My Thoughts on the State of English Bible Translations (Part 1)
I have been studying and researching the issue of English Bible translations lately, and I want to take the time to lay out some of the thoughts that have been going through my mind of late. I want to emphasize that these are my thoughts. What I am about to share is the preliminary state of my thinking on this issue. My mind is not settled on this topic yet, but I do have some strong leanings and I feel ready to present some of my findings on this topic.
Before we begin, this was not prompted by a particular question that was presented to me, so in a sense this is unsolicited. But I also can’t imagine some of the questions I’m going to address aren’t questions that every Christian who has lived in the English speaking world (particularly in America) has had from time to time. Questions such as:
- Why are there so many English translations of the Bible?
- Which English translation is “the best?”
- Which English translation is “the most accurate?”
- Does it really matter which translation of the Bible I read?
- Should I read the same translation as my church? My pastor?
- Is there any value in reading multiple English translations?
I’m going to attempt to answer these questions over the series of multiple posts (how many posts is yet to be determined). The first thing I want to say is this: Whichever translation gets you reading the Bible is a good translation. I heard someone say this on a YouTube video, and I thought it was a great statement. While I do believe there are objectively better and worse translations of the Bible in English, all of them (for the most part) are good enough to lead a person to salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. All of them (for the most part) are edifying to read and meditate upon.
It’s sort of like the same thing with food. If you’re hungry, anything edible is sufficient to satisfy that hunger. But if you’re trying to eat healthy, you will avoid certain foods and gravitate toward others because nutritionally some foods are better than others. Another silly example: If you’re trying to lose weight, you’re not going to eat a diet of ice cream and cake. While pretty much any Bible is a good Bible to read, some are better for serious study than others. Some are easier to read than others. Some are easier to understand than others. These are the questions (among others) that fuel the recent “explosion” of modern English translations.
Let’s start with the idea of translation philosophy. Looking into the subject of translation philosophy will help us deal with a couple of the questions we listed above. When it comes to Bible translation philosophy, there are really only two translation philosophies of which to speak: (1) Formal Equivalence; and (2) Functional Equivalence. Formal Equivalence is method of translation that seeks to translate a word in the source language into its closest equivalent in the receptor language. In common parlance, Formal Equivalence is also known as “word-for-word” translation. Now when I say “word-for-word,” we need to understand that there is never a perfect one-for-one correspondence between any two languages. Anyone who speaks a foreign language knows that you never translate in a “woodenly literal” manner. Formal Equivalence seeks to make its translation a literal as possible.
The other translation philosophy is Functional Equivalence. A translation that employs Functional Equivalence seeks to translate the thoughts and concepts of the source language into equivalent thoughts and concepts in the receptor language. Another way of describing this translation philosophy is to call it a “thought-for-thought” translation. Functional Equivalence understands the dilemma of translation, so it seeks to take the meaning of the words of the source language and translate them in such a way that the meaning is preserved in the receptor language.
When people ask the question “which Bible translation is the best,” or “which Bible translation is most accurate,” the issue of translation philosophy plays a big part, so which translation philosophy leads to the best and most accurate Bible? Before I answer that question, the Bible has something to say on this subject:
- Psalms 12:6 (NKJV) The words of the LORD [are] pure words, [Like] silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times.
- Isaiah 40:8 (NKJV) The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.”
- Matthew 5:18 (NKJV) “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
- Matthew 24:35 (NKJV) “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
These verses, among others that could have been chosen, place an emphasis on God’s words. Words are important to the Lord. When God inspired the Bible writers to write the Scriptures, He didn’t inspire thoughts, He inspired words. As such, it is the words of God that are important. Thus, in my opinion, the best Bibles are those that utilize the translation philosophy of Formal Equivalence, not Functional Equivalence. For my own personal study and edification, I want a translation of the Bible that gets me as close to the words of God as possible in English. Functional Equivalent translations (i.e., “thought-for-thought”) are not bad translations, but again, in my opinion, they’re not the best nor are they the most accurate.
So which of the many English Bible translations on the market use Formal Equivalence and which employ Functional Equivalence? I’m not going to be able to list every English Bible translation, but I will list the most common and popular ones on the market today:
- Formal Equivalent Translations: King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV),
- Functional Equivalent Translations: Christian Standard Bible (CSB), New International Version (NIV), New Living Translation (NLT)
- Paraphrases (These are translations that are usually done by one man and are, as the name suggests, loose paraphrases of the original languages. As such I do not recommend these Bibles): Contemporary English Version (CEV), Good News Translation (GNT), The Message (MSG)
As a pastor, I would recommend any of the Bible translations in the first group. The Bibles in the second group I wouldn’t necessarily steer anyone away from them, but I would strongly encourage them to get a Bible in the first group. For anyone interested in digging deeper in their personal study, I would recommend cross referencing several Bible translations. There are many free apps or websites that allow you to parallel two or more Bible translations to see how different translators translate the same verse(s).
I’ll leave it here for now. In the next post we’ll tackle the “which translation is best” question from a different angle as well as look at the question “does it really matter which translation of the Bible I read?” Until then, keep reading your Bible!