Monday, 29 August 2011

Which Bible Translation Is the Best?

English is privileged above all other languages to have many excellent translations. In the Bible translations wars, it is embarrassing that we fight so vigorously over which one is the best, when in fact any of our top five translations are better than any Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Indian version. Few of the 4 million Nagas in the Himalayan foothills have access to a version in their native language. Thus, it is with some embarrassment that I dare give my opinion on English translations.


Task Oriented Translations

Preliminarily, I deny that there is such a thing as the BEST English translation. The issue for English versions is which one is best for the particular job. We have to ask, Which version is best for…

  • Evangelism or new converts? (New Living Translation)
  • Detailed word-for-word study? (English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, American Standard Version 1901)
  • Public reading? (New International Version)
  • Intensive reading programs such as read-the-Bible-in-a-year programs? (New Living Translation)
  • Children? (New International readers’ Version—NIrV)
  • Adults with reading disabilities or difficulties? (New International readers’ Version—NIrV)
  • Solemn or stately occasions? (KJV; New King James Version)
  • The most powerful vocabulary to convey difficult concepts found in the Greek? (New English Bible)
  • Memorization? (New International Version)
  • Artistic, high impact rendering (The Message)


While Bible users should settle on one primary version, they should recognize that some translations are more effective for certain tasks.


Formal Equivalent vs. Dynamic Equivalence

Translations can be placed between two extremes. On the far left are those versions which attempt a word-for-word equivalence. This is called “formal equivalence.” This approach attempts to give exact representation to the Greek and Hebrew syntax, and to reduce vocabulary down to its most common meaning (not nuanced meaning). So, if the Greek has five words, it will try to use five English words in translation. Greek idiomatic expressions are represented literally, instead of idiomatically. Word order and order of clauses are retained as much as possible. English style is not prioritized. The most extreme examples of formal equivalence yield an English text which sounds like “translation English,” much as a foreign diplomat with poor English skills would talk. (King James Version does have some archaic elements in it, but much of its peculiarity derives from its formal translation of the Greek and Hebrew—it is translation English!)

On the far right are those versions which attempt to convey accurately the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew, without being slavish to the syntax of the original languages. This is called “dynamic equivalence.” There is no concern for exact representation of syntax, and biblical idioms are put into natural English language. Priority is given to English style so that there is no hint of the awkward elements in the original language which might otherwise adversely affect the translation.

Here are some contrasting examples between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence (the two lists correspond to each other):

Formal Equivalence

  1. he lifted up his eyes to Jesus
  2. bowels and mercies
  3. Jesus said to him, saying
  4. And the LORD said to Abram
  5. And they, having heard the king, went
  6. And opening his mouth, he taught them saying
  7. And it came to pass, sitting at meat, he spoke


Dynamic Equivalence

  1. he looked at Jesus
  2. compassion and mercies
  3. Jesus said to him
  4. Now, the LORD said to Abram
  5. After hearing the king’s instructions, they went
  6. He began to teach them. He said
  7. Later, while eating, he said


The advantage of formal equivalence is that it gives the Bible student a good idea of the exact wording of the original language. This approach is excellent for careful, detailed analysis of the text. Conversely, the advantage of dynamic equivalence is that it is easy to read, for it conveys the message in natural English.


Specific Versions

Of the standard English versions, the most formal equivalent translation is American Standard Version 1901 (widely available on-line and in most Bible software). Less rigid formal equivalent versions are English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible (1995 update).

Today’s most popular and best dynamic equivalent version is New Living Translation. Additionally, Today’s English Version (= Good News Bible) was widely popular in the last quarter century, and remains useful. Since these versions prioritize English style, they are excellent for those who might spend an hour or longer of (non-contemplative) straight-through Bible reading. They are also useful for evangelism, or to introduce the Bible to people who are unfamiliar with biblical lingo.

There are several versions which are in between the two extremes. Preeminent of these is New International Version. It attempts to serve two masters equally—one master being the Greek and Hebrew syntax, the other master being English style. Thus, NIV attempts to mirror the Greek and Hebrew as much as possible, while keeping good English style. This balanced approach makes NIV an excellent translation for memorization and for public reading. As such, it would serve well as anyone’s primary Bible translation. NIV is produced by evangelical translators.

New Revised Standard Version also attempts to be balanced between formal and dynamic equivalent. It is slightly more formal than NIV, and is popular among mainline (less conservative and liberal) denominations. The New American Bible, which was produced by Catholic scholars, also takes a balanced approach.


Comparing Versions

Those researching a given biblical passage should compare several versions for differences in meaning. If only four translations can be used, I recommend using New King James Version, American Standard Version, New International Version, and New Living Translation. If eight translations can be used, I recommend using these four plus English Standard Version (or New American Standard Bible), New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, and Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Where NKJV differs from the other versions, it may be due to textual issues rather than translational issues.

2 comments:

The Seeking Disciple said...

Don't forget how some times a dynamic equivalent will seek to clarify the text by making a judgment on the text. For instance, Ephesians 3:18 in the ESV as compared to the NIV where the NIV translators add "love of Christ" despite it not being in the Greek text.

James M. Leonard said...

Not quite fair to claim that "love of Christ" is not in the Greek, given its occurrence in v. 19.