Monday, April 24, 2017

What Bible Translation Should I Use?

In ministry, by a wide margin, the most frequent question I receive from people has to do with what Bible translation they should use. The truth is, no translation is perfect. In fact, since translations have different philosophies behind them, it's actually pretty hard to even speak of one being "better" than another because it all depends on the purposes for which you are using a translation. Basically, there are two approaches, and all philosophies fall in between the two at various points on the scale.

At one end is a word-for-word translation approach. This means that the translators try to use a minimum number of words to correspond to every word in the original texts. If you are a person who likes to zoom in and do very specific word studies and pay close attention to what words are used, this is a better type translation for you to use. The benefit of this type of approach is that there will be a largely literal translation from the original languages, and you will have fewer added phrases which are included to help with clarity in other translations.

The down side of these kinds of translations is that they tend to be stiff, and sometimes the wording is confusing. The truth is, Biblical languages are quite different from English in the way they are structured and in the way verbs and tenses work. Some words are actually untranslatable because of how they function. Other words are used because they have more than one possible meaning; both of which might be implied. A good example of this is John 1:5, where it says that the darkness did not "κατέλαβεν" the light. This word can either mean "understood" or "overcome" and it's likely that John would intend both meanings. Which do you choose? It's often not easy to decide! Word-for-word translations are helpful for doing highly analytical studies of a few words at a time. The most word-for-word approach is an interlinear Bible, and starting from here, some other translations that lean this way would be the NASB, with the ESV and NKJV on the more moderate end.

On the other end of the scale is a thought-for-thought approach to translation. There are a lot of places in Scripture where a word-for-word translation would make no sense in the English language. For example, Philippians 2:1b would literally say, "...if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of Spirit, if any bowels and compassions..." It was the cultural belief that your intestines were the seat of your emotions and often in Scripture, strong emotions are expressed in reference to one's lower guts. But this isn't how we would typically speak of deep emotions, and so a thought-for-thought approach is helpful here; probably even necessary. I would translate the passage something like: "...if any comfort from his love, if any sharing in the Spirit, if any feelings of deep affection or compassion..." It makes a lot more sense to the reader that way. The best reason to use a thought-for-thought translation is that it will read naturally and more beautifully, and you'll likely walk away with a better comprehension. This approach is used heavily for children's translations and for translations intended for people with limited knowledge of the language in which they are reading.

The down side of thought-for-thought translations is a translator's bias has a better possibility of imposing meanings on the text. They are trying to express an equivalent idea, and not necessarily using the exact words. So these translations are not useful for doing specific word studies in English because they will contain a lot of wording intended to help the reader that might not be in the original texts. At the extreme end of the thought-for-thought method would be paraphrases like The Message, which might even try to go for a whole paragraph at a time, rather than a just a phrase or a thought. Beginning at this end, you would have the CEV, the NLT, with the NIV towards the middle.

Somewhere in the center, blending both methods heavily, you would have the CSB and the NRSV. It is also great to know about the website which has dozens of translations available for free and is an easy way to compare options before choosing one to buy. I personally own a lot of different translations, and I love them all for different reasons. Whatever version that would inspire you keep the Word as a more active part of your life, I encourage you to go for it.

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