What do you know about Bible translations? Perhaps you prefer a particular translation, but do you know why? It may seem like an irrelevant topic to some. But, having a basic knowledge about Bible translations is foundational to spending quality time with God in His Word and accurately understanding and interpreting Scripture. In this post, we’ll talk briefly about how the Bible is translated. Then, we’ll talk about the two main Bible translation philosophies and where several popular Bible translations fit within those approaches.
How the Bible is translated
To begin on the topic of Bible translations, it’s important to understand that quality, trustworthy translations are not based on a certain individual or group’s own unique interpretation of Scripture. 2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Sound translators recognize this reality. They seek to communicate God’s intended message to us by translating Scripture from the original languages into English in a way that’s true to the original text, while also being understandable to readers. We’ll get into more of that in the next section. But, if you’d like to do more reading on the history of the Bible in English, read this great article.
The two philosophies
There are two primary philosophies or approaches to Bible translation: word-for-word and thought-for-thought (also referred to as “literal” and “dynamic”). Word-for-word translations try to remain true to the wording and structure of the original languages, while also remaining clear to understand. Thought-for-thought translations are more liberal with wording and structure in order to emphasize clarity and understandability without sacrificing accuracy.
Which translation should you read?
Maybe you already have your favorite Bible translation picked out. If that’s the case, I encourage you to do a bit more research on that translation to learn why you like it. Is it word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or somewhere in the middle?
Or maybe you aren’t sure what Bible translation you prefer. If that’s the case, I encourage you to compare translations. Next time you sit down to read or study the Bible, read the same passage in multiple translations on the Bible app or on Bible Gateway. They are free to access and a simple way to discover the differences between translations and which you prefer.
Regardless of your preferences or knowledge of Bible translations, reading multiple translations can be a great way to study the Bible to gain a more well-rounded understanding of God’s intended meaning. Just be sure you are reading solid and trusted translations. Not all translations included on the Bible app or Bible Gateway are sound or accurate. I’ve included a short list of popular trusted Bible translations below (as well as a couple to avoid). But if you are interested in learning more about how to determine whether or not a translation can be trusted, this article is very helpful.
A few of the most popular and trusted Bible translations
King James Version (KJV)
This old and trusted translation was published in 1611. The goal was to bring the Word of God to His people in a language they’d be able to understand. The KJV blends transparency, as well as the original form and structure of the Bible documents that were available at the time. It’s perhaps best known for its beautiful 17th-century English. But, it’s often challenging for modern readers to understand. (Read more about the KJV here.)
New King James Version (NKJV)
The publisher released the NKJV in-full in 1982. The translators prioritized transparency and used the same source documents as the KJV. Since translators updated the English, it’s easier for the average reader to understand. (Read more about the NKJV here.)
New International Version (NIV)
The NIV was first released in-full in 1978 and has remained a popular translation to this day. The goal of the translators was to recreate a reading experience that closely resembled the experience the original audience would have had. According to the publisher, translators used the best-attested manuscripts. They sought to balance the form and structure of the original language with understandability to communicate the original meaning of each verse. (Read more about the NIV here.)
English Standard Version (ESV)
Crossway published the ESV in 2001. It’s considered an “essentially literal” translation that’s still easy for today’s readers to understand. It prioritizes transparency to the form and structure of the original documents. For many Bible readers, the ESV is a favorite because it’s more literal than the NIV, but more readable than the NASB. (Read more about the ESV here.)
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The goal of the NASB translators was to remain as true to the original documents as possible, while still remaining comprehensible in English. The publisher released it in 1971 and it was a favorite translation among Bible students for many years. (Read more about the NASB here.)
New Living Translation (NLT)
Over 90 evangelical Bible scholars worked together to release the NLT in 1996. The goal was to communicate the original meaning while remaining accurate to the original text. (Read more about the NLT here.)
Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
The goal of the CSB translators was to produce an accessible English translation that was true to the original documents. The publisher originally called it the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) in 2004. But when they updated the text in 2017, it simply became the Christian Standard Bible. The publisher brought together an international team of 100 scholars from many denominations—all committed to the inerrancy of the Bible. (Read more about the CSB here.)
Proceed with caution
The Message (MSG)
I debated on whether or not to include The Message (MSG) on this list because it’s not technically a translation. Therefore, it’s not technically the Bible, but because of its popularity, I included it here. The Message is said to be a paraphrase written by one man named Eugene Peterson. Proceed with caution whenever a translation or paraphrase is written by an individual instead of a committee. Accountability comes into question and there is much more room for error and personal bias.
I have heard conflicting views from respected Bible teachers on whether The Message should be entirely avoided or if it can be helpful supplemental material in one’s own personal studies. Considering this, The Message should not be used as one’s primary Bible translation. I tend to err on the side of caution in these cases, so I personally tend to avoid it. It would be better to read a thought-for-thought translation like the NLT if you are looking for something easier to understand. (Read more about The Message here.)
The Passion Translation (TPT)
I only wanted to include accurate and trusted Bible translations on this list. But given the growing popularity of The Passion Translation (TPT), I felt it was important to include on this list as a “translation” to avoid entirely. I put “translation” in quotations, because it’s not truly a translation or even a paraphrase. To put it simply, TPT reimagines the Bible. It’s interpreted primarily by one man as he thought it should be written. (Read more about TPT here. This video is also a great resource and speaks briefly into the difference between The Passion and the Message.)
Enjoy your time in the Word
I hope this post has helped you understand a bit more about Bible translations and will help you discern the differences between translations as you come across new ones. All Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16). It’s living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and proves itself true (Psalm 18:30). God is intentionally speaking to us through the pages of the Bible. Therefore, how our Bibles are translated should matter to us. His Word is perfect and authoritative. And, we should read and study translations that honor the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible.
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Unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.