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 has resulted in all kinds of confusion.
When I read the English Standard Version (ESV) from our pulpit, congregants have on their laps the ESV, the New International Version (NIV), the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), or the New American Standard Version (NAS).
This cornucopia of translations also hinders memorization. You may be trying to memorize
Romans 8:28 from your NIV Bible, the pastor recites it from the ESV, and your Sunday school
teacher quotes it from the NAS. Aargh!
Which translation is the best? While most long-term Bible readers have settled that question for themselves, choosing a Bible translation is often perplexing to new Christians.
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 combines accuracy and literary beauty, it is also full of archaic words, obsolete idioms, and antiquated metaphors.
Here is an overview of the popular Bible translations and the reasons that I prefer the English
Paraphrases of the Bible include the Good News Bible, the Living Bible, and “The Message.”
Don’t waste your time with these.
Some counter, “But they are so easy to understand.” Yes, 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 carefree afternoons at a sidewalk
café, sipping lattes and gazing into each other’s eyes. Unfortunately, their conversation is
limited to smiles and sighs, for Monique speaks not 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 Frederick. A week later a letter from
Monique arrives in Jack’s 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 answers, “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 text in clear, readable English. The words and the word-orders do not
exactly correspond to the Hebrew or Greek originals. Rather, translators seek to translate the Greek or Hebrew into its English dynamic equivalent. For example, ancients regarded the
kidneys as the seat of the personality; we regard the heart to be the seat of the personality.
The 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 original Greek and
For years I used the NIV. In justifying its use, I would say, “Words are merely the building
blocks of concepts. What matters is getting the concept across from Greek to English.” I was
sorely mistaken. In his book, The Word of God in English, Leland Ryken corrected me:
“Thought depends on words, and when we change the words, we change the thought” (p. 31). The translators of dynamic equivalent versions are “committed to translating what they interpret the meaning of the original to be instead of first of all preserving the language of the original….The fallacy of thinking that a translation should translate the meaning rather than the words of the original is simple: There is no such thing as disembodied thought, emancipated from words. Ideas and thoughts depend on words and are expressed by them” (pp. 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 and clunky.
Essentially Literal Translations
English professor Leland Ryken explains that an essentially literal translation is “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.”
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.
The ESV is not an entirely new translation but rather an updating and improvement of
translations that preceded it. Paul Winters writes, “In the tradition of English translations, there has been an unbroken chain of dependency. The King James Version was based largely on the work of William Tyndale who translated the first English version in 1525. In turn, both the American Standard Version (1901) and the RSV [Revised Standard Version] were based upon the KJV. Now, the ESV translators have made it clear that their work respects and carefully considers the work of these translations as well, thus establishing itself in a rich tradition that goes back to Tyndale.”
Finally, a word about study Bibles. These are Bibles with explanatory footnotes. My preference is the Reformation Study Bible. It comes in the English Standard Version and the New King James Version. Its notes are trustworthy and are consistent with our theology. Also good are the NIV Study Bible and the ESV Study Bible. But the ESV Study Bible, at 2,750 pages, is cumbersome to carry.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702