Monday, May 16, 2011

Which is the Best Bible Translation?

For over two hundred years, the King James Version (KJV) reigned supreme as the English Bible. However, there are a number of reasons why it is not the best translation for daily use for most Christians. Among these reasons are: 1) Since the translation of the KJV, many more Greek manuscripts have been discovered that give us a better picture of what was in the original writings of the New Testament letters, 2) Since the translation of the KJV our knowledge the ancient languages and ancient cultures has increased. 3) Since the KJV, our understanding of linguistics has increased. Most importantly, 4) the KJV uses archaic language that is not easily understood (and often misunderstood) by modern readers.

For most people, the discussions about ancient languages and manuscripts seems a bit esoteric. Furthermore, these factors account for little difference in the most popular translations. The real issue is, which is the most accurate translation?

The problem of “literal” translations

While this seems like a straightforward question, is a bit more complicated. The question, “which is the most accurate?” can be taken in two ways? By most accurate, does one mean the translation that is the most literal or does most accurate mean the translation that gives the modern reader the most accurate understanding?

Some might think that the most accurate translation is the one that is the most literal. That is, a translation is accurate by translating word for word from the original language to English. However, there are times that a “word for word” translation leads to an inaccurate, misleading, or unintelligible translation.

For example, if a Spanish speaker wants to say “My nose is cold” in Spanish, she would say, “Tengo frio en la nariz.” However, a literal translation of that sentence into English would be “I have cold in my nose.” In this case, a word for word translation would be misleading. One might think this person is saying that she has a runny or stuffed up nose. So, even though it is a word for word translation, it is inaccurate and misleading.

If you say “Thank you,” to someone and he replies in Spanish, he would probably say, “De nada.” However, a word-for-word translation of de nada would be “of” [de] “nothing” [nada]. Yet, that does not make sense in English. Once again, a word for word translation would be misleading.

Another problem with trying to translate strictly word-for-word from one language to another is that most words have a wide range of meanings. Few words in one language have the exact same range of meaning as a word in a different language. Their meanings overlap, but they are not identical.

For example, consider the English word “capital.” If I said, “I am trying to raise capital to start a business in the Colorado capital of Denver (where the “D” should be a capital letter). I thought that was a capital idea. In Denver, murder is a capital offense.” In the first instance, the word “capital” means money. However, if I translated it consistently that way, then it would make sense. It would read, “I am trying to raise money to start a business in the Colorado money of Denver (where the “D” should be a money letter). I thought that was a money idea. In Denver, murder is a money offense.”

Another problem with a literal, word-for-word translation is that it usually does not sound very natural. The beauty of a phrase or passage can be lost by the literalness of the translation. The beauty and style are part of the meaning. That is, not only the meaning of the words, but how words sound, are part of the meaning of a passage of Scripture.

For example, Shakespeare said, “A rose is a rose by any other name.” A person might “translate” that as, “No matter what name you give to a rose, it is still a rose.” In one sense, the two sentences mean the same thing. In another, they are very different. The reader does not react to the second sentence in the same way he would to the first. In translating the Bible, the meaning is not only conveyed in the particular content of each word, but also in the sound and style of the sentence.

A final problem with literal translations is that there are times when a literal translation simply very difficult to understand in English. At times, the Apostle Paul writes very long sentences in the Greek. Because of the differences between Greek grammar and English grammar, these sentences are intelligible in the Greek, but would be very confusing in English. That is why most, if not all, English translations, break up some of Paul’s long sentences into shorter ones.

Bill Mounce, who was the New Testament Editor for the English Standard Version (ESV) as well as a member of the New International Version (NIV) translation committee writes, “I wonder if a ‘literal’ translation that makes no real sense in English can accurately be called ‘literal,’ or even a translation that makes a biblical writer sound almost illiterate. . .I am simply wondering if a ‘word of word’ translation that makes no real sense can in any way be called ‘accurate.’”[1]

The problem of non-literal translations

All translations require some interpretative work on the part of the translator. However, when one is dealing with the Word of God, the desire is to keep interpretation to a minimum. As Christians who believe in that the Bible is inspired (literally, God-breathed), we believe that the Bible is inerrant as originally given.[2] Because we believe that every word of Scripture, and not just the ideas, are inspired by God, we desire to have translations that reflect this most accurately. The less literal a translation, the more interpretive it is. Since our desire is to read God’s Word, and not merely an interpretation of God’s Word, the more a translation can reflect the original meaning and the original wording, the better.

In an attempt to “smooth” out a translation to make it readable to the English reader, some aspects of the original are lost. For example, in Galatians, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word for “flesh” 18 different times. Yet, this one word is translated several different ways by modern translations. The chart below shows how both the NIV and the ESV handle this word.




Galatians 1:16

I did not consult any man

I did not immediately consult with anyone

Galatians 2:16

no one will be justified.

no one will be justified.

Galatians 2:20

The life I live in the body

the life I now live in the flesh

Galatians 3:3

are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

are you now being perfected by the flesh

Galatians 4:13

because of an illness

because of a bodily ailment

Galatians 4:14

Even though my illness was a trial to you

and though my condition was a trial to you

Galatians 4:23

was born in the ordinary way;

born according to the flesh

Galatians 4:29

born in the ordinary way

born according to the flesh

Galatians 5:13

But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature

Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh

Galatians 5:16

the desires of the sinful nature

the desires of the flesh

Galatians 5:17

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh

Galatians 5:19

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious:

Now the works of the flesh are evident

Galatians 5:24

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature

those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh

Galatians 6:8

The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction;

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption

Galatians 6:12

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh

Galatians 6:13

they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh

they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh

In this instance, the NIV translates the word for flesh nine different ways and the ESV translates it five different ways. Neither translation is woodenly literal. Yet, each can be given to different misunderstandings. If a new Christian were to read the ESV, he might misunderstand what Paul is saying and think that the body itself is evil. He could fall into a dualism that sees the spiritual world as good and the physical world as evil. On the other hand, with both translations, especially the NIV, one misses the thread of “flesh” that Paul has woven throughout the book of Galatians. He will not see the connections that Paul might be making throughout the book, particularly in the way he uses the word “flesh” in chapters 5 and 6.

If the language sounds stilted or wooden, or it sounds like the Bible was written by someone for whom English is not their natural language, then part of the meaning and impact of a text is lost.

Bottom Line – Which is the Best Translation?

I don’t think there is a single answer to this question. Fortunately, there does not need to be a single best translation. I think most Christians are best served by having more than one Bible translation. Here are the translations I recommend for various uses:

English Standard Version – (Literal) Good for everyday use for most Christians. Also good for detailed study of a passage of Scripture. Tends to be more literal.

New International Version – (More Readable) Good for new Christians and for reading larger sections of Scripture. However, I must confess I do not like some of the changes they have made with the 2011 version.

New American Standard Bible – (Very Literal) This is the most literal translation Available. If you want to know what the Greek says, this is the Bible to get. However, it is lacking in beauty and readability.

The Message – (Very Readable) This is very dynamic and does a good job of conveying the sense in modern English. This is good both for those who are very familiar with the Bible and for those who have no familiarity at all. For those who are very familiar, this translation will shed a different light on certain passages. For those who are not familiar at all, this is the most readable translation available. However, it is not very literal and is highly interpretative. For most Christians, I would recommend this as a supplement to their study and not as their “main” Bible.

The Living Bible and The New Living Translation – (Very Readable) The Living Bible is a paraphrase. That is, the “translator” simply took the King James and put it into modern English. This Bible is very nostalgic to me because it was the Bible I used in my early years of high school and helped the Word come alive to me. Both of these are good for new believers and for reading large sections of the Bible.

[2] For more on this, see either the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy or the Ligonier Statement.


eddie said...

Thanks for this post. However it is worth pointing out that the situation in English where we have many different translations is a rarity in the world. In fact there are still over 2,000 languages without a single word of Scripture available to them.

Bill Petro said...

"That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"

Perhaps we need another word than "accurate". Perhaps "precise"?

"Accurate" translations are most useful if you know the vocabulary and grammar of the original Greek. If not, a word-for-word translation is wooden and daunting. NASB is an example. The Message translates into contemporary American idioms, but may be out of date in a few decades.

Matthaeus Flexibilis said...

Peter Williams (on the ESV committee) says the best Bible translation is the one you take up and read often.

tericee said...

Typo: "However, if I translated it consistently that way, then it would make sense."

You meant "wouldn't" make sense, right?