We are blessed with a lot of choices for bibles in the English language. But how do we know that the translation we're using is good? What's the best bible translation?
There isn't a perfect bible translation. It's better to think of bible translations as tools that work in different situations. There isn't a perfect one-size-fits-all bible translation, but there are a lot of adequate choices for our needs.
The ancient languages of the bible can't be perfectly translated. Translators are forced to make compromises between accuracy and readability. Translators must also make educated decisions about what they think the original text is trying to say. Further the manuscripts themselves aren't perfect, and so translators must also make decisions about the sources they're translating from.
Picking a good bible translation can be intimidating. We are forced to trust the work of the translators, and bad translators could do a lot of harm. However, most translators are people of faith who honestly try to produce correct translations of the original texts. They are forced to make difficult decisions, and everybody can't be pleased with every part of a translation.
Translators usually know a lot more than the ones who criticize them. Most of the legitimate bible translations that have been produced are good works. Accusations that certain bible translations are works of the Devil are often baseless.
One should keep in mind that more disagreement comes from interpretation than translation. Even among people who read the bible in the original languages there is a lot of disagreement. Often the translation is clear, but the meaning is elusive. Translation adds a layer of complexity to understanding the bible, but it's certainly not the root of disagreement.
Its sometimes assumed that if only we had a perfect translation every door of understanding would be opened and every controversy would resolve. This is not the case. The key to understanding the bible is less in the sentence structure, and more in the spiritual context.
When it comes to picking a bible one should know that there are two main types of English translations. There are "word-for-word" bible translations and "thought-for-thought" translations. Most of the bible translations that are used by Christians fall into these two groups.
It's not as though one group is better than the other. The word-for-word translations are more literal, and the thought-for-thought translations are more interpretive. These different styles of translation lead to them being used for different purposes.
Less literal thought-for-thought translations seek to translate the text in a way that's easy to read. They are a more interpretive style of translation, and because of this there's more chance that false ideas will be introduced into them. These types of bibles might be easier to read, but they aren't as suitable for studying.
There are some thought-for-thought bibles that are so non-literal that they aren't even translations. Instead, they're someone's commentary being presented as a translation. Fortunately these bibles aren't very popular.
The other main type of bibles are literal word-for-word translations. These bibles seek to translate the text as accurately and rigidly as possible, while maintaining some level of readability. They're preferred for scholarly work, because they're closer to the orginal text. However they aren't always the easiest to read.
One of my favorite literal translations is Jay P. Green's Literal Translation Version (LITV). The late Jay P. Green was a Greek and Hebrew scholar who created an excellent independent bible translation. His formula was simply to translate the text as fairly, accurately, and consistently as possible, while leaving it up to the reader to form their own conclusions.
A discussion of literal translations can't be complete without mentioning the King James (KJV). The King James is one of the oldest and still one of the best word-for-word translations ever done. It certainly has mistakes, but it's clear that great care was taken to produce a precise English translation from good manuscripts.
The KJV is so old that the English into which it was translated is itself outdated. This leads to people thinking that its a poetic translation, but this wasn't its intent. It's a quality word-for-word translation, and even though its over 400 years old, it still has widespread acceptance. Some people refuse to use any other translation.
Even literal translations have changes in them to make them more readable. If one still isn't satisfied with them, then there are options that are even more literal. Certain bibles, called interlinears, contain a copy of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, alongside a close as possible English translation. They are the most literal translations available for serious study.
One should use the bible translation that best suits their particular needs. If one is new to reading the bible or wants to cover a lot of ground quickly, then a thought-for-thought translation is a good choice. If one wants to read certain parts of the bible in a deep and thoughtful way, then the word-for-word translations are preferred.
Among literal bibles I prefer the ASV, LITV, NASB, ESV, KJV (and KJV derivatives), and YLT. I don't have as much experience with non-literal translations, but I've found the NIV and NLT to be decent. As stated before, certain bibles such "the message" aren't real translations and shouldn't be used as such.
Because no translation is perfect, it's probably a good idea to use more than one, especially for serious study. This is where parallel bibles come in. Parallel bibles contain different translations layed out side-by-side for comparison. Often parallel bibles will contain a non-literal translation for easy reading, alongside a literal translation for accuracy. A parallel bible is a good choice for both new and advanced bible students.
People can be so overwhelmed by translation and other issues that they are discouraged from reading the bible. Some good advice for new students is to read the bible consistently, and not worry about translation. Ultimately, the best bible is the one you pick up and read.
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