There are many Bible translations available to us today— the NIV, NLT, ESV, NKJV, KJV, RSV, NRSV, the Message… and the list goes on. The options can be overwhelming as we try to decide which one to use… not to mention the confusion surrounding the difference between translations and why there are so many to choose from. I’ll attempt to explain some of this here.
The 66 books that make up the Protestant Bible were originally written in 3 different languages— Hebrew for most of the Old Testament, Aramaic (a sister-language to Hebrew used in half of Daniel and two passages in Ezra), and Greek (all of the New Testament).
Though one “original” does not exist for any of the Biblical books, there are thousands of hand-written copies— copied many times over more than 1,400 years. There are places where the copies differ, so there is a science known as textual criticism that looks at the variants in the original language copies, and using evidence and scientific approach, determines which variants are errors and which likely represented the original text… so that an accurate starting point for translating into other languages is achieved.
From there, there are a few different approaches translators use when translating the original languages into English:
The first is known as formal equivalence (or literal). These types of translations attempt to stay as close to the Hebrew or Greek in words and grammar, as can be said in understandable English. An example of this would be the ESV (or English Standard Version).
The second is known as functional equivalence (or dynamic)— in which translators attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but re-word things into a more normal way of saying them in English— so they “update” language, grammar, and style. An example of this would be the NIV (New International Version).
The third is called free translation (or paraphrase)— where the goal is to translate ideas from one language to another with less concern with the exact words of the original language. Free translations try to remain faithful to the original text while transferring thoughts into more contemporary terms. An example of this would be The Message.
Some translations fall somewhere in the middle of these. An example is the New Living Translation (NLT) which would be considered a functional equivalent, but moves in the direction of a free translation.
I personally like to read from all different types— as one translation might illuminate something to me that another did not. The only translations that are not recommended for study are the KJV or NKJV (King James Version or New King James— which just updates the language of the KJV). Though the KJV is a literal translation, it was translated in 1611 and the only manuscripts available at the time were later copies which had more errors. Translators today have access to earlier and more accurate copies to base translation on.
The first time I read through the New Testament I read in the New Living Translation— which was a great starting point and made difficult passages easier to understand. Today, for study, I prefer to use the ESV or NRSV and for devotional reading I love to read from The Message.
This week I’m hoping to get into the different genres found in the Bible which I will cover over several days. You can find the previous posts in this series here.