Within many Christian circles, people are always trying to find the best translation of the Bible. Some of these groups argue for their preference of translation over the other. There are even those who assert that their preferred translation is the best and you shouldn’t use any other translation except for theirs because…well, I’m not exactly sure. But you don’t have to live in the Bible belt to know what I am saying is true. We’ve all encountered these types of people; you may even be one of them!
If you ever get in a discussion with one of these people and ask them why they believe that their translation is the “only version for English speaking people”, their answer may indicate that they really have no idea and they are simply repeating what they heard someone else said. You’ll hear arguments such as:
- All the other translations try to take out the name of God.
That is a really cute argument that was popularized by Riplinger in her book, New Age Bible Versions. The problem with this argument is that it’s not really true. It really doesn’t matter how many times the translation says ‘God’ what matters is how many times the original text mentions God. She argues that you can’t take away from the Word of God, but we also must not add to it either! Additionally, she only looks at these examples in other translations, which is disingenuous; she never examines irregularities in her own chosen translation. Furthermore, she is not a Bible scholar and has no knowledge of Hebrew or Greek. Instead of comparing translations to the original texts, she compares them to her chosen translation. In other words, she sets her translation as the gold standard and measures the others against it which is not a very wise approach.
- This is the best translation of the Hebrew and Greek.
This is really a humorous argument if you think about it. Using the example of the KJV version, the translators of the King James Version had very unique translation guidelines given by the King. For example, he didn’t want words that appeared multiple times in a row to be translated the same. He thought this would sound too stale and repetitive. As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I ask, how is this good translation skills? Secondly, the KJV didn’t just rely on the Hebrew and Greek text but also earlier translations. Finally, the KJV was originally translated in 1611; today we have much better and much older Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1946. Thus, translators today have access to much better materials to perform translations which are much more accurate.
The argument really shouldn’t be which translation is the best, but instead which type of translation is best. This is really what is at the heart of the argument, and instead of fully recognizing the situation, some decided to just cling to a particular translation with which they are comfortable.
Let’s be clear: anytime you are using a translation, you are at the mercy of the translator. You are subject to their biases, worldviews, theological position, and opinions. Translation always requires a bit of interpretation. Most translators approach the text with one of two approaches: dynamic equivalence or essentially literal.
Essentially literal translations focus on the actual words of the text. It is called essentially literal because it is impossible to provide an exact literal translation of anything. Grammar differs from one language to the next. If you translated one word after another you would simply get a bunch of words in a random order that doesn’t make sense in the language to which you are translating. So, essentially literal translators also have to make allowances and adjustments in order for the sentences to be coherent. This is why it’s called essentially literal and not just literal. Examples of essentially literal translations include the King James Version (KJV), New King James (NKJV), Lexham English Bible (LEB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).
Dynamic equivalence translations focus on the idea of the text. They are trying to convey the original message of the passage in a way that the modern reader can easily understand. Unlike the essentially literal translations which focus on word-for-word, dynamic equivalence focuses on thought-for-thought. Examples of dynamic equivalence translations include the Revised English Bible (REB), New Living Translation (NLT), and the Good News Bible (GNB).
Of course, there are some translations that fall somewhere in the middle of these two translation types, such as the Amplified Bible, the New International Bible (NIV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). These translations use a little of both techniques in their translations. They are neither fully essentially literal nor are they fully dynamic equivalence in their translation.
So what is the best translation to use? Well, if you are like me and believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God, then the words of the text are what are inspired and inerrant. Therefore, I always recommend essentially literal translations. Preferably, you should choose one that uses the oldest and most complete ancient manuscripts in their translations such as the English Standard Version, which is the translation that I most recommend to friends and students. This would be a good version to use for your daily devotional reading and for memorizing. For study, you can use this and compare it with a few other translations to help you get the most out of the passages you are studying.