What a blessing it is to have many English Bible translations from which to choose. Not too long ago there were none, and attempts to translate the Bible into English were met with severe persecution (read about William Tyndale, for example). So when we are faced with choosing from a wide variety of translations in our native language – a luxury many countries on earth presently do not have – we should be filled with thankfulness for the freedoms and resources we have.
But we shouldn’t stop at thankfulness. We should also be discerning. It helps to know a little bit about how and why some of these translations were made. If we are indeed talking about the word of God (and I believe we are), then we should not take translation lightly. Essentially, the translation serves as an interpreter to tell us in our own language what God has said.
It is important to know that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and if we can read in those languages then we can largely avoid the “lost in translation” problem. Of course, it has been almost two thousand years since the last Biblical books were penned, so there is a cultural and historical gap also that introduces difficulty to interpreting the Bible. The literal grammatical historical method tries to account for this gap, and can help us get closer to understanding the authors’ original intent. That gap creates not just challenges for interpreting the Bible, but also for translating it. Translators often translate based on their interpretation of a particular passage, so there is really no such thing as a completely “objective” translation. In choosing a translation, it is helpful to understand a little bit of how subjectivity enters into the translating process, and what that looks like in English translations.
The first question to be addressed by translators is regarding what is actually being translated. There are thousands of Biblical manuscripts, and they don’t always agree with each other in some details. So there are two basic philosophies from which translators choose. The majority text approach relies on manuscripts that are considered by some to be more reliable because of their number and the circumstances surrounding how they came to be. On the other hand, the critical text approach considers the earlier manuscripts generally to be more reliable, because of their chronological proximity to the originals. While the Biblical manuscripts passed down over the years largely agree, where there are differences, the majority and critical text approaches try to resolve the differences. There is healthy debate about which method is best, and it is wise to be aware of the differences. Still, it should be emphasized that in most areas, the manuscripts do agree, so we are talking about a small minority of manuscript variances – small, but worth being aware of.
(For the sake of transparency, I personally prefer the critical approach, though I occasionally disagree with some specific manuscript preferences of those who have historically preferred the critical approach. In short, I want to be able to look at all the manuscripts, and consider each one on its own merit, though under normal circumstances, I prefer the earlier manuscripts over the more numerous.)
The second question to be addressed is whether the translation is done using formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence is essentially translating word for word wherever possible in order to transfer the words from one language to another. Dynamic equivalence is less concerned with transferring the words than it is with transferring the ideas. Translations that rely on dynamic equivalence are translated thought for thought or idea for idea. Typically formal equivalence translations are somewhat clumsy and lack aesthetic qualities of poetic beauty, for example, but they are more helpful for detailed study because the words chosen are more representative of the originals. Dynamic equivalence translations often have better aesthetic qualities, and sometimes better reflect overall thoughts, but they typically lack precision in communication because the words used are so different.
Armed with these two bits of data (the manuscript categories and the methods for equivalence), in the next article let’s consider some of the most popular English translations in the order they appear on the Christian Booksellers Association list of top selling Bible translations.