Choosing A Bible Translation
Christian Research Institute
(with updated comments from CRI since its original writing)
Translations! It seems that there are hundreds around today! So how do you choose the right one?
here’s some good news! To discern which Bible translation is going to be most reliable, all you need
is to use some common sense. To begin with, you should realize that translations vary in purpose and
style (as well as, of course, in quality). Some translations are written so that children and others
with a limited vocabulary can easily understand them — others are written for serious adult students
of the Bible. Some are fairly literal (word-forward translations), while others are very loose paraphrases.
And you don’t have to know the original languages to be able to tell the difference. You see, most
translations really do have their place.
However, you need to be wary as to
which make sensationalistic claims for themselves — for example, saying that theirs is the only unbiased
translation. Also be wary of translations that were sponsored by a religious group that claims to be
the only true church. They’re generally pretty shoddy and they can’t help slipping in their own aberrant
teachings. Translations by committees — especially large, inter-denominational committees — are generally
more likely to be trustworthy than those done by one or two men. This is particularly true because
it is indeed difficult for any one person to be an expert on both the Old and New Testaments. Stick
with Bible translations which are produced by people who accept the whole Bible as the inspired word
of God. You can bet that biblical scholars who don’t think the Bible is inspired, and don’t think it’s
the Word of God, tend to take undue liberties with the text.
All other things being equal, translations
in contemporary English are clearer than translation in Old King James English. On the other hand,
newer isn’t necessarily better.
If you follow the above guidelines, I think you’re going to find out that the best English translations of the Bible are the New American Standard and the New International Version. The King James Version, as I said, uses somewhat archaic English, but otherwise it’s still the masterpiece.
There are several questions one should examine in selecting a version of the Bible to use or give away. Here are a few of them:
1) How do I intend to use it?
For deeper study, fast reading, devotional reading or some combination? A version for broader reading and certain memory work should be in a vocabulary and style you are comfortable with and understand easily. Using at least two translations (one for study, one for other purposes) brings best growth and understanding for most people. The study Bible should be more literal to the details and actual form of the original, perhaps with notes and cross references. Consulting it and a freer translation together is a helpful method. This is because either type translation can lead to a wrong understanding of the meaning of the original. Here is how.
Any Bible version should be tested by the question "Is it faithful to the original text?" However, the question of fidelity can be divided into two parts - transfer of the meaning and of the dynamics of the original.
Experienced translators John Beekman and John Callow in their classic work, Translating the Word of God, explain that when a translation transfers the MEANING it "conveys to the reader or hearer the information that the original conveyed to its readers or hearers." When a translation conveys the DYNAMIC force of the original, it "makes a natural use of the linguistic structures of the RL (language of the translation) and...the recipients of the translation understand the message with ease." (pages 33, 44)
This does not mean there will be no ambiguous or puzzling statements at all. It does not mean that difficulty in understanding HOW something is true or how to APPLY it will be removed. The original readers had these problems as well. Translations that seek to maintain the meaning closer to the word level have more difficulty in capturing the dynamic force of the original or in using the natural expression of English (which, of course differs with time and locale, especially U.S. to Great Britain). Translations toward the idiomatic or paraphrase side do better with the dynamics, as a rule, but diminish the readers' ability to know "that's the way THEY said it (in Greek or Hebrew)," or follow the nuances of the original writers.
Special care should be taken in use of Bible versions on either extreme. Literal translations can mislead if one is unaware of the significance of elements of form (grammar, style) or idiom (unique expression) that are more like the original than English. Freer translations introduce more interpretation (although all translation demands interpretation) and sacrifice precision and consistency of renderings.
2) What was the goal of the translator(s)?
To reach a specific audience? To communicate particularly the force and impact of the original like J.B. Phillips, or to be clear and vivid like Ken Taylor [Living Bible]? Often the preface will give this and other helpful information.
3) Who did the translating?
One man, a committee, or one man with a committee checking? A committee translation is generally freer of biased theological interpretations that can corrupt a translation but it will usually sacrifice some in consistency and artistic, stylistic expression.
4) What are the credentials and background of the translator(s)?
Did he (they) have expertise in the appropriate language(s)? If done by a committee, were they from the same denomination, similar ones, or widely differing ones?
does not have to have complete answers to all of these questions before using a Bible version. In fact, some of the less dependable ones
can have positive uses
if one is aware of their deficiencies. The subject of Bible translation is a complex one and the previous questions far from
exhaust all the considerations.
The following brief summaries evaluating specific versions are very cursory, and not meant to be authoritative. The were produced by a comparison and combination of the remarks of a number of evangelical scholars, and in some cases, the personal observations of the author:
KING JAMES VERSION (1611)
Translated from the original languages by committee. Unexcelled in literary quality, although now archaic. Does not reflect the best text base on recent scholarship (some editions give explanatory notes on the text).
NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (1970)
From the original by interdenominational committee. Patterned after American Standard Version of 1901. Excellent precision in handling of verb-tenses but sometimes pedantic, awkward and lacking in style - "wooden" say many. Literalness, careful work and good notes make it one of the best study Bibles.
THE MODERN LANGUAGE BIBLE (1969)
Revision of the Berkeley Version (1945). Good balance of accuracy of meaning with plain contemporary English. Helpful notes.
JERUSALEM BIBLE [Roman Catholic]
Translated with reference to both the original and an earlier French translation by Roman Catholic committee. Forceful but not stylistically consistent or fully idiomatic English. OT text not the best. Notes are a substantial part of the work and are generally non-sectarian but should be checked.
NEW AMERICAN BIBLE [Roman Catholic]
From the original Greek (NT); revision of confraternity version (based on Latin Vulgate) in the OT. Catholic Committee consulted with Protestants in final stages. More conservative than JB but introductions to sections and to individual books "moderately liberal in tone" (Kubo and Specht, p. 164). Format differs with the publisher.
NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (NIV)
From the original, by a large interdenominational but conservative committee. Well balanced - good for study, faster reading, or public reading. Based on reliable Greek text. Somewhat inconsistent in modernizing terminology. Pleasing, very readable format (few footnotes). Many feel it will become the most used Bible of the future, especially for evangelicals.
TODAY'S ENGLISH VERSION (Good News Bible)
From the original. NT by one man, approved by committee. Aimed particularly at English - as - second - language audience and those with little formal education. Achieves its goal well - very readable, good format. Translates dynamics well but not dependable for deeper study if used by itself.
NEW ENGLISH BIBLE
From the original by interdenominational British committee. Exciting literary style, very readable but with distinct British flavor and idiom. Excellent for non-churched. Departures from the original text and too much liberty in certain renderings make it undependable as a study Bible.
REVISED STANDARD VERSION (1946)
Debatable whether more a revision of KJV or a fresh translation from the original (by committee). Probably more the latter in NT. Preserves some of KJV sound of "Bible English", but is somewhat modernized. Accused by ultra-conservatives of deliberate "liberal" bias (along with TEV and others) but has weathered the storm and is considered by some church leaders as the best all-purpose translation. Adequate, though not the best for deeper study in author's opinion.
J.B. PHILLIPS' TRANSLATION
From the original but definitely a paraphrase by J.B. Phillips, a competent Greek scholar. More than any other, makes the Bible "live" for educated or literary people, although in British expression. Does not read like a translation. Provokes new insight and understanding which should, however, be checked with more literal translations and by deeper study. Excellent for the educated, unchurched person as well as the thinking Christian.
Paraphrased essentially from the 1901 ASV by Ken Taylor but checked by Greek, Hebrew scholars. Serves similar purpose as Phillips' but reaches also to the less educated. Encourages Bible reading and helps older Christians express their faith in contemporary terms. Definitely not to be relied on for interpretations or study. Changes, sometimes significant, made between editions.
Amplified Bible done from the originals. Neither a true translation nor a paraphrase. This type version offers readers possible renderings or interpretations and can be helpful for study or deepening understanding. However, users must realize the original author had one meaning in mind, determined by context and usage in that language, not our personal preference or whim. These versions must not be substituted for responsible
**** The following is an attempt to convey a chart from this article you are reading. It looks a bit like a list, but the idea is to list the different translations in the order of from the most literal to the least literal (or paraphrase).
--Word for Word
-New American Standard
-New International Version (NIV)
-Today's English Version
containing, or denoting expressions that are natural to a native speaker]
-New English Version
SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR FURTHER STUDY
--Bruce, F.F., THE ENGLISH BIBLE. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
--Dennett, Herbert, A GUIDE TO MODERN VERSIONS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965.
--Hawthorne, G.F., HOW TO CHOOSE A BIBLE. Christianity Today, Vol. 20, December 5, 1975, pp.7-10.
--Kubo, Sakae and Walter Specht, SO MANY VERSIONS?. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975 (Paperback).
--WHICH BIBLE IS BEST FOR YOU?, Eternity. Vol. 25, April, 1974, pp.27-31.
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