How does one choose between the bewildering variety of Bible translations available in English? This page introduces some of the major translations and also a fundamental criterion by which to compare translations - the spectrum between literal translations at one end, and more dynamically equivalent translations or paraphrases on the other. While the extremes at both ends of this spectrum may not be the best choice, having a couple of translations to reflect both of these approaches can be very useful.
There are many, many translations of the Bible into English – so many that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with them all and to have a fair and fully representative view of all of them. Translations produced in the sixties and seventies that were once regarded as ‘modern’ are now being revised – in some cases quite significantly – so the landscape is ever-changing. Nevertheless, the following covers some general principles which explain some of the different approaches used in Bible translation, and also offers some comments on some of the major translations old and new.
Why so many Bible versions?
To state the obvious, foreign languages are not the same as one another. A word in one language does not precisely correspond to a word in another (in one language, for instance, the word ‘meat’ might mean both ‘meat’ and ‘food’). The same word in one language might need to be translated in a number of different ways in another language depending on the context. And even if words did map one-to-one between languages (which they clearly don’t), once these words are combined into sentences we unleash a whole new set of problems. Phrases can have idiomatic rather than literal meanings; certain grammatical constructions can carry moods and implications beyond what the words literally say, and these would not necessarily carry across in translation if the same words were used.
Then there are other problems. Sometimes we do not know for certain what certain Biblical words or expressions mean. Translators and interpreters have to make judgments and sometimes this sends them in different directions to each other. These differences are not such as to change the overall meaning of the Bible, but they may impact the meaning or interpretation of a small number of passages.
These features alone explain why there are many Bible translations. They are compounded by the fact that while the original texts do not change, over the years archaeologists and linguists have made new discoveries which have enhanced our understanding of certain words and passages. Furthermore, English itself as a living language changes. Words or phrases that were used in the 50s may not sound current anymore (think how words like ‘gay’, ‘wicked’ or ‘cool’ have changed in their implication, for instance) – how much more words and constructions from four hundred years ago when the classic Authorised or King James Version was produced?
Then there are differences of translation ideology, a topic which deserves some discussion.
Principles of Translation
It’s helpful to be aware of a spectrum amongst Bible translations. We can express the spectrum in terms of two extremes, and most Bible versions can be loosely positioned somewhere on this axis.
At one end, there is literal translation. This tries to adopt a one-for-one as far as possible (within the bounds of coherent English) between the original words and constructions and the English counterparts. This can make it easier to spot word-plays, and it also makes the reader do the work in terms of interpreting idioms, figures-of-speech, and the like.
At the other end is the paraphrase which tries to convey what it considers to be the essence of the passage, rather than the actual words and grammatical constructions used to express it. Sometimes the concept of dynamic equivalence is used to describe this sort of approach. Translators have to be flexible, and choose a translation which is equivalent in meaning to what the original words expressed. The advantage of this is that it yields translations which are very easy to read and can more easily be ‘modern-sounding’. However, it tends to mask the fact that the translators have made big steps of interpretation in order to make their paraphrases, and that sometimes they may be wrong. You also lose word play, and any sense of how the sentence flowed in the original language. It’s also easier for translators to sneak in doctrinal bias when they are adopting a ‘freer’ approach of this type.
To illustrate the significance of this difference, you might find a passage which reads badly or is difficult to understand in a more literal translation. You might then pick up a more paraphrastic translation and it might make perfect sense. But don’t be tempted to think that things are quite so simple! The reason why the literal translation was difficult may be because the passage in question is difficult and there are different ways of understanding it. The paraphrase, while easier to understand, has sold you its particular interpretation (which might or might not be correct), but has given you no clue that this is what it was doing. In addition, the fact that the Biblical writers make heavy use of word-play and repetition may suggest that a more literal translation gives the reader a better chance of picking up on this.
In short, you probably don’t want a translation that is on the extreme of either end of this spectrum – at least not as your regular Bible. None of the five translations to be covered below are, but it’s broadly true to say the the KJV and NKJV sit more at the literal end, and the NIV more at the dynamically equivalent end. A translation which goes much further in the direction of paraphrase would be one like the Living Bible.
Some popular translations
This could be a very long list indeed, so we’ve limited it to five…
The KJV or AV
The King James Version (also called the Authorised Version) is the only really ancient version which is still in relatively wide use today. Completed in 1611 the language clearly betrays its age (some of the words have changed their meaning quite a bit!), but the translation is outstanding in capturing in quality English the cadence of the original. The translation is on the literal end of the spectrum (which can be considered an advantage for Bible study), and many important reference works are based around this translation. If you can cope with the archaic language, it’s definitely a translation worth getting to know. Some people also find that the very fact that the language is archaic means that it sticks in the memory more – definitely an advantage!
The New King James Version of 1982 attempts to update the King James version by removing its archaisms but remaining true to its spirit of relatively literal translation style, following the idioms of the original languages where possible. Words from the KJV which have changed their meaning are updated, as you would expect, and this translation reads well.
In 1881 a translation called the Revised Version appeared which brought in insights from new research and discoveries since the 1611 AV. While few people use the RV today, the RSV (the Revised Standard Version) is a re-working of it, which includes further insights from scholarship and discoveries which have taken place in the intervening period. It is still somewhat popular, and is a good, serious translation of the Scriptures from the 1950s. It does omit some passages which are absent from some ancient manuscripts and relegates them to footnotes (see below on the NIV). There is a later revision of it called the NRSV (New RSV).
The New International Version or NIV from the 1970s has become one of the most popular Bible translations of the modern age. It’s a good translation, in straightforward English. A couple of drawbacks to be aware of are that it occasionally betrays too much of the beliefs or interpretations of its translators with respect to the nature of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit rather than following literally what the text says and letting the interpreter decide. Also, it uses the Westcott-Hort Greek text (there will be forthcoming hyperlink on this issue), so you get the ‘shortened’ version of the New Testament (likely a negative). A revision of the NIV has recently appeared.
The ESV is a relatively recent translation, and can loosely be considered as a revision of the RSV. The team of scholars involved in the project is impressive, and the translation reads easily for the most part.
There are many, many more translations. Some of them are very paraphrastic (rather than literal), and add quite a thick layer of interpretation as they translate. Sometimes this can be refreshing and fun, but these translations (like the Living Bible or the Good News Bible) should not be relied upon for serious Bible study. Some translations have a distinct sectarian origin (the New World Translation is produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, while the Jerusalem Bible is Catholic in provenance).
It can seem very confusing, but it’s worth remembering that you can learn about God and His plan from any Bible translation, so it’s best not to get too hung up on the issue. It’s also worth remembering that all translations have bias of one kind or another, and make interpretive decisions which may sometimes be wrong and sometimes right (and in some cases, we cannot say with certainty – there are simply different approaches to certain knotty passages where the original text is difficult to interpret!).
The Choice is Yours…
For anyone who wants to read the Bible seriously, it’s a good idea to have, say, a couple of different Bible translations for comparison. One idea might be to have an older translation like the KJV, RV or even the RSV, plus a more modern translation like the NIV or the ESV (this site tends to use the ESV and the KJV). The NKJV or RAV is something of a compromise between the two. For more serious Bible reading and study you might well want to add a couple more. It can also be useful to have a really literal translation for occasional comparison when you get stuck – more on all this in the Choosing a translation section. A personal recommendation would be to start with an AV and an ESV.