Church members often ask pastors the same questions again and again. One of the more frequent ones, with a preamble, goes something like this: “Pastor, I need to get a new Bible. What would you recommend?”
It’s no wonder people ask. There is a dizzying variety of English translations of the Bible on the market. Look up a passage on biblegateway.com and you will have over 50 different English versions to choose from. Adding to the confusions is the fact that many of the versions come in a variety of packages: study bibles, teen Bibles, children’s Bible, men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, and more. There are coloring book Bibles, single women’s Bibles, “tween” Bibles, military Bibles, men’s Bible, Catholic Bibles – the list goes on ad absurdum. Christian Book Distributors offers almost 13,000 products under their “Bibles” category.
Most Bible versions fall somewhere on a spectrum between what is known as dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence translations. What that means, simply put, is that some versions try to translate thought for thought (dynamic equivalence) while others try to translate word for word (formal equivalence). In dynamic equivalence translations, the translators seek to provide the English reader with an experience like that which a first century reader would have had.
Perhaps the best of the dynamic equivalence translations is the immensely popular New International Version. The translation committee, comprised of notable scholars, writes in the preface, “The first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers. This has moved the translators to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts.”
Note that it is the Bible writer’s meaning the translators were going for. This is the NIV’s strength, but also its weakness, since the writer’s meaning is not always obvious and, thus, interpretation and not merely translation is required. But since interpretation is sometimes debatable – famously so in some passages – the reader must hope that the scholar’s interpretive skills are as good as his or her translation skills.
On the other end of the spectrum, the formal equivalence approach to translation, one finds the New American Standard Bible. Because this translation attempts to translate words rather than thoughts (though in a word order that makes sense to English readers), the NASB is a much more wooden translation.
This is the NASB’s weakness, but also its strength. It is more likely than the NIV to include conjunctions and connecting particles, and to follow the original language in its multiplication of subordinate clauses. Though this makes for clumsy English, the translated sentence is truer to the original writer’s style and linguistic thought pattern.
It should be said that all major translations fit somewhere on a spectrum between dynamic and formal equivalence. The NASB must interpret the writer’s intent at times, just like a dynamic equivalence translation, while the NIV will translate most words and phrases just like a formal equivalence translation.
So, one kind of translation attempts to be truer to the writer’s thought, while the other tries to remains truer to the reader’s understanding. How does one choose?
My recommendation would be that one not choose and instead purchase both a good dynamic equivalence translation like the NIV or the NLT along with a good formal equivalence translation, like the NASB or the ESV, and consult both.
What about the King James or Authorized Version? Does it have a place? I think it does. The King James is without question the greatest work of literature in the English language. The Psalms sing in the King James like in no other translation. But the King James, published in 1611, did not have access to many of the oldest biblical manuscripts that archeologists later uncovered. Though the King James should have an honored place on the bookshelf, it should not, for this reason, be one’s only translation.
As important as translation work is, even the best translations will do no good if they are not read. Even the worst translations will do some good when they are read by people who really want to know God and do his will. The best choice a person can make when it comes to the Bible is to pick it up and read it.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/4/2017
P.S. After reading this column, a friend wrote that whenever his former pastor was asked which translation is best, he would answer: “The one you will obey.” That about sums it up.