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  • Writer's picturePaul Byrd

Bible Translations - demystified?

When you go to purchase a Bible, there are seemingly hundreds of options. So, what do I buy? There are distinct types, translations, uses, applications, etc. Today, let's talk about different translations.

I. What is a Translation?

Translation - a rendering of one language into another or the product of that rendering.

By this definition, translation means to take a writing in one language and rewriting it into the equivalent words in another language. This is much more nuanced than it seems. Considering the different writing styles of the Bible, a direct, meaningful translation may be more difficult to come by than you think! If one were to take each word of the Bible and define it exactly in English, the writing wouldn't make much sense. This is the plight of the Interlinear Bible, which is the original languages written out with the new language underneath every word. While being the most direct translation of the original language, it is not clear and therefore isn't much help to the layperson trying to read the Word of God. The range of translations available today is second to no time in history. I have given the “old college try” to come up with an exhaustive list of Bible translations, but about the time I think I have reached the end, there's another two or three. I've given a handy chart above which lays out the different translations from “word-for-word” to “thought-for-thought” to paraphrase for some of the most popular translations available. Even at that, there's a discrepancy as to which translation lies where on the chart depending on the person making the chart. For example, the King James Version is a translation of the Latin Vulgate written by Jerome in the 4th century. It is a translation of the Greek in both New and Old Testaments so therefore Jerome was translating to Latin from a Greek translation of the original Hebrew in the Old Testament. The King James version therefore may be an exceptional translation from the Latin to the English, but it is at best a translation of a translation and falls short of the original language at times.

II. Who creates translations?

Unfortunately, the answer is not as straightforward as we would like. As for the reliable translations, either there exists a team of theologians that will work on the translation together or in many cases a large panel of theologians will work on a translation by breaking the Canon up into smaller collections of books and assigning them to one or two theologians to translate and then be reviewed and overseen by the editor. However, there are no rules to making a translation of the Bible and there are some that are simply creating their own translations -telling what they want the Bible to say instead of what the original language says. These tend to be considered paraphrases such as “The Living Bible”, “The Message”, or “The Passion Translation”. In the case of “The Living Bible” and “The Passion Translation”, singular men with no credentials whatsoever rewrote the Bible using their own language and personal interpretation.

III. Why are there so many?

As explained in Part 2, anyone that fancies themselves qualified can create a translation of the Bible. Therefore, it is important to know the translation philosophy of each translation you are considering reading. For example, the NASB is a translation regarded as being one of - if not the - most literal translations of the original text available, created by scholars who were dedicated to the inerrancy of the original manuscripts. I once had a staff pastor tell me that it was a Calvinist translation. I enjoyed that assessment coming from a Pentecostal NLT reader. Since the NASB is the closest to the original language, even in his eyes it stands as an undeniable source of original theology. As times change and language “evolves” (whether for the better or worse is up to debate as well), the keepers of the translations feel the need to revise their product to keep it fresh and new - and sell more copies. For example, the NASB began as a project to update the American Standard Version (ASV) from 1901 with a translation philosophy to stay as true to the original language as possible. Many “new” ancient manuscripts had been discovered for textual criticism, so in 1959 a project launched for a new, accurate translation from the original manuscripts. The NASB officially released in 1971 as a full Bible with the New Testament being released in 1963. The translation was revised in 1977, 1995, and the latest in 2020. It is widely regarded as the most literal translation available as a formal equivalence translation. The Lockman Foundation website states, “Instead of the translation choice telling the reader what to think, the NASB simply provides the most precise English translation it can.”

The NASB 2020 was released to criticism by scholars for its inclusive language and straying from the original philosophy of the translators, leading to the staff at the Master’s Seminary to pick up the torch and produce the Legacy Standard Bible. It is an update to the NASB 95 that they compared word-for-word to the original manuscripts and made sure the formal equivalence was upheld as well as changing some of the text to be even more precise than the NASB.

IV. How do I choose?

There are many ways that people come to choose their favorite translation of the Bible. For some, it has to do with their denomination (like a Roman Catholic). For others, they were given a Bible as a gift - maybe even as a child - and accept it without knowing or caring what the translation is. Some succumb to marketing and get whatever is popular at the time - which in the 70’s or 80’s was most likely The Living Bible or the NIV. Some look for readability only, so they may end up with a paraphrase such as The Message. If you're reading this article and get this far, however, even though one of these situations may have described your journey thus far, you're now wanting to delve deeper into God's word and are looking for guidance on how to do just that. I hope this article has helped.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

· What translation would help me to best grow in the Word?

· Should I have more than one translation?

· Do I use resources that use a certain translation for citation?

· What translation does my pastor use?

In my opinion, you should use a translation that is as close to the original language as possible. The Bible is only inerrant and infallible in its original language. Translators may disagree which word or words in your language that succinctly convey the meaning of the original text, hence the multiple translations listed as “word-for-word”. These are ranked in accuracy by taking multiple verses and reading them in each translation and then comparing them to the original text. This leads to the difference as to the placement on multiple charts and graphs that you will find, since it is subjective to the one making the chart.

This also does not mean that translations such as the N IV have no value. The translators are Bible scholars, they just made the philosophical choice to use interpretive language when translating the text because of reasons of understanding of words, phrases, or colloquialisms. These translations can be helpful as having a commentary built into the verbiage of the Bible. I, along with many others, use multiple translations during my study of the Word. One popular pastor made the comment that he liked to read the ESV for enjoyment but does not preach from it. Also, it is always good to have the same version as your pastor for following along during services. If your pastor preaches from a paraphrase such as The Message or worse, then that may be an indicator that it's time to find a new church!

These articles have been about translations of the Bible. There will be other articles on study bibles, commentaries, and other study tools, but hopefully I’ve demystified translations for you at least a little. There are also several websites that compare the translations and have them side-by-side for each verse. They are also great study tools, However, I want to encourage you to use a physical Bible as opposed to an electronic device. There is certainly something to be said for holding a Bible in your hand, being able to write your own comments in the margins so that as you read over and over the Word of God can speak to you. I write all my papers and posts at my desk with a fountain pen before I transfer them to the computer. Sometimes the old ways are the best.

God bless you on your journey!

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