cup of wrath

Choosing a Bible Translation?

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 certainly 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 generally know a lot more than those who criticize them. Most of the "real" bible translations that have been produced are good works. Accusations that certain bible translations are works of the devil are often groundless.

One should keep in mind that a lot more doctrinal 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 cause of disagreement.

There are two basic types of English bible translations.

When it comes to picking a bible one should know that there are two main types of English bible translations. There are literal "word for word" bible translations and not so literal "thought for thought" bible translations. It's not as though one group is better than the other, as they serve different purposes.

Less literal "thought for thought" translations seek to translate the text so that it's easy to read and understand. They are by their nature more interpretive than literal translations. Because of this there's more of a chance that errors and false ideas will be introduced into them. These types of bibles might be easier to read, but they aren't as suitable for scholarly purposes.

There are some thought for thought bibles that are so non-literal that they are aren't actual translations. Instead, they're someone's commentary being presented as a translation. Fortunately these bibles aren't very popular.

Word for word translations are better for studying the bible.

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 and academic 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 isn't its intent. It's a quality word for word translation, and even though its over 400 years old, it still has widespread acceptance.

Even literal translations have changes in them to make them more readable. If one still isn't satisfied with their accuracy, 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.

What translation of the bible should I choose?

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 okay. As stated before, certain non-literal 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 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.

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