Ah, the age-old question. I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve been asked this. And it really is a good question, because there is a plethora of Bible translations out there and not all are created equal.
There are a lot of good websites and blog posts that introduce the different Bible translations and translation philosophies, and at the risk of being just another drop in the pond I still want to add my two cents here (for what it’s worth). Because I really do think picking a translation is an important step for a growing believer. Also, understanding the different translation types is essential for doing theology and ministry well in the local church.
Not All Translations Are Created Equal
First things first: the most important thing to get straight right off the bat is the difference between direct translations and paraphrase translations. I find it alarming when publishers market Bible paraphrases as if they were straightforward translations, which is misleading.
A direct translation attempts to render the biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, & Greek) into English in a way that preserves the original meaning and, to a degree, the original style. In other words, the goal is to capture something of how the original readers of Scripture would have understood it (as best as we can tell). This can be in a word-for-word or thought-for-thought style.
Some word-for-word translations:
Some thought-for-thought translations:
Both of these translation types try to present the original meaning of the text; it’s just that the former focuses on the meaning of the words and the latter focuses on the ideas and figures of speech. Both can still be considered “literal,” because they try to preserve the original meaning of the text – we just have different ways of doing that.
A paraphrase, on the other hand, REWORDS the meaning of the original language in different English idioms. The most famous example of this is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Another recent paraphrase (which unfortunately is marketed as a translation) is “The Passion Translation,” which inserts Pentecostal phraseology into Scripture.
Paraphrases are usually well-intentioned attempts to make the text more “readable” to a contemporary audience, but in doing so they are much more interpretive and therefore should not be your primary Bible for study or teaching. Paraphrases are more on the level of Bible commentaries or devotionals – they can be helpful interpretive tools (if they’re done well). But direct translations should be given pride-of-place for serious reading and study.
An Example of Translation Differences
Now, all translations – without exception – are an interpretation, because English is simply not the same thing as Hebrew or Greek, and there are always nuances of the original language that can’t quite be captured in English. For example, the Hebrew term hesed is especially notorious – English translations have struggled to convey this rich, ancient concept with such wording as “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “loyal love,” “covenant faithfulness,” etc.
But a good translation should:
1) Be faithful to the original text, and
2) Be consistent in how it translates words or ideas. This is important because it helps readers pick up on places where later Scripture references earlier Scripture.
Let me give one example. Let’s look at Psalm 2, a very important passage for understanding the role of the Messiah (God’s anointed king of the Jews).
In a direct, word-for-word translation like the ESV, Psalm 2:7-9 reads like this:
“I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.'”
Pretty straightforward, although terms like “begotten” and “heritage” may seem a bit obscure.
Now compare a direct thought-for-thought translation like the NLT. Notice how it tells us who is speaking the decree (the king), which is an interpretation based on the context, but it’s still technically capturing the original meaning and it helps the reader understand the thought of the passage:
“The king proclaims the LORD’s decree:
‘The LORD said to me, “You are my son.
Today I have become your Father.
Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
the whole earth as your possession.
You will break them with an iron rod
and smash them like clay pots.”‘”
The NLT probably feels a little less wooden than the ESV, but it conveys basically the same content.
Now compare a paraphrased version, in this case The Message version, of Psalm 2:7-9:
“Let me tell you what GOD said next.
He said, ‘You’re my son,
And today is your birthday.
What do you want? Name it:
Nations as a present? continents as a prize?
You can command them all to dance for you,
Or throw them out with tomorrow’s trash.'”
A couple of reasons why this version is not an ideal representation of the original meaning:
1) The direct translations convey the Hebrew emphasis on God’s action in “begetting” or fathering the king; the emphasis is on their special relationship. The Message paraphrases this with the modern idea of a birthday. Not exactly the same thing.
2) While the direct translations say that the king will break the nations with “an iron rod,” The Message has a vague reference to throwing out the nations with the trash. I bring this up because the image of God’s chosen king wielding an iron rod over the nations is echoed in the New Testament (for example, see Revelation 19:15). Readers of The Message will totally miss this literary connection that ties Jesus back to this Old Testament prophecy. This is why I said it’s important for a translation to have consistency, so we can see these connections.
Phew! This has been a lot of technical discussion, but I hope by now you see the value of choosing a translation that faithfully presents the original text. But we still haven’t answered the question: which direct translation should I read?
And the short answer is, the one that you’re most likely to actually read (and understand)!
It’s true that there is no one perfect translation, but most mainstream English translations do a good job conveying the meaning of Scripture. One of the best things to do when studying the Bible is to compare a variety of translations and see where different nuances or interpretations are possible.
A good translation is faithful to the original text and consistent in how it translates words and ideas.
So Are You Gonna Recommend One or What?
For me personally, I love versions that lean a bit more toward the word-for-word side when I’m doing serious study. But I also like to supplement them with more readable translations if I’m going through large chunks of Bible in one sitting.
The version I’ve been enjoying the most lately is the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) – I find that it strikes an excellent balance between readability and accuracy. I used to swear by the ESV as being the most accurate, but lately I’ve come across some translation choices in it that are a bit clumsy or archaic. The CSB is now the first version I reach for.
Many people I’ve talked to also enjoy using the NLT for its readability, and the ever-popular NIV is also not a bad choice. The NET (or New English Translation), is another very reader-friendly thought-for-thought version. The NASB is decent for study, but I find that it is not very readable English.
I do tend to steer away from the KJV and NKJV, despite their status as classic versions, and for one simple reason: these do not reflect the best or most reliable traditions of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. The KJV & NKJV rely more on later, medieval manuscripts which include verses that were added in later and are not in the oldest manuscripts (for example, the Trinitarian phrase in 1 John 5:7, which many scholars agree is a later addition to the text). Therefore, these versions are not as accurate.
So there you have it. Sorry this post was so long, but this is a topic where a lot of clarification is necessary. Thanks for sticking with me.
Let me know what you think – was this discussion of translations helpful for you? Which translation do you use most?