Why We Have Different Bible Translations

If scholars faithfully use reliable manuscripts when translating Scripture, why do we have different Bible translations?

There are a variety of factors that have influenced the creation of a Bible translation. Two such reasons are changes in the English language (when is the last time you used ‘peradventure’ in a sentence?) and the use of different New Testament manuscripts (almost all of them use the same Old Testament source, the Masoretic text).

While these two factors are important, we will focus on perhaps the most vital thing to understand about different Bible versions: by their very nature translations are NEVER word for word. Even Bible versions which are often referred to as word-for-word translations technically are not. No two languages are exactly parallel, so translators are by necessity also interpreters.

For example, a literal word-for-word translation of the Greek in Matthew 1:18 would be something like:

Of the but Jesus Christ the birth thus was. Being betrothed the mother of him, Mary, to Joseph, before or to come together them she was found in belly having from Spirit Holy.

Meanwhile, the King James Version, which is considered a word-for-word translation, renders the same verse as:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

The above example illustrates why a strict adherence to each individual word would not produce a readable Bible in English. Translators must interpret to some degree, and how they go about this process falls into two philosophies: formal equivalence and/or dynamic equivalence.

Bible Translation Comparison Chart

Formal Equivalence Translation (Word for Word)

Formal equivalence attempts to create as literal a translation as possible, and comes as close as it can to a word-for-word rendition out of the original languages. This philosophy utilizes a minimum of interpretation and will favor accuracy over readability, as translators will convey the meaning of each individual word rather than a thought or passage as a whole. Doing so means that the translators are less likely to have influenced the reading of the text by introducing their own viewpoints, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Popular examples of Formal Equivalence translations are the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV). Such translations are recommended for more thorough study of the Scriptures, though they are sometimes criticized that the rigid method of translating into English produces a text that is less readable.

Dynamic Equivalence Translation (Thought for Thought)

The dynamic equivalence translation philosophy seeks to convey an idea-for-idea translation in order to express what they believe the original author intended. Dynamic equivalency focuses on readability above faithfulness to the original words. This form of translation has a high degree of interpretation and can produce less accurate translations if the editors are too cavalier in interpreting the Word of God.  It is more likely to make concessions for political correctness, such as the use of ‘gender-neutral language’ of the 2011 New International Version.

That being said, the desire to focus on conveying the thoughts of a passage is easily understood. A helpful illustration would be the need to translate the phrase “when pigs fly.” While this phrase indicates an impossibility to English speakers, it may be nonsense when translated word-for-word into French or Portuguese. Dynamic equivalence focuses on keeping the originally intended meaning, even if the words used are drastically different.

The most popular dynamic equivalency translations are the New International Version(NIV), The Message (MSG), and the Good News Bible (GNB). Of these, the NIV (1984 edition) takes a moderate approach towards dynamic equivalence and is the most accurate and reliable. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) attempts to strike a balance between both methods and is considered ‘optimal equivalence.’ The HCSB is a good translation of Scripture.

The difference between the formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence methods of translating Scripture is an important factor in explaining the reasons for the variety of English versions of the Bible available. There are other complexities involved, and it is important to note that there is a broad range of approaches that fit within the above categories. Also, many translations seek to strike an appropriate balance of both methods.

While you can certainly find poor translations on the shelf of your local bookstore, the majority of popular Bible versions do a great job of accurately translating the Old and New Testament. Those looking for a recommendation of some good Bible versions will find the ESV, the NKJV, the 1984 NIV to be excellent choices.

To learn more the history of the English Bible, particularly in relation to the use of ancient manuscripts, we recommend How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot.

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