On Bible Translations

During a group discussion recently we started talking about Bible translation philosophy. I’d been thinking about the topic anyway, but the discussion was a great encourager to put research into writing. With that being said…

Where do you start?!
Before we get into the technical details, I think it’s important to determine what you’re looking for. I’m going to attempt to give you all the information about translation styles without leaning one direction or another. Think of this as a guide to what options are out there, and which might fit you best.

Generally, when it comes to Bible translations, there is a slider between “Literal” and “Readable”. Literal translations attempt to retain as much of the original sentence structure as possible (often referred to as a “word-for-word” or “Formal Equivalence” translation). Whereas readable translations attempt to translate the idea, or message, in the original text in the clearest way; these are usually called “thought-for-thought” or “Dynamic Equivalence”. It’s important to note that neither translation style is strictly better than the other. There are pros and cons to each that we’ll get into in a moment.

Consider the King James Version Bible for a moment. The King James Version is historically known as one of the greatest English translations of all time. It’s used in a number of forms even to this day. It was completed in 1611. This is around the same time period Shakespeare was writing his works. Shakespeare himself created a number of words we use today such as “birthplace, bedroom, secure, unreal, countless, rant”, just to name a few. The point I am trying to make is that written and spoken English in the 1600’s is not the same we speak and read today. Obviously, we can learn from old language and admire its beauty, but that still doesn’t make it accurate for us today. If you’d said to an Englishman in 1605 “I’m going to the bedroom” or “tweet that to the world!”, they’d likely look at you rather confused. To communicate what you’re trying to say, you’d have to use other words the Englishman understood (words that, to us, would probably be just as confusing).

With this idea in mind, also remember that the original bible was written in Greek and Hebrew. The New Testament, obviously, was written not long after the ascent of Jesus (first ~100AD). That’s 1500 years of change for Greek and Hebrew languages before being translated to King James. This means that understanding the original context requires not only a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew but also how the language was used at the time of writing.

This is where the pros and cons begin to show themselves. While Formal equivalent translation styles are very literal, it can be difficult to determine the overall meaning depending upon the words used in the original language (and the associated translated words). Whereas Dynamic equivalent translations have more flexibility in the use of words; but, you’re relying on the work of the scholars to correctly represent the original meaning.

Now, let’s take it one step further with each translation style. Not all formal equivalent translations are created equal. Most, for instance, use another English translation as their base (of those, most can be traced back to the King James Version). The ESV (English Standard Version) is a very popular formal equivalent translation today. As you can see in the diagram below, it’s simply an updated or modernized edition of the King James Version.

Here’s a list of some Formal Equivalence bibles I see a lot today:

  1. ESV – English Standard Version – 2001
    1. The ESV Study Bible is only of the best Study Bibles ever made
  2. NASB – New American Standard Version – 1971 (updated in 1995)
  3. LEB – Lexham English Bible – 2011
    1. This is a new translation that I’ve not read much. It was released by Logos Bible Software, a company I’ve used for Bible study tools for years. It’s only available via online tools but appears to be a promising translation. The translation was made directly from the original text (Unlike most other formal equivalent translations today).

Like formal equivalent translations, not all dynamic equivalent translations are created equal. Because there is such a dependence on the scholars’ interpretation, it’s important to understand who performed the translation. Here are a few popular dynamic equivalent translations today and who released them:

  1. NIV – New International Version – 1978 (Updated 1984, 2011)
    1. NOTE: The NIV incorporates a balance between formal and dynamic equivalence. This translation is not purely dynamic equivalence.
    2. Published by Biblica, and entrusted to the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) to perform the translation work. Scholars from many denominations were included in the translation process.
    3. https://www.biblica.com/bible/niv-bible/niv-bible-translation-process/
  2. NLT – New Living Translation – 1996
    1. NOTE: The NLT incorporates a balance between formal and dynamic equivalence. This translation is not purely dynamic equivalence.
    2. Endorsed by Tyndall House, commissions scholars from multiple denominations to create a simple readable translation for middle school level readability.
    3. https://www.tyndale.com/nlt
  3. The Message – 2002
    1. The Message is known for being the most openly dynamic equivalent translation today. It was created by Eugene H. Peterson in 2002. The translation is based on the original language. Peterson attended New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) and is the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church. NYTS is a non-denominational theological institution

There is one translation style we’ve not covered yet. This style is called “Optimal Equivalence”. I’ve not used it yet because it’s really a made-up word. Similar to the NIV and the NLT, these translations incorporate elements from both translation styles, with one difference: Optimal Equivalence attempts to use formal equivalence translation in all cases EXCEPT where the text is confusing or difficult to understand. When a verse or passage loses its original meaning with the restrictions of formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence is used. There is really only one translation that uses this style, which is the Christian Standard Bible. The CSB is a revised and re-released version of the HCSB (The only other “optimal equivalence” translation). The HCSB has been a staple of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention for years; the CSB will now be assuming that role. Our Church, Green Hill Church, is actually a pilot church for shifting from the HCSB to the CSB.

Alright, that’s all for now. This ended up being a lot longer than I expected. However, I think it’s important for us all to understand what our options are when looking for a bible. I’ll let you decide what’s best for you. I also came across this cool tool that has a small outline for different translations. It can be found here: http://www.mardel.com/bibleTranslationGuide. I do recommend having a solid study Bible on hand, but study bibles are a whole other topic that requires just as much research… here we go!