What English Bible translation should I use? This is a perennial question, so I’m posting my thoughts at the present time, and I’ll update them as they change. The question has to be answered with questions. For what use? And who is asking?
Two Basic Uses
There is spiritual (“devotional”) reading, and there is study. The line between the two is fuzzy—should be fuzzy; study is also a spiritual discipline. But there is no doubt that there are different kinds of reading. Readings practiced primarily for encounter with God, well-known among them lectio divina, are in practice very distinct from those intended for textual analysis.
Spiritual reading calls for a translation that best communicates without the need for careful study. Spiritual reading practices often focus on a single word or phrase, so the issue is not simply that many people take in large sections of text in their daily reading, thereby precluding detailed examination. Rather, the issue is that some translations are not made for readability, which aims to reduce distance and noise between reader and text. If a translation succeeds at making the text highly readable, the reader can focus on communion with God (listening) instead of on understanding word choices and syntax (scrutinizing). Another important dynamic of spiritual reading is textual aesthetics (verbal beauty). Though some conservative Christians are prone to be overly cognitive, the communicative power of a beautiful or evocative turn of phrase cannot be overestimated. Herein lies the enduring strength of the KJV. Archaic though it may be, the poetry of the translation is not lost even on modern English speakers. Here, though, the question of the original text’s aesthetics should be an issue for translators, and this is where one might wish for “dynamic equivalent” translations to live up to their own ideals. Dynamic equivalence is often described as a “though-for-thought” translation, over against verbal equivalence, which is supposedly “word-for-word.” This is simplistic, however. Dynamic equivalence actually aims for precisely what the name suggest: for the equivalence between original and translation to be that of their dynamic. This means the effect produced in the reader should be the same. And the point for spiritual reading is that it is difficult to produce the same effect or dynamic if the aesthetics of the text are not comparable. We face a huge hurdle here, because aesthetics vary so greatly from culture to culture. For example, it is impossible for me as a twenty-first century American to savor parallelism as an ancient Hebrew would have done. Likewise, there are many dimensions of the New Testament revealed by rhetorical analysis that are lost on readers of other cultures. But we have to admit that beauty is an important facet of spirituality, and we would do well to read translations that attempt to represent the beauty of the originals, especially when it comes to submitting ourselves to the total impact of the reading.
By “study” I mean analysis of the words of the text to understand their range of meaning. We may spiritually discern meaning from the text through prayer, mediation, and other spiritual disciplines, but it is also true that God spoke through the human languages of human authors and, in that sense, put limits on the meaning conveyed by the text per se. This invites massive discussions about how we make meaning from texts (hermeneutics), but for the purpose of this post I simply mean to indicate that study is concerned with the meaning of the biblical text’s words, which their historical-cultural context determines. To really study such meaning, the analysis of the original texts in their original languages is non-negotiable. But this kind of study is not the role or responsibility of every church member. Nonetheless, when it comes to Bible study in one’s own language, translations that leave interpretive decisions to the student are best. While a dynamic equivalent translation may put a phrase into one’s own idiom, and in so doing make an interpretive decision, a verbal equivalent translation will tend to leave a phrase in more culturally (linguistically) unintelligible terms. A simple example of this is the value of money. Consider the following differences between the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the Easy-to-Read Version:
|But He answered them, “You give them something to eat!” And they *said to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred [t]denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” [t. The denarius was equivalent to one day’s wage]||But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages[e]! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” [e. Greek take two hundred denarii]||But Jesus answered, “You give them some food to eat.” They said to Jesus, “We can’t buy enough bread to feed all these people. We would all have to work a month to earn enough to buy that much bread!”|
|Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a [g]denarius to look at.” They brought one. And He *said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” [g. The denarius was a day’s wages]||Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”||But Jesus knew that these men were really trying to trick him. He said, “Why are you trying to catch me saying something wrong? Bring me a silver coin. Let me see it.” They gave Jesus a coin and he asked, “Whose picture is on the coin? And whose name is written on it?” They answered, “It is Caesar’s picture and Caesar’s name.”|
I reiterate that this is a simple example that illustrates the way translations handle cultural distance. For readers unfamiliar with the NASB, a couple of clarifications are necessary. First, in the NASB italics indicate words supplied in English that do not appear in the original language. Second, the asterisk indicates past tense in English that is actually in the present tense in the Greek (because the present can be used as past). As these editorial decisions indicate, the NASB is concerned with as “literal” a representation of the original language as possible. The NASB and the NIV both use short notes to further qualify or clarify their translations. In Mark 6:37 the NASB opts for a direct rendering of the Greek term for the coins in question (denarii), adds a note that gives the value of the denarius, and leaves extrapolation to the reader. The NIV takes the opposite approach, attempting to give an equivalent sense of the cost (more than half a year’s wages), and adds a note that mentions the original. The ERV takes an equivalency approach similar to the NIV but foregoes the note (notes are not especially easy to read . . .). All of them convey the idea of great cost in their own way, but the point in regard to study is that a so-called verbal equivalent translation gives the reader the chance to study what the text means by analyzing what it says, whereas a so-called dynamic equivalent takes that opportunity away from the reader by trying to provide a meaning already.
Interestingly, in Mark 12:15–16, the NIV uses the word denarius, supplies the word coin as its interpretive clue, and adds no note about its value, because that is not at issue in the story. The ERV also ignores its value but continues to avoid the foreign word denarius, calling it instead a “silver coin.” The NASB again uses the Greek word and adds the same note about its value, and where the NIV adds “coin” the NASB adds the vague “one,” leaving the reader to infer or learn elsewhere that it is a coin. If these examples have served my purpose, it should be clear that many times a less interpretive translation will be of value to the student who wants to examine a version that more closely represents the wording of the Greek text, even if this means it will often be awkward and obscure in English (as the NASB tends to be). I say “less interpretive” instead of “more literal,” because the word literal is fraught with difficulty. For example, we can talk about literal wording in the NASB but perhaps literal meaning in the NIV. Every translation is an interpretation, and the claim to represent the Greek more faithfully by not interpreting certain aspects of the original language can be completely false. On the whole, though, by comparing verbal and dynamic equivalent translations, verbal equivalence tends to point my study in the direction of questions I would not know to ask if I relied on a dynamic equivalent.
It is worth mentioning here that even very interpretive translations can be marketed as “Study Bibles.” What “Study Bible” usually means is that the edition includes study notes. The nature of these notes may vary widely, though often they are commentary of a more theological bent. That is, they provide additional interpretation. The quality and usefulness of interpretive study notes depends completely on the calibre of the interpreter who writes them. Some are outstanding, some are not. In the former case, they are obviously helpful, but I would just as soon have trustworthy full commentaries close to hand, because even the best study notes are truncated to save space. Furthermore, I prefer study notes that serve to enlighten the translation. These may be more or less theological, but they tend to focus on the historical-cultural factors that give sense to the text, in addition to syntactical, lexical, or stylistic concerns that translation can obscure.
Kinds of Readers
The differences between reading levels are a real consideration. If the Bible were translated to represent reading levels in the original languages, there would be quite a variety among its books. Some are high art or the eloquent prose of the scholarly class and others are down-to-earth and colloquial. It is exceedingly difficult to represent such diversity, and translations generally flatten the canon to a single reading level. Aside from difficulty, though, there is another important motivation: translators and publishers want the text to be accessible, and this means aiming for a particular reading level. And the issue is not just reading ability: while many of us can read at a high school level with relative ease, the fact is that many of us also prefer to read at an easier level. And broadly, Protestant Bible translation is committed to encouraging Bible reading among the whole priesthood of believers. We can note objectively that the NIV, a middle-school-level translation, continues to be the bestselling translation in the US. Of course, reading level alone doesn’t account for this statistic, but it is worth noting nonetheless when 87.65% of Americans have at least a high school education (US Census Bureau). Reading level essentially has to do with vocabulary and the complexity of sentences. Even good collegiate-level style will break complex (grammatically sound) sentences into simpler ones for the sake of clarity, but translation is beholden to the original text, which is sometimes very complex, even convoluted. The issue is the need to maintain syntactical connections, which can be obscured by breaking up an original sentence. Connotation and verbal nuance are also an important dimension of higher reading levels. Uncommon English vocabulary may best communicate the connotation of a biblical word. The original biblical languages contain words for which English does not have a close lexical equivalent. In these cases, translation requires additional words or phrases. A well-know example is the translation of the Hebrew word ḥesed: “loving kindness” or “unfailing love” are typical translations. It is not sufficient to say “love” or “kindness,” and even “unfailing loving kindness” does not necessarily capture it. But at lower reading levels, even English words that might serve at times become expanded for the sake of using common vocabulary. This is not a criticism but a reality of translation.
Another, often overlooked factor for selecting a translation is personality. By this I mean that one dimension of personality is the way a person processes information. To draw an aesthetic analogy, people process information as differently as the way a realist and an impressionist paint the same subject matter—or on two extremes, the way a hyperrealist and an abstractionist do. One popular theory of these differences is the Sensing and Intuition measures of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. There is no need to overstate the impact of personality. Some people live on the extremes, but the rule is that everyone can and must process information in multiple ways. Still, an important aspect of choosing a translation is how likely you are to read it. Those who naturally approach Scripture in terms of concrete details are more likely to feel drawn to read a translation on the “verbal equivalent” end of the spectrum. Those who naturally approach Scripture in terms of broad strokes will prefer to read a “dynamic equivalent” translation. This is not a matter of good or bad. Translation comparison is always indispensable, so there is no question of neglect in these preferences. Altogether, readers need the specifics and the big picture. But where one starts and what encourages reading in the first place are important considerations if we are asking about how to select translations.
Choose from Contemporary Translations
The Problem with Older Translations
Simply stated, the problem with older translations is that progress in biblical and translation studies is real. The KJV is case in point. The field of text criticism has come a long way. Even if one chooses to let four hundred-year-old English obscure the text’s meaning, the more fundamental issue is that the Textus Receptus (the source text underlying the KJV) is not our best text (see Fee 1978 and Wallace 2004). On this point, the NKJV’s stubborn use of the Textus Receptus is mind boggling to me. Somewhat updating the English of the KJV does not count as making a contemporary translation. Contemporary scholarship—that is to say, our best knowledge at present—is an essential aspect of responsible translation. So let me say unequivocally: I recommend that you not use the KJV or the NKJV. They are not your best access to Scripture.
Likewise, progress in our understanding of translation is significant. The proliferation of dynamic equivalent translations is a recent phenomenon, even if significant parts of its wisdom are ancient. This is because we have progressed in our understanding of how best to convey meaning in translation and recognize the need to do so for the contemporary reader. Recent verbal equivalent translations still tend toward the same cumbersome English as older translations, but even they make concessions to the overturn of the myth of total verbal equivalency. I’m not claiming flatly that newer is better; bad new translations are possible. But the traditionalist impulse of churches tends to obscure the data that compels hundreds of scholars to continue to work on new translations.
Some Good Options
I’ve adapted a number of sources to put together this chart, which places some commendable translations on the typical continuum of formal–functional (verbal–dynamic) equivalency, in relation to their approximate reading levels. The continuum is not to scale: the translations are simply placed along the continuum to indicate relative equivalency. The basic trend is that translations are more difficult to read the more verbally equivalent they are, and vice versa. Again, part of the issue is that verbal equivalence can produce bad English, which requires more inferential reasoning to decipher, and part of the issue is that the motivation of dynamic equivalence includes the desire to make the text accessible to the “typical” reader.
A Little More On “Equivalence”
The notion of equivalence—verbal or dynamic—is questionable, but a discussion of linguistic theory is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that the equivalence continuum is conventional and represents a real phenomenon in Bible translation, even if the theory behind that phenomenon needs continual probing. The important point is to understand what translators are really after: all the way along the continuum the goal is faithfulness to the original text. This entails, in one way or another, a representation—re-presentation—of the original text in a way that communicates to some intended (imaginary) audience. The process always establishes priorities, which are varied and complex. When all is said and done, we can be thankful for the diversity that the spectrum exhibits. If translation cannot achieve equivalency, at least it can quite practically produce a range of interpretive strategies that together give us more access to the originals.
Always Compare Translations
While almost everyone ends up with a primary translation, the question “Which Bible translation should I use?” begins with the wrong assumption. The question should be, “Which translations should I use?” Hopefully this post has made it clear that different translations have their strengths and weaknesses. No one should be a “literal translation” person or an “NIV person.” This kind of narrowness is pointless, and it fails to see the need for comparison. My primary translation is the NRSV. I like the more verbal equivalent approach for my personal reading, and I think the NRSV’s prose tends to be more elegant at times than the NIV, which I grew up reading. In practice, I do read the NRSV more than others, but when it comes to really exploring a passage (whether in spiritual reflection or study), I would never limit myself to just one version. In fact, the more dynamic translations are of great interest, because the translators have already done painstaking work to understand the way English speakers tend to hear a passage’s ideas. That interpretive insight is invaluable.
The NET Bible
One of the most overlooked major translations in existence is the NET Bible. Aside from being a solid committee translation right in the middle range of the spectrum, it is very important for three reasons. First, it is primarily a digital Bible (its name is New English Translation, which in abbreviated form plays on the word net in reference to the internet). It can be purchased in hard copy, but it was made in order to be free on the internet. I think the leadership at bible.org that commissioned the NET for this purpose was visionary. In addition to the fact that the Bible should be free, the internet has taken publishing toward open access in a way that could barely be foreseen in 1995 (see more about the NET’s story in its Preface).
Two, the people behind the NET recognized the opportunity that an internet format would afford: no space restrictions on notes. This could have gone many directions in term of content, but to my mind they made the most important contribution to English Bible translations in recent history. Instead of theological or “application” notes, the NET features extensive translation notes that allow the reader to “look over the translator’s shoulder at the very process of translation.” Whatever translation you choose, you will want to reference these notes.
Three, in the spirit of bible.org’s early perceptiveness about the internet, the NET’s user interface has constantly evolved. While http://bible.org is a pretty decent website, and the NET’s informational website http://netbible.com is fairly mediocre, the translation’s actual user interface is a gorgeous web 2.0 experience. It is in its third major iteration and so far evinces the design responsiveness we could hope for from a translation that exists to make the most of the ever-changing internet. Try it out at http://lumina.bible.org and create a user account to get the most out of the experience.
If the NET is so extraordinary, why has it been overlooked? I think a major reason is that it doesn’t make much money from publication, so it doesn’t spend money on marketing. I also suspect that many people who are exploring Bible translations are looking to purchase something they can hold in their hands and take to church. The NET has a significant web presence, and information about it is easy to find, but you have to be interested in a digital version to pay attention. I believe the NET will become increasingly influential, and I pray that its assumptions will become even more so. This should be the future of Bible translation.
Sites and Apps
The best site for accessing and comparing multiple translations is http://biblegateway.com. Though their interface is relatively unattractive (and littered with Zionist ads), they have a wide range of translations, and they provide a way to view multiple translations in parallel. BibleGateway also has mobile and Kindle apps (http://biblegateway.com/app) with the option to sync user data across multiple mobile devices. Unfortunately, the website itself does not include a user account, so personalized study is limited to the app.
Another good option is http://bible.com. It’s interface is much more attractive, and it is built around a user account that syncs with its mobile app (https://bible.com/app), meaning notes, bookmarks, etc. are available on your computer (in-browser) as well as your mobile device or tablet. It does not have as many versions as BibleGateway, however, and it only allows two versions in parallel at once.
Finally, consider more advanced Bible study software. If you want to invest in serious Bible study software, the standards are http://logos.com and http://accordancebible.com. Once built for Windows and Mac respectively, they have entered the cross-platform age and now compete for all kinds of users. Logos is integrated with http://biblia.com, a beta site very similar to bible.com. A less sophisticated option is http://olivetree.com, though if you are going to start building on a platform, the smart long-term investment is one of the other two.