What translation are you reading?

Over the last sixty years there has been a drastic increase in the number of available Bible translations.  By my count, there have been at least fifty full (both Old Testament and New Testament) English Bible translations published since 1949, and at least twenty-five of those fifty were published after 1990.  It appears this trend will continue with more translations being published every year.

There is no doubt that the Bible being translated from the original languages (Old Testament was written in Hebrew and New Testament was written in Greek) into other languages is a praiseworthy event.  It provides more people with exposure to the message of Jesus Christ, an opportunity to learn about God and make their own judgments about God’s will.   During the approximate one-thousand years when the Bible was only printed in Latin the layman did not even have ability to read the word of God.  They had to rely on a clergy to educate about them about God.  The result was a people largely ignorant of God and His will.

Despite this blessing of being able to read the Bible in our own language caution should be used when choosing a Bible translation.  With the number of translations being published in the last fifty years it would be a leap to say they have all been done well.  Accurately translating any writing from one language to another language is difficult.  Words and phrases do not match up perfectly and it is often difficult to express the same thought or feeling in a different language.  Translating the Bible is no different.

There has also been an alarming trend over the last couple of decades as more Bible translations have been made available.  The quality of the translation is being based more upon how easily it reads.  People have become increasingly more concerned about whether they can read and comprehend the text at first glance than they are about its accuracy. The root of this trend can be found in a method of translating the Bible that was developing during the 1960’s- dynamic equivalence, also referred to as a thought for thought translation.

Instead of accurately translating the text word for word the aim of dynamic equivalence is to accurately translate the thought that is being expressed in the original text.  If translators feel that they can more accurately express the thought by abandoning the exact wording then they will often change words, phrases, or sentence structure to portray the thought.  Different translations will take varying degrees of liberty when changing the text to match what they believe is the thought behind the original writing.  With this type of translation the reader not only has to be concerned about whether the translator has accurately translated the words but whether they have accurately translated the thought the original writer was trying to express.  This is putting a lot of faith into the translator.  They are not only being trusted to accurately translate words but also accurately interpret the meaning of the text.

The justification for using a thought for thought process is that it will make the text easier to read and easier to understand.  At the foundation of this justification is a misconception that translation is what makes the Bible difficult to understand.  The fact is the Bible can just simply be a difficult book to understand.  We can look into the Bible itself and find comments about its difficulty from people who were reading it in the original language.

2 Pet. 3:15, 16- “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the scriptures (NKJV, emphasis added).”

Peter himself comments on the difficulty of understanding Paul’s letters and he was an apostle reading it in the original Greek.  When we read Paul’s letters, or any other portion of the Bible, and find them difficult to understand it is not inheritably because of the translation.  To what do we then attribute the difficulty?  One of the points Peter makes here is that the writings of Paul were from wisdom that was given to him by God.  This is one of the reasons why the Bible can be difficult to understand- it is the wisdom of God.  The Bible is a book that we can spend our whole lives studying and still continue to gain knowledge and wisdom.  Therein is some of the beauty of the Bible- depth that provides for a lifetime of study and growth.  But as an individual tampers with the original text in favor of readability they risk removing some of that depth.

We need to have faith in the understandability of the written Word of God.  Matthew 13 records the first account of Jesus preaching in parables.  It says in verse 2 that He was preaching to a great multitude.  The first parable that He gives to these people is the parable of the Sower.  After Christ teaches this first parable His disciples ask Him in verse 10 why He was preaching in parables.  They could not figure out why Christ was not being plain spoken with the multitudes.  In the verses that follow Christ explains to them that there are some who would understand and other would not understand Christ’s parables.  In verses 14&15 Christ quotes Isaiah and explains to the disciples the reason why some would understand and others would not.

Matthew 13:14, 15- “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull.  Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears.  Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.”

The reason some of these people did not understand the parables was because their hearts were dull.  It had nothing to do with their intelligence.  It had nothing to do with the fact that Christ was speaking in parables- it had to do with their hearts.  And here Christ also gives the solution to this problem: “Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn.”   This can be viewed as a promise.  If our hearts are right and we diligently study the Word of God than we will be given understanding.  It may take work and it may take time but God is going to provide us with whatever understanding we need.  There are so many people in this world that look at the Bible, they see it is difficult and they turn to translations that are easier to understand.  They may have a better understanding of what they are reading but it goes back to the original question- what depth are they sacrificing?  We have to have faith that with the right heart and diligent study God will provide us with understanding.

What Bible translation we use is an important decision.  There are a lot of Bible translations to choose from and not all of them are good.  Careful thought and consideration should be taken when choosing what Bible translation to rely upon as God’s word.  This goes beyond simply finding the one that is easiest to read.

avatar About Blake

13 thoughts on “What translation are you reading?”

  1. @David Neil
    Thanks David for your comment. I did not intend to allow your comment to go unanswered for so long. The author of this article is currently on vacation. Please accept my apologies for a tardy response.

    It is my belief that no translation of the scripture is perfect. While the authors of God’s word were inspired, this inspiration did not extend to either the scribes or the translators. In light of man’s fallibility, I am thankful that the Lord provided a large cache of manuscript evidence. However, I echo your words of caution: age does not necessarily equal authenticity.

    Like many in this thread I use multiple formal equivalence translations in my study. I do appreciate your point about drowning in marketed versions. It does seem that the adversary has changed from Orwell to Huxley in his tactics. Like you, I pray that God’s wisdom will grant His people discernment and good judgment.

  2. I’ve read the above comments with interest.

    It is vital for the growth of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ that he be reading a translation of God’s Word, of which God approves (i.e. not merely according to his personal preferences). So, how can we tell?

    1) It needs to be based upon the right Greek and Hebrew texts. There is great debate about this but there are many differences between the Received Text and the Nestle Text (NT Greek) and some are serious (e.g. “God was manifested in the flesh…” – 1 Timothy 3:16 – is a clear testimony to the deity of Christ and this is weakened in most modern versions).

    2) It must not cast doubt on itself. This should go without saying but just look at the RSV, which is liberally scattered with CE annotations, which mean “conjectural emendation” i.e. we don’t like the originals, so we’ve decided to guess! Another faith-weakening (and downright dishonest) type of annotation is frequently found in the NIV NT – “not found in the oldest and best manuscripts”. The innocent reader may not realise that what this really means is – a very few, heavily edited, ornate manuscripts, which survived longer than others because people did not trust them enough to use them frequently, so they did not wear out. One of them was found in the rubbish, in a convent on Mt. Sinai! Another very important point is that, if they are not in the so-called “best” manuscripts (according to the opinion of the translators), then why are these passages being included in the inspired word of God? All this does, especially to a young child of God, is weaken his faith in God’s word. Who was it who said, “Yea, hath God said..” in the garden of Eden?

    3) The translators must believe that the Holy Bible is the inspired word of God and not treat it like any other set of documents. Some translations have had liberal theologians, unitarians and even communists on the translation committees!

    We need to pray for the Lord himself to show us which translation to use because these days are no longer those in which the devil tried to starve the people of God by keeping them from the Holy Bible. These are the days in which he tries to confuse us with a multiplicity of conflicting versions, each with its own “selling point”.

    May God give us wisdom.

  3. Considering that there were centuries of darkness in which no Bible in any vernacular language was available to anyone, it is indeed praiseworthy that many English language versions are readily available today, as Blake commented. It is not God’s intention to keep his word bound up in language(s) that only scholars can comprehend or are at best a chore to read.

    In Jesus’ day there were multiple Greek language translations of the Hebrew Old Testament available. In the New Testament (written in Greek) we find quotations from at least three different Greek versions that existed then, with no comment or distinction about their relative merits. They are just quoted (or sometimes paraphrased) as scripture. The best known of these is the Septuagint because it became a standard used widely in the churches in later centuries, but New Testament quotes were not limited to that one version.

    Literal, word for word, translations are not very helpful for understanding the New Testament (or any other message in a different language). Several efforts at word for word or literal translations have been put forth, including Young’s and Darby’s, but no one reads them or studies from them, except as an occasional reference check, because they are neither accurate to the original thoughts nor readable nor clear. All effective translation includes interpretation of thoughts, and not mere substitution of words.

    It was a great day in Jerusalem when Ezra and the Levites read and interpreted the Law, reading the ancient Hebrew and then giving the meaning in the language of the people so that they would understand what was being read (Nehemiah 8:5-9). The language of the people was no longer Hebrew, it was Aramaic because of their subjection to Babylon. Aramaic is a language historically related to Hebrew, but not the same. They needed the Law in Aramaic (and the Old Testament later was translated into Aramaic, versions called Targums).

    It was another great day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit was poured out and the crowd that gathered because of the commotion, people from all over the Mediterranean world, each heard the declaration of the wonders of God in their own language (Acts 2:6, 11) rather than in the Greek of commerce or the Aramaic of Judea or the Latin of the Roman rulers. Each in their own language.

    Other great days occurred when Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale and many others translated and published Bibles in the languages of their people at the end of the “dark ages” (the 16th century) and changed the world, some of them at great personal risk. Martin Luther’s German Bible had a profound impact on the English Bibles that followed with his invention of many now well known compound words and phrases such as “mercy seat” and “lovingkindness”.

    The KJV translators were instructed by the king, among other things, to carefully consider the best of the earlier translations, including the widely accepted Geneva Bible (pub. 1560). King James was not fond of the Geneva Bible because textual notes and commentary in the publication were critical of the monarchy, but it was the basis of the new version (without commentary). Much of the KJV New Testament comes right out of Tyndale’s earlier New Testament translation (for which he had been executed). Tyndale’s text was subsequently printed with little change in Coverdale’s Great Bible (with the authorization of King Henry VIII in 1539) and then greatly influenced the Protestant Geneva Bible, and the text of the Geneva Bible had a huge impact on the KJV. Someone in comments above has mentioned William Shakespeare, and the Geneva Bible was the Bible of Shakespeare. It was also the Bible of the Puritans, which the pilgrims brought to America. They refused to modernize to what they considered an inferior and untrustworthy version, the KJV. It took a long time for the KJV to displace the Geneva Bible as the standard preferred by English speaking protestants, in spite of the backing of the English Crown.

    Regarding Shakespeare, Shakespeare has of course been modernized many times. His stories have been retold in many forms in contemporary language, particularly on screen. Then too, Shakespeare is presented as art, performance art. Few people will spend time reading Shakespeare in the evening, and most ordinary citizens find his plays hard going as reading material, with difficult phrases and vocabulary that has shifted significantly. On the other hand, the word of God is supposed to communicate ultimate truth and shape human lives. It is intended to be readily accessible to ordinary people, not just scholars or fan(atic)s. It should never be a requirement imposed on anyone that to learn God’s will we have to learn an archaic language as well (though some religious and civil authorities have attempted to impose such a burden). Would we think that God wants his word viewed and treated as performance art? Or do we realize that he gave his word to be living and dynamic, life changing and vital, understandable and relevant? If we did look back to the original writings themselves, we would find that they were not artfully done, not composed for literary excellence, but written in the common vernacular of the people who first heard the words, everyday speech for ordinary people. In the first century, artists and scholars were still writing in an archaic Greek style, Classical Greek, for the educated, but the New Testament was written in the everyday language that ordinary people spoke, Koine Greek, the language of the street, the language of the marketplace, the language of Christians in their communities.

    I am firmly persuaded that God wants his word to be available to ordinary people in their ordinary language. And, that necessarily includes something newer than Shakespeare, and necessarily includes something like “dynamic equivalence,” the translation of intended thoughts and ideas and not just word by word. I am thankful to have available effective English teaching Bibles like the NIV, and the ESV and the NASB (which is quite challenging enough for the average reader). Yes, there are versions that have been dumbed down (like the CEV or The Message) until they are nearly useless, but it is to our loss if we ignore or oppose the great resources available for learning and teaching what God has said in our own language. Good judgment in selecting a Bible to read, study, or teach from is called for, but that is far better than having no choice, or having someone else imposing their choice on us.

  4. I used a Scofield Study Method Bible in the NIV translation for some 8 years when coming into the church. I later heard it was probably the worst one of the bunch to get..I had to laugh a bit at that and tried to cover it up so no one else would see what I was using.

    But I don’t think it’s necessarily the translation that is the problem, it’s lack of study AND good teaching along with the lack of a prepared heart ready to receive the Word. Those 3 thing can overcome a bad translation..

    I’m not saying that to commend myself, for I have seen that happen in others as well, but just a personal observattion. There is just still so much more that I need to learn and understand.

  5. Interesting thoughts on translations. Mary makes a very good point when she writes ” A good translation will be based upon the original Greek and Hebrew, not another translation.” To me, that is very important. I also think that it is essential that those that teach (and study) understand the value of considering a variety of translations. There is no perfect translation. Also, we should be aware that translation worship is sometimes present in certain churches.

    Here is my thought process on selecting a translation: what best communicates in the present time, the meaning of the original text? For public use, I advocate the use of versions that the youth and the Christian novice can best understand because mature Christians should be involved in study that goes beyond one version.

    In our congregation, we have specifically chosen to not mandate the use of one translation over others, but we have set the goal of making sure that if archaic terminology is used in a translation that you use that the present day words or thoughts should be explained. For example:

    2 Tim 2:15

    Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (KJV)

    Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth. (ASV)

    Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (NIV)

    Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (ESV)

    So, for this verse, if you choose to use the KJV or the ASV, it might be good to explain what the Greek word “spoudazo” means because not everyone would understand what the writer’s point was.

    I will also say that I have heard this topic discussed in a public sermon setting more than once with evidence being used to support one translation over others that has been not only inaccurate but also intellectually questionable. A very important topic to consider to make sure that all are fed.

  6. @Rick Moody
    I think the writings of Shakespeare are a perfect example. People who love Shakespeare greatly revere his writing-if you were to suggest changing it to make it easier to understand their response would be rage. They would argue, and appropriately so, that by changing it you would remove the literary beauty, compromise depth and be at risk of changing the meaning. The same argument can, and should, be made for the Bible. It begs the question, how many words can you take away, add or change before the translation is no longer an accurate representation of the original? I don’t know the answer but I would tend to err on the side of caution.

  7. @Mary L.
    Thank you for your comments and question. Honestly, I’m hesitant to place my “seal of approval/disapproval” on any particular translation. The translations I personally use are essentially literal (word for word) translations. As Kyle said, each translation will have a brief explanation of their translation method. I want a translation that is as close to the original text as possible. Like you, I have several different versions I will consult when I study the Bible and I think that is a prudent practice. In a sense, I do appreciate the sentiment expressed by your roommate but it sounds like he/she is implying a further degree of separation from the original with each translation that comes out. A good translation will be based upon the original Greek and Hebrew, not another translation.

  8. William Shakespeare produced most of his work between 1589 and 1613. The KJV was completed around 1611. The works of Shakespeare are never altered or considered too difficult to understand or perform. Yet the KJV is too difficult? Blake, you hit the real issue dead on. People don’t want to put out the effort to learn. Shakespeare is held in high reqard by academics. The KJV is despised by some and hailed by others. I prefer the KJV because of the hundreds of excellent reference materials based on it. In the end each church Eldership needs to select a version to be used in it’s congregation and go with it as we do have to make it easier for the young and new adult members to understand.

  9. @Mary L.
    I appreciate your thoughts, Mary and I am supremely glad you are reading God’s Word and I hope you are blessed as you make the good confession to your roommate. One part of everyone’s Bible is the forward which usually descibes/includes notes on the translation of that particular version and how they decided to arrive at their version. It is dry reading, but I would read it. Generally speaking, the KJV and its derivatives (I use the NKJV) are faithful to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek originals. But, like you (and as I would encourage everyone to do the same) I refer to several versions that I consider trustworthy whenever I really sit down to dig into God’s Word. Hope this helps.

  10. Blake, great article. I think it is important to remeber that the very words of the Bible are inspired by God.

    Ezekiel 2:7 “You shall speak My words to them, whether they hear or whether they refuse, for they are rebellious.” (Other referneces for this are: Exodus 24:3, Deuteronomy 18:18-19, Jeremiah 1:9, Jeremiah 36:4, Matthew 24:35, Revelation 21:5, Numbers 24:4, Psalm 12:6, Psalm 119:103,130,139,160, Psalm 138:4, John 3:34, John 17:8, John 6:63&68, 1 Corinthians 2:11-13, 2 Timothy 1:13, Jude 1:20)

    If the very words of the bible are inpsired, I have a difficult time accepting a translation that is “thought – by – thought.” As far as the NIV is concerned, it is possibly the most conservative dynamic equivalence translation. Below is an exerpt from the preface of the NIV. Note their emphasis on thought.

    The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation.

    I also enjoy consuming the word using a variety of translations, and I think you can find some formal equivalence translations that are “easier” than the KJV. I personally enjoy the ESV as a change of pace.

    “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would [I so alter it] this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honour, or riches, might be given me.” –William Tyndale

  11. What are YOUR thoughts on the best and worst, out of curiosity? I like the NIV….sadly, because yes, it reads easier for me. But I have several different versions and enjoy comparing them on tougher passages. I have heard so many people swear that the only TRUE version to read is KJV, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it as I’m reading. I think that no matter what version you like to read, the key is that you are reading…and asking God to bless you with understanding and speak to you before (and sometimes while) you sit down and read. One of the excuses the person I live with gives often for not believing is that the Bible has been translated too many times, and that it is no longer what it was once intended. I personally still believe it is the inspired word of God, NIV or whatever.

  12. Good comments about the problems of easy reading for easy’s sake. It is a shame when we abdicate our ability to think. Could we say that a dynamic equivalent translation is more of a polished paraphrase than a translation?

Leave a Reply