The Bible Translation Maze
For nearly four centuries, English-speaking Christians read from a common translation of the Bible, the King James Version (KJV). Today there are over twenty-five English language translations of the Bible. This loss of a common Bible hinders memorization and results in confusion when Scripture is read publically.
Which translation is the best? While most long-term Bible readers have settled that question for themselves, those new to the Bible are often perplexed about which translation to choose.
Why don’t we all just stick to the King James Version as Christians did for four centuries? The reason is that the English language has changed since 1611, the year the King James Version was completed. While the KJV does combine accuracy and literary beauty, it is also full of archaic words, obsolete idioms, and antiquated metaphors.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of some of the popular Bible translations and an explanation of my preference for the English Standard Version.
Paraphrases of the Bible include the Good News Bible, the Living Bible, and “The Message.” I do not recommend these.
Some counter, “But they are so easy to understand.” That’s true, but at too great a price. Think of it like this. Suppose a college student, Jack, spends a semester in Paris. He falls head-over-heels for a French girl named Monique. They whittle away many carefree afternoons at a sidewalk café, sipping lattes and gazing into each others’ eyes. Unfortunately, their conversation is limited to smiles and sighs, for Monique doesn’t speak a word of English and the only French Jack knows is what he learned from Pepe Le Pew cartoons. Jack’s whispering “Tu es ma belle femme skunk fatale” in Monique’s ear only elicits a puzzled smile.
The semester ends too quickly and Jack returns to Maryland. After a few days, a letter from Monique arrives in his mailbox. He runs the letter over to Mrs. Johnson, a retired French teacher who lives next door. When Jack asks her to translate the letter, Mrs. Johnson inquires, “Would you like me to paraphrase what Monique wrote or would you like a word-for-word translation? A paraphrase would be much easier for you to follow.” Indignant, Jack replies, “I would like a word-for-word translation! I want to know exactly what Monique wrote to me.” How much more should we want a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament that is a literal rendering of what God has written to us.
Dynamic Equivalence Translations
A second category of translations is known as dynamic equivalence translations. These are much more accurate than paraphrases. These translations attempt to faithfully convey the ideas of the original-language text in clear, readable English. The words and the word-orders do not exactly correspond to the Hebrew or Greek texts. Rather, translators seek to translate the concept conveyed by the Greek or Hebrew into its English dynamic equivalent.
The widely-used New International Version is a dynamic equivalent translation. The problem with dynamic equivalence translations is that they too, though to a lesser degree, sacrifice accuracy for readability. Key words and phrases in the NIV are changed to make them easier to understand. For example, the NIV translators changed “The Lord of Hosts” to “the Lord Almighty.” They replaced the word “propitiation”, an important word with a precise meaning, with the more general word “atonement.” They changed “watch how you walk” to “watch how you live.” In making these changes, the translators have changed the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew texts.
Leland Ryken explains, “Thought depends on words, and when we change the words, we change the thought….The fallacy committed by the translators of dynamic equivalent versions is that there is no such thing as disembodied thought, emancipated from words. Ideas and thoughts depend on words and are expressed by them” (Ryken, The Word of God In English, pp. 31, 79-80).
If you want a literal, almost word-for-word translation of the Bible, then you should read the New American Standard Bible. The liability of the NAS is that you cannot translate from one language to another in a word-for-word manner without producing a translation that is wooden, awkward, and difficult to read.
Essentially Literal Translations
An essentially literal translation is, Leland Ryken writes, “a translation that strives to translate the exact words of the original-language text in a translation, but not in such a rigid way as to violate the normal rules of language and syntax” (Ryken, p. 19).
The English Standard Version is an essentially literal translation. Like the New American Standard Version, it is accurate. Like the New International Version, it is readable. Like the King James Version, another essentially literal translation, it is of high literary quality.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702