Why are there so many translations of the Bible and which one is the best?

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The best version of the Bible is the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. However, very few people will take the time (and pain) to learn these two languages; most must rely upon translations. So which English translation is the best? Simply put, it is the one that is faithful to the original languages and can be easily understood by the average person. The New Testament was written in ‘Koine’ or ‘common’ Greek, the language of the common people. A few hundred years later (405 AD), Jerome completed a Latin translation of the Old and New Testament. He desired to translate the Bible so it could be read and understand by the average person. His translation came to be known as the ‘Vulgate’, which also means ‘common’. Unfortunately, after a millennium of use, the Vulgate could only be understood and interpreted by trained clergy; the Bible was no longer in the language of common people.

The Reformers of the Protestant Reformation regained the conviction that the Bible should be read and understood by everyone. Martin Luther taught himself Greek and Hebrew and worked tirelessly to translate the Bible into common German. In the later part of the fourteenth century, John Wycliffe was the first to translate the complete Bible into simple English. In the sixteenth century, William Tyndale died a martyr’s death for translating the Bible into common English. This conviction was also the guiding principle of the King James translators. In the preface to the King James Bible in 1611, their stated objective was, “…to deliver God’s book[e] unto God’s people in a tongue which they can understand…Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but children at Jacob’s well (which was deep[e]) without a bucket or something to draw with…” It seems evident from history that God intends His Word to be read and easily understood by ordinary people.

But why are there so many translations? It’s not because the Word of God changes; it’s because language constantly changes. English has changed considerably over the past six hundred years. Some words have been phased out, new words have been created and many words have changed meanings. My two favorite examples come from the King James Bible. In 1611, the word ‘conversation’ meant how one behaved or conducted his life. Today conversation means talking to someone. In the King James Version, 1 Peter 1:15 says, “…so be ye holy in all manner of conversation.” According to this passage, are we to be holy just in speech, or in every area of our lives? Today the Greek word anastrophē is best-translated ‘behavior’ or ‘conduct’, rather than conversation. The other example comes from James 1:21; “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness…” I’m not sure, but I think ‘superfluity of naughtiness’ is being very bad. This may have been a common phrase four hundred years ago, but it no longer communicates to the common person.

Many people who set out to purchase a new Bible are overwhelmed by the many translations available. To make an informed decision, one must consider a few factors. The first major factor to consider when looking for a new Bible is the philosophy of translation employed. The process of translating would be fairly easy if the structure of the source language was identical to that of the receptor language. Every language conveys meaning in a unique way. One language may use a participle; another language may use a noun to express the same meaning. Greek is a very technical language; one Greek word can be so packed full of information that there’s no single English word equivalent. It takes several English words to fully describe the one Greek word—which brings us to the process of translation.

A translator must first decide on his/her method of translation. The two main choices are ‘formal equivalency’ (or direct) and ‘dynamic equivalency’. The guiding principle of formal equivalency is to maintain (as much as possible) a direct word-for-word translation. The two most popular examples of formal equivalency are the “King James” and “New American Standard.” The guiding principle of dynamic equivalency is to convey the original meaning of the text. The “New International Version” is the most popular dynamic translation.

At first glance, a direct translation would seem to be the most faithful to the original. But if one word in Greek needs several words in English to convey its meaning, a direct translation may actually lose important information. Additionally a direct translation is more difficult to read. However, the philosophy of dynamic equivalency is not without its problems.

Translators who employ dynamic equivalency are attempting to accurately translate the author’s original meaning; these translations are typically easier to read and to understand. But in many ways a dynamic translation is more of an interpretation rather than a translation (though not as much as paraphrases, i.e., “The New Living Bible” or “The Message”). As an interpretation, the interpreters can sometimes be wrong. A tragic, but somewhat humorous example of this can be found in the “The New English Bible” (1971 edition). In Judges 1:14b-15a the NEB reads, “…as she sat on the ass, she broke wind, and Caleb said, ‘What did you mean by that’? She replied, ‘I want to ask a favor from you.” Here the NEB translators apparently had some obscure evidence that ‘breaking wind’ in 1050 B.C. meant that you had something important to say. I don’t think it’s true, but if it is, it’s good to let some traditions die!

When choosing a translation, the underlying text should be considered. A good translation will rely upon the earliest and best manuscripts available. The Wycliffe Bible (the first English translation) was based upon the Latin Vulgate, which means that it was a translation of a translation. The Tyndale and the King James Bibles were based upon a Greek text called the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus (1516 AD) was edited by Erasmus, a catholic priest who complied a handful of Greek manuscripts from the Middle Ages. His work, which sparked the Reformation, was extremely important. However, today we have much older and more reliable manuscripts than those used by Erasmus, and these should not be neglected.

The better translations are produced by a committee. A committee will naturally create a system of checks and balances that insures a more accurate translation. It’s also desirable that the translators possess a diversity of denominational backgrounds to keep denominational presuppositions from creeping into the text. This is not to say individual translators cannot do an excellent job. The Good News Bible, translated by Robert G. Bratcher, is an excellent single scholar translation.

Another important factor is literary quality and style. The translators should strive for quality and clarity of expression that allows the average person (from diverse educational backgrounds) to read and understand the text. However, there’s a danger of becoming too ‘slangy’. The English (or receptor language) should be dignified and reverent. Popular expressions and colloquialisms should be avoided, as was the case of the New International Version. After the translation was finished, it was edited for style by literary experts to ensure readability and literary quality.

It is almost impossible to give an answer to the question of which translation is best. Different translations can serve different purposes. If one desires to do a detailed study, a direct (word-for-word) translation is probably the best (KJV, NKJV, NASB, NASU). For daily Bible reading or when working with children, a dynamic translation is probably more suitable (NIV, TNIV, NAB, NJB). Some may even prefer a paraphrase for personal devotion, such as the Message or the New Living Bible. However, paraphrases are more like commentaries and should not be used for in-depth studies.

The preface of a translation will address many of the issues that we’ve discussed. It is always good to read the preface of a translation and many key verses before choosing a translation. In many ways, the best translation is the one that is actually read. The Bible will not do anyone any good if it is merely collecting dust on a shelf. I’ll close with the words of Johannes Albrecht Bengel (Preface to his 1734 Greek New Testament), “Te totum applica ad textum: rem totam applica ad te” (Apply yourself wholly to the text: apply the whole matter to yourself).

 

Dr. Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church of Chickasha, OK. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX, and a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He and his wife Crystal have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and one Granddaughter. Billy enjoys time with his family, gardening, and reading alongside his dog, Luther. 

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