Which Bible Translation is the Best?

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The books of the Bible were originally written in ancient Hebrew and in 1st century Greek (with small portions written in Aramaic). Since most of us do not speak those languages, when we study the Bible, we are forced to read a translation.

Among the many linguistic groups on earth, there are close to 4,000 that do not have the Bible translated into their language. But we English-speakers are blessed. So far over 100 complete English-language Bible translations have been produced, and it seems like new ones are coming out every day.

This, of course, confronts us with the question: Which Bible translation is the best? The answer to that question is: It all depends. It depends on what you are looking for in a translation. Some versions are good for one use. Others are good for another.

Bible translators follow various translation philosophies when they do their work.

  • Some seek to produce a formal equivalence in their translation. This is where they try (as much as possible) to render a word-for-word translation of the text. The advantage of this kind of translation is that it gives the reader a good idea of the word structure of the original passage. A disadvantage of this approach is that it can sound wooden and clunky to the reader. A good English-language translation that follows this approach is The New American Standard Bible.
  • Another translation philosophy aims for a functional equivalence of the original. These translators seek to produce as literal a translation as possible without holding to a rigid word-for-word rendering of the text. These translations are usually more readable than formal equivalence versions, while still retaining much of the verbal accuracy. A good English-language translation that follows this approach is The English Standard Version.
  • Another approach to translation seeks to produce a dynamic equivalence of the original. Rather than aiming for a word-for-word translation, the idea is to produce a thought-for-thought translation. Though criticized by some for being less accurate, these versions of the Bible approach translation the way most people do in the real world. A child of an immigrant family, translating for her mother in the doctor’s office, will probably instinctively follow this approach, seeking to be clearly understood rather than to be rigidly accurate. A good English-language translation that follows this approach is The New International Version.
  • Some Bible versions are technically paraphrases, rather than translations. A paraphrase takes the thoughts of the original text and re-phrases them in the language and idioms of the reader. Paraphrases are not generally recommended for academic study of a passage, because they do not aim for accuracy, but they can be amazingly refreshing when read for devotional purposes. Some well-known English paraphrases of the Bible are The Living Bible, The JB Phillips New Testament, and The Message.

To understand the difference in these translation philosophies, consider how we might translate into English the Spanish phrase “Me gusta el café.”

  • A formal equivalence translation of this phrase would be, “The coffee pleases me.”
  • A functional equivalence version would say, “Coffee pleases me.”
  • A dynamic equivalence translator would render the phrase as, “I like coffee.”
  • A paraphrase of the Spanish might be, “A cuppa joe is yummy in my tummy.”

Which translation is best? It all depends on what you are aiming for.

My advice is to find a respected Bible translation you are comfortable with and dive into reading it. The important thing is to spend time in God’s Word. At end of the day, the translation you actually read is better than any translation left unread.

In preparing to preach or teach, I find it helpful to read a passage in various translations. (The King James Version, for example, is amazingly helpful for detecting whether second person pronouns are singular or plural in the original. If it says “thou” or “thee” it is singular. If it says “you” or “ye” it is plural.) In my daily Bible reading, I will switch the translation I am using from time to time, so that I can “hear” God’s Word with fresh ears. I love it when I come to a Community Group and the group members have different translations to share with each other. Hearing the passage in various versions always seems to enhance my understanding of what we are studying.

The worst thing to do, I think, is to look down on other Christians because you disapprove of the Bible they are reading. (However, if they are reading The New World Translation go out and buy them a new Bible as soon as possible.) I once knew some people who caused a church split because they insisted that everyone should be reading The King James Version. What a tragedy!

And, of course, we should pray for those people in our world who still do not have a version of the Bible in their language. To donate to an organization devoted to translating Scripture for unreached ethnic groups click here.