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How do You Choose A Bible Translation?

We who speak English are blessed with a multitude of competing translations of the Bible. With so many possibilities, which should you choose? Here is at least one answer to this common question.


Recently a reader got in touch to ask me about Bible translations. What translation do I use, what translation do I recommend, what should we think about as we consider how to read God’s Word in English? Let’s run the intro and then I’ll talk about that.

Today we’re talking about Bible translations. An interesting topic, an important topic and one that unfortunately has gone a little bit odd in the Christian world. We’re so privileged to have so many to choose from. I think it’s important that we think well about our translations. In general, you could say that Bible translations exist on a kind of continuum or spectrum. You start at one side, you go to the other, and each one of those could be plotted in there somewhere. On the one side of the spectrum, we have what we might call word-for-word translations. On the other side, we have what we might call paraphrases, and somewhere in the middle, we would have thought-for-thought. Okay, so, word-for-word, thought-for-thought and paraphrases. That’s a good way of breaking down the different philosophies of translation.

Word-for-word translations, they attempt, as much as possible, to translate the actual words out of the Hebrew, out of the Greek, out of the Aramaic, and the structure. And so their idea is that as you read the English, you’ll know, as far as possible, the words the person used and the structure they used to convey those words.

Thought-for-thought, it does things a little bit differently. It does a little bit more interpretation, so it puts less focus on the words and the structure and a little bit more focus on conveying the author’s thoughts. So, instead of looking word-by-word, it looks thought-for-thought and then tries to translate a thought at a time into English.

Then on the paraphrase side, there’s much less emphasis on the words or the structure, far more emphasis on asking a question like, how might he say that today? What was he attempting to communicate and what’s a good English equivalent? And we might even use very colloquial words in order to convey that.

So, word-for-word, thought-for-thought, and paraphrase. Each one has some challenges it faces. I mean, it is difficult at any time to get meaning, words out of one language and bring them into another one. That’s no less true in Bible translation. So, when we come to our word-for-word translations, we’re talking here about an interlinear, which would be where you have your Greek or your Hebrew, and your English right below it. And you can follow very closely. You’ll know what the different words mean, but it’s absolutely unreadable in the English language. Then you have your translations like NASB, the New American Standard, the English Standard Version, which is my preference. Your Christian Standard Bible, King James and so on.

Let me read Romans, chapter 1, verse 16 in the English Standard Version, to give you a little bit of a flavor. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” There’s that written in the ESV, translated in a word-for-word kind of structure. Here’s the challenge, to keep that readable, right. That kind of translation can easily become clunky if it sticks too closely to the original words or to the original structure. So, that’s the challenge.

If we go to thought-for-thought translations, we’d have things there like the New International Version, the NIV, or the NET, New English Translation. Let me read from the NIV, same passage. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the gentile.” So, you can see they’ve done some work there. They’ve changed Greek to gentile, which is, translating the word Greek, not just the word, but also the meaning of it, people who are not Jewish. The challenge in thought-for-thought translation is to keep the form and the structure and then not to lose the accuracy through readability. So, as you make it very readable, you start to see the accuracy decline if you’re not very, very careful.

Then you go to paraphrases, that’s maybe the Contemporary English Version, the Living Bible, the Message, things like that. Listen to the Message, Romans 1, verse 16, “It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts Him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else!” Right, there’s very little resemblance to the wording, even the structure of the original, but conveys the author’s or the translator’s understanding of what Paul meant to communicate. I think it’s helpful to see that, the Message, or those sorts of paraphrases, more as commentaries than as actual translations. I wouldn’t recommend using those as your day to day Bible. Use them as a commentary on the Bible, if you’re going to use them.

Okay, putting this together, main thing, just read. Don’t let all this talk and all the different options available to you dissuade you from reading God’s Word. We are so blessed to have so many translations available. Pick one, pick a good one, read it. And just allow God to work in your life through His Word. In general, I would say, go as far to the side of the spectrum where you’re looking at word-for-word translations. Go as far as you can there and find one that’s readable, that you enjoy, that’s understandable and make that your general, daily reading Bible. You can use the other ones for reference, use them from time to time, but in general, I’d say pick a translation, stick with it. Try to pick a translation that focuses a little bit more on word-for-word. That would be my, that’s what I do, I think that might be what you’d find most helpful. But, find your translation you love, read it, dwell in it, let God shape you through His powerful Word.

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