So. Many. Choices. Really, why do we need so many different Bible translations? Isn’t one enough? Unless we read Hebrew and Greek – the original language of the Bible – we must choose from the many English translations of the Bible. But there are dozens and dozens to choose from. How do we decide? Do we need more than one?
Why do so many different Bible translations exist?
If you speak more than one language, you know that everything doesn’t easily translate between one language and the other. Sometimes you have to make choices. And, if these languages are based in very different cultures, you also know that even if the words translate, the meaning may still get lost.
The Bible was not only written in a different language than ours, it was written in the context of a very different culture and time in history. Translators of the Bible have to consider not only the language but also the culture and the many changes brought by thousands of years. Even everyday things like units of measurements, money, calendars, and the way we keep time have changed. (See also “Who Wrote the Bible and Why Does it Matter?“)
Range of Translations Philosophies
Bible Translations are done by a team of biblical scholars. (The few exceptions are for paraphrases, not translations. For instance, The Message paraphrase was done by an individual.) The primary reason English translations differ depends on the philosophy of translation used by the translation team.
The translation philosophy determines how far the translators will go to bridge the gaps between the languages, culture, and time. They must decide what balance they’ll find between staying true to the original language and making it understandable to the reader.
Four Basic Groups of Bible Translation Philosophies
There are some defined groupings of translations, but they all fall along a spectrum from highly literal to highly paraphrased. (Feel free to download this Bible Translation Chart PDF!) Keep in mind there is no perfect literal translation from one language to another because of inherent differences in the structure and vocabularies of languages. The Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, not the human translations. (For more on this see “What we Misunderstand about Bible Translations” by Katie Orr.)
- Formal Equivalent (also known as Word for Word, literal) – These translations are the closest to the grammar and syntax of the original language, but they can often sound wooden. Also, this kind of translation makes no consideration for cultural changes. (Ex: Amplified, KJV, ESV, NASB, RSV, ASV.)
- Dynamic Equivalent (also known as Thought-for-thought) – These translations work to keep the overall original thought rather than attempt a literal word for word translation. Although not as technically accurate as the Formal Equivalent, they are much easier for 21st century westerners to understand. For instance, Dynamic Equivalent translations change idioms, figures of speech, and measurements into “equivalent” terms that we will understand, but also try to maintain historical and factual accuracy. (Ex: NLT, CEB, REB) Example of a need: Translating “it’s raining cats and dogs” into another language.
- Optimal Equivalent – This “in-between” philosophy group is not on all the lists. But the NIV is the prime example. Desire to soften the stilted reading of the Formal Equivalent but still stay closer to the original language than the Dynamic Equivalent. (NIV, NJKV, CSB, NRSV)
- Paraphrase (Free) – This group departs the furthest from the original language but it provides a fresh reading experience. A paraphrase is not technically a translation but more of a big-idea-for-big-idea. It takes liberties with the literal words to create a “storytelling” feel. This translation group is fine for casual and inspirational reading but not recommended for study. With the paraphrase’s “storytelling” format, it would be great for family devotions with young children. (Ex: The Message, The Living Bible, Phillips)
The Translations I Use
When I read my Bible each morning, I usually read from two different translations to expand my understanding of the passage. First, I read it from a Word-for-Word translation since that will be more literal. I use the ESV. Then I read it in the NLT, a thought-for-thought transition, to help explain some of the more “stiff” places in the ESV. However, I use the NIV for memorization because that’s the translation I used for decades and many passages are more familiar to me from the NIV. There are so many great translations. And the good thing is, we don’t have to use just one! (See also “3 Steps to Help You Choose a New Bible.”)
A more literal translation is best for study, but a thought-for-thought or paraphrase is great for devotional reading or family devotions.
What translation do you use? Which one would you like to try?