusion that something like word order can sometimes create.
Examples: NET, NASB, ESV, REV, KJV.
On the right, you have looser translations (aka “functional equivalency,” or “dynamic equivalency”). The further right you move on the spectrum, the less word-for-word it will be, and the more thought-for-thought it will be. They’re not trying to capture the langue the author’s used, (or even the structure, and order with which he writes), but rather convey the idea of the author. They’re attempting to recreate the author’s thought, so that the reader can think the author’s thought after them. The extreme right will simply be paraphrases.
Very natural to read. It’s in the modern vernacular (that is, spoken language of the reader), so comprehension will be high.
Seeks to remove antiquated language (e.g., Ebenezer, paraclete).
As we said, all translation implies interpretation. So the more functional (or loose) you make the translation, then more interpretation the translation will have. So while it might be more understandable to the reader (and their comprehension might be higher), they’re simply better comprehending a translator’s interpretation of the text, not necessarily the text itself.
So a local pastor once told me He preaches from NLT (which is a very loose translation, and essentially a paraphrase). And the reason for this, is because he said it’s much more understandable for his people. So while that might be the case, and it might be more understandable, the question the pastor is failing to ask: is what actually is it, that’s more understandable …? The meaning of Scripture itself? Or the translator’s interpretation of the meaning of Sciprture?
So since the NLT’s essentially a paraphrased interpretation, all they’re better understanding is a person’s interpretation, not necessarily the text of Scripture itself. And the NLT is sometimes embarrassingly wrong.
A sense of NLT philosophy:
It uses highly emotive language, especially with respect to God. This tend to paint God in a certain light. Personally, I think this is why reverence for God is at an all-time low. He’s not seen as Lord, but this romantic lover of your soul. The emotive language tends to fall on the side of God’s graciousness, not things like His justice. So it’s not a fair balance, and truly biblical view of God.
It has an Arminian bent. Which again, if you’re an Arminian that’s fine, but that’s a theological interpretation, not translation. It also bows the knee to political correctness and the feminist movement. It’s utilizing neutral pronouns. So instead of “men” it will say “people,” ignoring the fact God providentially chose to write the Bible when He did (and within the cultures that He did). And so times in which only “men” is should be understood they insert “people,” which of course strips it of its original meaning and intent.
All that to say, while it might be easier to comprehend, I’d submit you’re not actually comprehending the fullness of what God intended. Rather you’re simply comprehending a person’s interpretation of what God intended.
So while the intentions of these translation committees are perhaps good, I’d say that the extremely “functional translations” are of little value, unless you’re dealing with an extremely illiterate person. However, the more that a person grows in their faith, and the more they want to dig into the Scriptures, the less helpful things like the NLT will be. In fact, I’d argue at some point they’re actually harmful.
Examples: The Message (extreme right), The Living Bible, The Contemporary English Version, Good News Translation, New Living Translation.
In the middle of the spectrum, you’ll have translations that seek to try and strike a balance.
Examples: TNIV, NIV, New Jerusalem Bible, New Century Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible (halfway between left and middle).
These are okay for simple Bible reading.Some of them remove key, important words for good bible study (i.e., Therefore, For, so that, etc.). Some have theological presuppositions that come through. Some also translate with neutral pronouns, again, striping the meaning (and intended audience) of some passage.
We wouldn’t say there’s a “best” translation, but depending on what you’re trying to do, there’s probably a “better” translation.For serious Bible students, you’ll want more formal equivalency (e.g., NET, NASB). For unbelievers (or new Christians), somewhere in the middle would be fine, simply for the purpose of readability (HCSB, TNIV).
The more you grow in your knowledge, the more you should be moving left on the equivalency spectrum. The assumption here, is you’re wanting to do slower, more detailed study of the Scripture. You’ll want a translation that’s less reflective of a translator’s interpretation (and theological bents). The less interpretation, the more you’re free to pursue your own study of the text.
Expositional/Exegetical preachers, should stay on the left of the spectrum.If you’re simply doing topic messages, then quite frankly, it doesn’t matter which translation you’re using because a clear explanation of the meaning of the text isn’t your goal. You’re simply preaching for application.
But if your goal is to simply explain the text, and lay out the meaning before the eyes of the people, then the a more word-for-word is what you’ll want. The reason for this is you’re not just wanting people to assume your right. Rather, you’re attempting to show the meaning from the text itself. So this requires you to show the flow of thought, and flow of an argument. You’ll be pointing out key words that determine the meaning of the text (i.e., For, therefore, so that, in order that, etc.). You’ll be making a bid deal of certain words (or key propositions), and so you’ll want those to be actually present in the text. If the meaning of your text hangs on the presence of something like a conjunction (or a preposition), but it’s been removed, then you’re only going to confuse the people.
You’ll spend more time trying to explain why it’s not in the text, then you will be just explaining the text. So a faithful preacher, typically want the people looking down at the text, so that they come to the same conclusion as you, but based on the text itself. A good preacher never just wants the people to simply swallow what they’re saying.
For basic bible reading plans, we’d recommend changing up your version each year. Again, this will determine where you are in terms of your bible knowledge. If you’re newer to the faith, stay somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for the first year or two. As your bible knowledge grows, move further to the left, and use a different translation from the left of the spectrum. The more skilled you become with the Scriptures, then the more you’ll have trained your eyes to read the Bible a certain way.
So you can read a more “rigid” translation, but you’ll actually read it quicker, and actually get more out of it. We can look at a text and almost immediately diagram it. But if I’m reading through the NLT (or even NIV), I have no confidence that I’m actually diagraming it correctly.
The ultimate conclusion, though (for the serious student), is just skip all this, and simply learn Greek and Hebrew. Learn grammar, and go the original. There’s a wealth of value in the original languages, mostly because it forces you to slow down is see all that’s there. This should especially be true for those who desire to preach and teach.Luther said, that if we lose the languages, we lose the Gospel.
“In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone–the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others….
We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments….
For this reason even the apostles themselves considered it necessary to set down the New Testament and hold it fast in the Greek language, doubtless in order to preserve it for us there safe and sound as in a sacred ark. For they foresaw all that was to come, and now has come to pass; they knew that if it was left exclusively to men’s memory, wild and fearful disorder and confusion and a host of varied interpretations, fancies, and doctrines would arise in the Christian church, and that this could not be prevented and the simple folk protected unless the New Testament were set down with certainty in written language. Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish….”
Recommended Reading:How to choose a Translation for All It’s Worth (Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss).