What’s the Best Bible Translation?

About once a month, I get asked two questions, which are really the same:

“What is the best english language Bible translation?”
and
“What is your favorite translation?”

My answers are that the best translation is the one you will actually read, and I don’t have a favorite translation; what translation(s) I’m using depends on what I’m reading the Bible for – devotions, personal study, sermon or article prep, dramatic readings, etc.

Having said that, I’ll elaborate on the three different kinds of translations. Each has both strengths and weaknesses:

— “Formal equivalent” translations try, as much as possible, to give an accurate word-for-word translation from the best available original language source manuscripts.

These translations tend to work well for english readers who want translations as close as possible to the original languages. They give much more precise translations than other methods. While all translations depend on the biases and interpretations of the translators, formal equivalent translations minimize this as much as possible. Most modern FE translations further minimize translator bias by using a number of translators rather than one or just a few; 40 or more is not uncommon.

However, FE translations tend to be difficult to read, and many of the idioms of the original language are hard to understand when translated word-for-word.

— “Dynamic equivalent” translations attempt to give the best english wording of the thoughts of the source manuscripts.

These translations are usually easier to read, and idiomatic passages are much easier to understand than FE translations. They give a better sense of the overall meaning of a passage than a word-for-word translation.

However, in order to do so, DE translations sacrifice clarity and precision. They also are as much a reflection of the translator’s bias and interpretation as they are of the original text itself.

Before I move on to paraphrases, I should note that most modern translations are a mix of FE and DE translations. The New International Version is a fairly good example of a translation that attempts to combine both methods.

— Paraphrases rewrite the source materiel into the author’s own words, usually with the intent of making it easier to read or understand. Some of the most popular paraphrases don’t even use the original languages as source material and merely reword english translations.

The most popular english language paraphrase highlights both the advantages and disadvantages best. This is The Living Bible.

The Living Bible is based on the American Standard Version and was written by Kenneth Taylor. It is easy to read, and was designed for about an 8th grade reading level. Very popular during the “Jesus People” movement, it was the first Bible of many new Christians at that time.

However, it was so badly regarded by scholars because of its doctrinal bias and inaccurate renderings (termed by detractors as “the gosple according to Ken Taylor”) that it was replaced by The New Living Translation in 1996, which attempted to correct these blatant errors without changing the style by going back to original language documents.

And that is the problem with paraphrases. Remember that I said that DE translations sacrifice precision for sense of meaning? Paraphrases go one step further, and sacrifice accuracy for ease of reading. I do not recommend a paraphrase for anything other than a light read through.

So what is my favorite translation? I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I don’t have one, and I’m equally sure you can guess the reason.

I use different translations for different purposes, and for study I use at least two (usually more) at any given time. Here’s a brief breakdown of what I use and why:

At my home church, I use the English Standard Version simply because that is the version used for readings during worship and is the “pew Bible” used there.

When visiting other churches, I use either the New International Version or the King James Version because those are the two most commonly used in Protestant churches today.

For family reading, I use either the New American Standard, New International, or ESV, depending on which print version I have handy.

— For study, I use the NIV, NASB, ESV, Amplified Bible, and New King James as well as some others.

As you can see, I use a mix of FE and DE translations. This is because EVERY english translation will have passages that are difficult to understand because of the problems inherent in the translation process, and having multiple viewpoints on such passages can both give clarity to the meaning AND point out places where there is doubt about the original meaning.

NO TRANSLATION is “the” translation, but the BEST translation is the one you actually read. God used imperfect people to write Scripture, He can certainly use imperfect translations to give us doctrine, correction, and instruction in righteousness!

Below are some links to charts and articles about Bible translations and methods.

————

Bible Study Tools has a brief description of the most popular translations at
http://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-versions/

Mardel is an online vendor that has a good chart showing the translation philosophy and distinct attributes of almost all the available English translations.

A similar guide at All Bibles (another vendor) includes information about approximate reading levels.

For a more detailed article about the different translation philosophies, here’s an article at
EvangelicalBible.com

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