What’s Up With All These Bible Translations?

            When I die, I want Aaron Neville’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” played at my funeral.  At least at the beginning, that is.  To close the service, I much prefer the same song, but the Dropkick Murphys version.  Same song, completely different feel.  Neville’s take on the timeless tune is haunting, soulful, serene, and highly unusual.  Dropkick Murphys offer an equally unique version: bagpipes carry the song through the first verse, and then are joined by pounding electric guitars and drums.  It’s the same song, but one moves you to tears while the other helps you get your groove on.  So which one is more faithful to the original hymn penned by the former slave trader John Newton several centuries ago?

            In a similar way, there have been literally hundreds of English translations of the Bible since it first appeared in the English language in 1537.  They offer many different flavors.  Like the various versions of “Amazing Grace,” some Bible translations will leave you inspired, others will make you laugh, and others will leave you simply shaking your head.  You can find the English Bible written in the high English of past centuries, constructed in short sentences with small words for children, technical prose for scholars, wildly imaginative paraphrases, and even—seriously—in Ebonics.  But since the Bible was originally composed in mostly Hebrew and Greek (with some Aramaic in the mix), how do we know which translation we should use?  One of the most important factors to consider is the distinction between formally equivalent (or literal) translations and functionally equivalent (or dynamic) translations.

            An English translation of the Bible that is formally equivalent is one that attempts to translate each Hebrew or Greek word into its English equivalent.  Sometimes referred to as a “literal” approach, such a “word-for-word” translation places priority on preserving the divine inspiration behind each word.  An English translation of the Bible that is functionally or dynamically equivalent is one that attempts to translate each Hebrew or Greek phrase into a corresponding English phrase.  It prioritizes capturing the thought behind each original phrase.  Such a “thought-for-thought” translation is especially useful for helping the English reader to understand Hebrew and Greek idioms and figures of speech.

            In choosing a Bible translation, there are several criteria to consider depending on the reader’s purpose.  If the reader is doing a careful study of the words or is seeking insight into a biblical writing’s structure, then using a formally equivalent translation is recommended.  If the reader is primarily concerned with understanding the ideas in each sentence, then a dynamically equivalent translation may be preferred.  To read a fresh perspective, a paraphrase may be helpful.  Other considerations may include the age of the reader.  For younger Bible readers, a translation with shorter sentences may be helpful.  In preaching, a formally equivalent translation is better for expository teaching through a book of the Bible.  For topical messages, a dynamically equivalent translation might be better for congregational comprehension.

            For those who do not work with the Hebrew and Greek biblical texts, using multiple translations—especially a formal equivalent and a functional equivalent—may be extremely helpful.  A more literal translation helps the English reader see the author’s structure and identify more precisely the original words used in composition.  A more dynamic translation will help the English reader to understand phrases that do not translate literally and may seem like nonsense.  Both approaches to translation have strengths and weaknesses.  By using both types of translations, the English reader of Scripture can utilize the strengths of both while minimizing the weaknesses of each.  I have personally found it very helpful to use a parallel Bible where I can quickly compare different translations.

            For a new believer, I would recommend the New Living Translation (NLT).  The most important aspect of Scripture reading for a new believer is gaining a basic comprehension of what the Bible says.  A dynamically equivalent translation such as the NLT is easier for a beginner to understand.  Once he has read through the NLT and established that foundation of familiarity with the message of God’s Word, then I would recommend a more word-for-word translation such as the English Standard Version (ESV) or New American Standard Bible (NASB) for more in-depth study.

            Personally, my favorite translation is something that has been in flux for a decade.  The only ones I have read from beginning to end are the New International Version (NIV), NLT, and New King James Version (NKJV).  The NIV is the one I have used the most (by far), but its 2011 changes render much of the wording awkwardly so I probably will not be using it much in the future.  For the past few months I have relied heavily on the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)—jokingly known as the Hard Core Southern Baptist Bible.  What appeals to me the most about the HCSB is its purported middle ground between formal equivalence and functional equivalence.  I also like the way it retains God’s personal name, “Yahweh,” instead of changing it to “the LORD.”  More recently I have been using the ESV and would like to make it the next translation I read from cover to cover.  I like its highly-touted accuracy, its consistency in translating the same word the same way (when used in the same way), and its preservation of important theological terms.  The ESV is the primary translation I will use in my preaching, study, and personal devotions for the foreseeable future.

            What about you?  Which translation(s) do you prefer, and why?

Published in: on October 4, 2013 at 9:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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