There is an alphabet soup of Bible translations available today, from the KJV to the NIV and the NASB to the HCSB. This has led some critics to conclude that because there is so much variation between translations, no one really knows what the Bible says.
This attack on inerrancy is misplaced. Keep in mind that the Bible’s autographs, or original documents, are inerrant – not subsequent copies and translations. Even though there are dozens of English translations that differ in varying degrees, we are highly confident that the source documents from which these versions came – more than 25,000 New Testament manuscripts alone – are accurate representations of the autographs.
A more practical question for Christians today is, “Which translation of the Bible should we use?” To answer that question, let’s look at four types of translations, then match our intended use with the translators’ intended goals.
Four types of translations
There are four general classifications of Bible translations:
Formal equivalence. Often called a “word-for-word” translation, formal equivalence “seeks to represent each word of the translated text with an exact equivalent word in the translation so that the reader can see word for word what the original human author wrote,” according to The Apologetics Study Bible.
Advantages include: (a) consistency with the conviction that the Holy Spirit inspired not just the thoughts but the very words of scripture; (b) access to the structure of the text in the original language; and (c) accuracy to the degree that English has an exact equivalent for each word. Drawbacks include sometimes-awkward English or a misunderstanding of the author’s intent.
Translations that tend to follow a formal equivalence philosophy include the King James Version (KJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).
Dynamic equivalence. Known as a “thought-for-thought” approach, dynamic equivalence attempts to distinguish the meaning of a text from its form and then translate the meaning so that it makes the same impact on modern readers that the ancient text made on its original readers.
Strengths include readability and an acknowledgement that accurate and effective translation requires interpretation. Drawbacks include: (a) the meaning of a text cannot always be neatly separated from its form; (b) the author may have intended multiple meanings; and (c) difficulty in verifying accuracy, which may affect the usefulness of the translation for in-depth study.
Translations that tend to employ dynamic equivalence include the New International Version (NIV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the Good News Translation (GNT).
Optimal equivalence. This translation philosophy seeks to combine as much clarity as the original text and the translation language permit. The theory is to use formal equivalence where possible and dynamic equivalence where needed to clarify the text.
The main advantage is the combination of accuracy and readability. One drawback is that some people prefer either a more formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence translation. Translations that employ optimal equivalence include the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB); the NET Bible; and God’s Word.
Paraphrase. Paraphrased versions are loose translations that are highly readable and contemporary but lack the accuracy of word-for-word translations and at times add meaning beyond what a thought-for-thought translation would allow.
Examples of paraphrased translations include The Living Bible (TLB) and The Message (TM).
Rule of thumb
To find a good translation for your needs, ask two questions: What am I using the Bible for? And what is the translators’ intent?
For example, if you’re engaged in scholarly study, you may prefer accuracy to readability, so a formal equivalence translation like the NASB or ESV might make the most sense.
If you’re leading corporate worship or teaching a class, you may want a good balance between accuracy and readability such as the HSCB or NIV.
If you’re interested in a highly readable translation for devotional purposes, you might enjoy a paraphrase like The Message or The Living Bible.
For a well-rounded understanding of Bible passages, some students use several translations side-by-side – for example the NASB (accuracy), NIV (readability), and The Message (contemporary language). They also may consult a variety of classic and contemporary Bible commentaries.
This column first appeared May 7, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.