Have you ever wondered “what Bible translation should I use?” or “why are there so many different translations of the Bible?” If you have then keep reading!
Why do we have translations?
Originally the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic. If you start looking for a Bible to read–online, in a library or bookstore–you will discover there are all sorts of English translations. How do you know which one to pick?
Until the twentieth century, there was only one main English translation, the King James or Authorized, version.
Why, then, have so many different translations come into use more recently?
There are two main reasons.
One is that language–any language–is changing all the time. Just after the first version of the New International Version was published in 1978 the movie Aliens was released. The “Aliens” were from outer space, and the meaning of the word “alien” changed overnight. Before the movie, “alien” just meant “foreigner.” The NIV replaced the word “alien” with “foreigner.”
Finding New Original Manuscripts
The other is that we are continually finding new material as archaeology turns up new manuscripts. Mostly these are tiny scraps of papyrus in Egypt, but together they add up to a substantial collection. Very occasionally a large number are discovered, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Israel. As scholars piece together and evaluate the accuracy of these finds, we arrive at a text that is closer to the original manuscripts.
Translators into English work with two main purposes in mind; to give the reader the closest access to the original text, while at the same time providing something that reads like clear contemporary English. A literal translation is as far as possible word-for-word. But sometimes a literal translation doesn’t make sense in English, in which case the translator will aim for a “dynamic equivalent” or something that will give the same sense.
Translators into English work with two main purposes in mind; to give the reader the closest access to the original text, while at the same time providing something that reads like clear contemporary English.Annabel Robinson
A Practical Example
Let’s look at how this plays out in practice. Look at the first few words in Acts 20:7. The NIV and nearly every other translation say “On the first day of the week.” But the original Greek doesn’t say this. It says, literally, “on one of the sabbaths.” Why then do all the translations translate it as they do?
Three reasons. The first is that the word “sabbath” was used to mean “week.”
(Diversion for a minute: ancient Romans didn’t have weeks. Can you imagine life without ever a weekend? The best they could do was to look forward to the next festival of one of their gods.)
Second, “one” is used here in place of “first.” The word “day” isn’t there at all in the original. So the sense is just as the translations have it. You could go one further and say “On Sunday.” The dynamic equivalent (“On the first day of the week,” or “On Sunday”) gives the correct sense where a literal translation is misleading. And, in case you’re wondering, the context confirms that this is correct, as the Christians were meeting to break bread.
There is a very good article on its translation process in the introduction to the New Living Translation, with some good examples.
If you know two languages you know how tricky it is to translate from one to another. Sometimes the language you’re translating into has two different words for the source word. In Greek, the word for “wife” is the same as the word for “woman”. How do you know which sense the author meant? Every translator is an interpreter. Sometimes a word may be left out in translation “because we just wouldn’t say it that way.” Sometimes a word has to be added to make the meaning clear. The NIV does this quite often.
A particularly contentious issue is the use of words for men and women. In ancient Greece, it was common for people speaking in public to address their audience as “men” even if women were present, or to call people “brothers” when sisters were included. In English too, the word “man” was often used in this inclusive sense. To many people, the word “mankind” still means everybody, men, women and children. Is that what it means to you?
Every translator is an interpreter. Sometimes a word may be left out in translation “because we just wouldn’t say it that way.” Sometimes a word has to be added to make the meaning clear.Annabel Robinson
Because sticking with the masculine words is misleading today, and even offensive to some people, many translations opt for the inclusive language, because that’s what the speaker meant. The New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version are both careful to use inclusive language.
Popular translations today
- King James Version/Authorized Version (KJV/AV). The KJV has a blog entry all its own.
- New King James Version (NKJV), aims to update the vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure while preserving the beauty of the KJV.
- New International Version (NIV), 2011 edition. The NIV grew out of the vision of one man who loved the KJV but realized that for most people it didn’t connect. It was made from scratch by a team of trans-denominational translators from many countries, whose aim was to bring modern readers as close as possible to the experience of the original readers. It is updated from time to time. One of the best-loved and most used of modern translations.
- New Living Translation (NLT), 1996, rev 2004, 2007. The NLT started out as a revision of The Living Bible, a paraphrase of the American Standard Version made by Kenneth N. Taylor in 1971. From there it has evolved into a completely new translation. Easy to read, it is one of the most popular translations today.
- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Widely ecumenical, translation committee that included men and women from different denominations, most widely accepted by churches. Inclusive language. “As literal as possible” in adhering to the ancient texts and only “as free as necessary” to make the meaning clear in graceful, understandable English.
- English Standard Version (ESV). Describes itself as an “essentially literal” translation and is endorsed by numerous denominations. Because of its essential literalness, it does not use gender-neutral language. It also sounds a little more wooden when read aloud.
- The New English Translation Bible (NET) is wholly transparent. Whenever a decision had to be made in translation, the team recorded the reasons for their final decision, along with the alternative translation. It is all available online, regularly updated, and may be quoted without any special permission.
- The NET Abide Bible is an interesting version of the NET Bible. Available on Kindle and in print, it encourages you to engage with what you read with prompts to contemplate, journal, picture it, pray it and engage through art. There are 68 full-colour reproductions of classic art to help you do this. Highly recommended.
- Both the ESV and the NET Abide Bible are available as a set of booklets, one for each book of the Bible, interleaved with blank pages for you to make your own notes. The advantage of these over a wide-margin or interleaved Bible is that if you mess up, or want to start again from scratch, you can buy a single book for about $8. Also highly recommended.
In a class by itself is Eugene Peterson’s The Message (MSG). Eugene Peterson made this translation for ordinary people whose ears have grown deaf to familiar translations. Here are the first seven verses of 1 Corinthians 13:
1 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
3–7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
It’s a paraphrase and was never intended for close study. But it has an impact like nothing else.
Have I now thoroughly confused you? Here’s what I would recommend:
Scripture Union is currently using the NIV for its online devotional, theStory. If you prefer something more literal, the ESV is your best choice. If you want easier language, go to the New Living Translation. For helps with Bible engagement, I highly recommend the Abide Bible, available in both the NKJV and the NET translations.
Finally, do check out Logos Bible Software (logos.com). They now offer a free version. From there you can venture to many versions, according to your needs and interests (and wallet). I have found Logos very easy to use and customize. Their help phone line is superb. I can’t say enough good things about this resource.
All of these translations are available online. My go-to website for comparing them is biblegateway.com.
We will be doing a post on what Bible translation you should choose for children in two weeks. Never miss a blog post by signing up to receive updates on our blog in your inbox each month!