A quick search on Google or a walk into a local bookstore will present anyone with an overwhelming array of Bible translation choices. From thick, leather-bound study Bibles, to Bibles with room for journaling, to picture Bibles—the number of options is tremendous. But, the choices don’t end at the binding of the book or the features of the particular Bible itself. Layered among the choices are different translations. A look at a bookstore Bible shelf will reveal KJV, ESV, NIV, CSB, NKJV, NLT, and several others.
These choices can be confusing for someone who is new to the Bible, or someone just looking to get a better grasp on understanding the Bible. Why are there so many translations? And how can we pick the ones that are most accurate and readable? Knowing a little about translation philosophy will help any reader of the Bible navigate the many English Bible translation choices to find a Bible translation that works for them.
It’s All Greek (and Hebrew) To Me
To find a Bible among the many choices available today, we have to remember first that the Bible was not originally written in English. The Bible’s original words were written in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages. Because of this, every Bible we have in English today is a translation of the original languages. This is why a translation philosophy is important.
Most people who have learned another language will tell you that translation is not a matter of trading one English word for one word of another language. Because of the unique diversity of languages, cultures, and contexts, the work of translation involves more than simple algebra to get an accurate translation across. Words can carry many meanings depending on the way in which it is used and the environment in which it can be applied. Grammatical decisions like tense, voice, part of speech, and other such elements must be weighed and decided. Good translation takes wisdom and understanding of two cultures, the culture of the speaker, and the culture of the listener. Because of this, translation can be complicated and challenging work.
When a translator approaches the original languages of the Bible to render it into a modern, faithful, and accurate translation, they must make a myriad of choices. Three common choices are made today among translators and publishers of the Bible. These three choices create a spectrum of approaches to translating the Bible.
On one end of the spectrum translators will choose to translate the Bible as strictly as the words and the grammar of the original language dictates. This is often called “formal equivalence” or word-for-word translation. The committee or individual working to translate the Bible seeks to translate the grammatical and lexical form of the original languages. Often this will yield a relatively accurate translation of the biblical languages into English. Yet, it can also create a very stiff and awkwardly read English translation.
On the other end of the spectrum, translators will work to make sure the concepts and ideas of the original writers are brought about in the translation, rather than trying to force the exact words. This philosophy is called “dynamic equivalence,” or thought-for-thought translation. Translators seeking dynamic equivalence seek to make sure the meaning of the Bible is communicated clearly, sometimes regardless of the structure and exact words of the biblical language. This translation philosophy will often produce very readable, understandable, and engaging translations of the Bible. However, this perspective can “over-translate” the Bible, interpreting passages with a theological bias that may not be what the original author intended to say.
When we understand the two approaches to translating the Bible–formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence–on a spectrum, we can better understand how we have so many different translations. Publishers come to the work of Bible translation with a unique goal in mind. Some will desire to produce a Bible translation that is very accurate to every word and grammatical structure of the original language; some will want to produce a Bible translation that very readable and engaging. In some ways, both have to give a little of one to get more of the other.
Which Translation Philosophy is Best?
This leads us to ask then, which translation philosophy or approach is the best? Well, “best” might not be the best word, because there are great translations all over the spectrum. But Lifeway Research consistently shows that most people today want a Bible that is fundamentally accurate to the original languages, as well as wanting a Bible translation that can be understood and read easily. In other words, Bible readers want to have their cake and eat it too (don’t we all?).
Readers could choose a word-for-word translation like the NASB (New American Standard Bible) or the ESV (English Standard Version) if they were studying a passage or entire book of the Bible, and wanted to understand the unique words of the passage better. A word-for-word translation will make it easier to see words repeated in a passage that can indicate a particular emphasis of the author. Many churches that study a book of the Bible verse-by-verse on a Sunday morning will use a word-for-word translation for greater precision and “literalness.”
On the other hand, readers could choose a more dynamic equivalent like the NIV (New International Version) or the NLT (New Living Translation) if they were seeking to understand the Bible better as they were reading it in their personal devotional time, or if they wanted to explain the meaning of a Bible passage to someone who is unfamiliar with the Bible. Dynamic equivalent translations are useful to help people who are learning to read, like children, and can often simplify some of the more difficult passages to translate. They’re also helpful for people who aren’t familiar with the some-times-clunky Bible-ish language. Many churches that teach through the Bible in a topical approach will use a dynamic equivalent translation for greater readability and quick understanding.
A third option exists, though. This is a philosophy that tries to meet the need that Lifeway Research keeps revealing; it’s for those who desire to have a translation that is both faithful to the original language and structure of the biblical text, as well as highly readable and understood in modern English. This approach is called “optimal equivalence” and aims to best translate the Bible from a word-for-word approach as much as possible, but without losing readability for those that are seeking to be more familiar with the Bible. The CSB (Christian Standard Bible) is an example of this translation philosophy. While maintaining a high degree of accuracy, it’s translated in standard and readable language that most English-speaking readers could understand. In other words, this philosophy makes the case that readers don’t have to choose between accuracy and readability.
The remarkable reality is that there are many good and helpful translations of the Bible today, and we’d commend any of them to you if it means you’ll develop a pattern of seeking God in His Word. We can give thanks to God that He has abundantly and clearly spoken to us today through His Word. We have God’s Word, which is “living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12, CSB). For this, we should rejoice.