In Search of the Best Bible Translation

“To articulate God’s unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today.” — Preface to NIV 2011

Most people — at least, in “the West” — know that there are several different versions or “translations” of the Bible, and most who read it with any (semi-)regularity have their favorite. We all have our reasons, and some feel quite strongly. For some, they’ve only ever read one translation. Others have spent a lot of time using several versions and probably have at least a basic familiarity with Hebrew and/or Greek, such that they can make informed evaluations of various characteristics. Most of us are somewhere in between.

I have been aware for sometime, of course, that there are many different issues to be addressed in translating the Bible to English (or any other language), but I have never spent much time digging into any of them. And I won’t be addressing them here. (Well, not this post, anyway.) But, I recently decided it was time to get a new Bible, so I began doing some reading up on the various popular English translations.

Which Bible TranslationOutside of the “woodenly literal” translation one might find within a Hebrew/English or Greek/English interlinear, English translations range along a spectrum of “formal equivalence” (aka “word-for-word” or “essentially literal”) to “dynamic equivalence” (aka “thought-for-thought” or “functional equivalence”), with those on the latter end becoming increasingly paraphrasitic and less accurate. Over the years, I have owned some on both ends (e.g., KJV –> Living Bible) and in the middle (e.g., NIV 1984), and they all have their pluses and minuses.

The first book I chose to give me more insight and information into this topic was Which Bible Translation Should I Use?, edited by Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau. Within the book, experts from the translation teams of four different translations — English Standard Version (ESV), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), New International Version (NIV 2011), and the New Living Translation (NLT) — present their case and give explanations of why they used the wording they did for 16 predetermined passages, as well as why they think it was as good or better than the other three. They all try their best to communicate God’s Word to English-speakers, but each team has its own translation ‘philosophy’ and approach that they try to adhere to as much as possible. Matters of form & readability, linguistic precision, textual variants, gender-inclusivity, theology, and interpretation/application are addressed by all.

Going into this, I admit to having a preference for the “essentially literal” translations. (Most recently, I have been using a New American Standard Bible (NASB), though I often compare my old NIV, too. As a rule, I avoid paraphrases like The Message.) So, I resonated strongly with the following statement by Wayne Grudem of the ESV team, as he discussed the quote above:

“The goal of translation is not understanding how the authors might say something today but understanding how they actually said it back then. I respectfully disagree with the philosophy of translation as expressed in the NIV’s preface. As a Bible translator, my goal should not be to try to imagine how Moses or Isaiah or Paul might say something if they were here today. I want to listen in on how exactly they said it back then. It seems to me that the NIV’s philosophy here leans too far in the direction of a dynamic equivalence translation.”

I was already pretty sure I wanted an ESV, and after reading Grudem’s section of the book, I am even more sure. On the other hand, Douglas Moo makes some fair points in the NIV’s defense:

“There is a reason the NIV has been the most popular English Bible for decades; it follows a ‘mediating’ translation approach that pays careful attention to the form of the original while putting that original into natural, comprehensible English. When we work on the NIV, we do pay attention to the form of the original, and we try to retain that form in English — but only if it is significant and if it is possible to do so while still using natural English….

[T]he Bible is full of cultural baggage and language that simply cannot be put into simple modern English without unacceptable loss of meaning. Yet readability must be a factor in the decisions translators make, recognizing that many people will not have access to the help they need to understand the text.”

HCBS Study Bible - hc and imit leatherNow, I have been aware of Holman as a publisher, and I own a couple of their “QuickSource” guides. But, it has only been of late that I took note of the Bible they publish, and I have been really impressed by what I read both by Holman (re their approach to the task of translation and the team they assembled) and by people who have been using the HCSB. They fall somewhere between formal equivalence and ‘mediating’ on the spectrum, striving to retain the best of both. While being predominantly in the “essentially literal” camp, they recognize the limitations of both source and receptor languages that can blunt the “naturalness of expression”. Thus, they strive for what they call “optimal equivalence”. Here is how the HCSB’s Ray Clendenen summarized it:

“Optimal equivalence shares functional equivalence’s commitment to naturalness of language. But it differs from functional equivalence by also treating as desirable the essential characteristics of formal equivalence. The priority for optimal equivalence is communication, which includes truth and comprehension. The message of the text and its purpose must come through.”

As I progressed through the book, I gained a better understanding of all four translations. I probably would not get an NLT, but I see where the NIV is coming from, even if I don’t always agree with their choices. Not surprisingly, the ESV and HCSB agreed on a lot, with most of their differences being fairly minor. I’d say I agreed with the ESV team’s reasoning half the time and with the HCSB’s the other half.

I find this a fascinating subject and plan to read a few more books on it. Should be fun! Meanwhile, I have ordered my first ESV, my first HCSB, and a new “integrated” NIV (2011). Maybe in a few months I’ll post more on the topic….


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