A Practical Guide to Choosing a Bible Translation

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Introduction: Just as the average Christian appears to choose a local congregation based upon emotional impulses, psychological appeal, or traditional adherence, it seems many also select a Bible translation using similar subjective criteria.1 Accordingly, this article provides a synopsis of essential factors to consider when selecting a Bible translation, aspiring to empower believers to make an informed decision.

 

Consider the Linguists: Verifying the credentials of the interpreter(s) is a crucial first step in determining which version to use, and one should prioritize a committee’s translation over an individual’s rendition. Clarifying this principle, biblical scholars J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays comment, “Translating requires an enormous amount of knowledge and skill. A group of qualified translators will certainly possess more expertise than any one translator possibly could. In addition, a group of scholars will usually guard against the tendency of individual scholars to read their own personal biases into their translation.”2

 

Consider the Source: After substantiating the credentials of an interpretative committee, it is vital to ensure they are translating the most plausible rendition of the original text.3 Currently, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) and the Greek New Testament (GNT) or Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece represent the most superlative scholarly consensus concerning the Old and New Testament autographs—thus serving as the basis for most modern translations.4

 

Consider the Theory of Translation: Understanding the various theories of translation becomes vital when choosing which Bible version to study, as scholars utilize various translation theories when converting the biblical text from the original language to English (or any other language). Formal equivalence seeks to preserve the original form (words and grammar) of the manuscript, endeavoring to achieve a word-for-word or literal translation, to the maximum extent possible.5 Although many prefer this style of translation, since it aims to parallel the original text as much as achievable, there are some disadvantages to the methodology. Highlighting such obstacles, professors Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explain,

The closer one stays to the Hebrew or Greek idiom, the closer one moves toward a theory of translation often described as “literal.” Translations based on formal equivalence will keep historical distance intact at all points. The problem here, however, is that “understandable” English is not the goal of good translation; rather the goal is good “contemporary” English that is comparable in language and meaning to the original author’s intent—as much as that can be determined from the context.6

Consequently, formal equivalent translations may hinder the reader from identifying with the text, causing unnecessary confusion and increasing the likelihood of misinterpretation. Conversely, using a functional (or dynamic) equivalence theory of translation, scholars attempt to convey the original thought of the author, prioritizing clarity over grammar and syntax.7 Elucidating this principle, professors Fee and Stuart comment, “[Formal equivalence] attempt[s] to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English. . . . Such translations sustain historical distance on all historical and factual matters but “update” matters of language, grammar, and style.”8

Diverging from these standard methods of translation, free translations or paraphrase editions (e.g., MSG and NLT) are becoming increasingly prevalent. Regrettably, these versions deviate significantly from the original text, often producing a passage entirely dissimilar to the archetype. Accordingly, these editions are not translations, as they intend to explain the passage rather than interpret it accurately. Although some treat these publications as commentaries, consulting them for additional clarification or insight, it seems best to avoid them altogether—defaulting to a faithful translation and scholarly resources.9

 

Consider the Reader’s Purpose: Deciding on a specific translation methodology ought to be predicated on the intent of the reader. Are you casually reading through the Bible or diligently studying a particular passage for a seminary course? Are you trying to memorize a select verse or attempting to determine the biblical view of homosexuality? In other words, rather than asking, “Which is the best translation?” it is more beneficial to ask, “Which translation is the most useful for this particular situation?”

It seems that an optimally equivalent translation (e.g., NIV and CSB) is best for every day reading and for study by those new to Christianity. Such adaptations “prioritize neither clarity over accuracy nor accuracy over clarity but seek to attain as much of each as possible in every passage, recognizing that sometimes one may end up being favored slightly and sometimes another.”10 This technique provides a reliable balance, producing a version that is easily readable, without neglecting the form and structure of the original text.

However, the assiduous student, who is unfamiliar with the original biblical languages, should consider using multiple versions (i.e., one formally equivalent and one functionally equivalent version) during study or sermon preparation. This practice aids the reader in identifying essential nuances within the text, while simultaneously highlighting textual variances or ambiguous wording in the original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts.11 Leveraging scholarly resources (e.g., lexicons and dictionaries) and consulting multiple translations, puts the meticulous student in a prime position to conduct proper exegesis.

 

Conclusion: Linguistic progression of the English language underscores the need for updated Bible translations, and contemporary scholarship has proven successful in producing several high-quality renditions. Unfortunately, the multitude of options available often proves overwhelming, prompting the average person to select a Bible version based upon emotional impulses, psychological appeal, or traditional adherence, rather than an objective framework. By understanding the fundamental concepts of translation methodology and actively considering a few essential factors, one can make an informed decision instead of a kneejerk selection.

 

Footnotes

  1. See the previous article in this series, A Practical Guide to Choosing a Church.
  2. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 36.
  3. Since no biblical autographs remain in existence, textual critics critically evaluate the manuscript evidence and can reconstruct the original document with a high-level of certainty.
  4. Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 26.
  5. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 191.
  6. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fourth Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 44.
  7. Klein, et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 191.
  8. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 44.
  9. Duvall and Hays suggest potentially using a paraphrase in situations involving nontraditional or unchurched people. Although this is a possible exception, one must exercise extreme caution in such matters. See Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 38.
  10. Klein, et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 191.
  11. Ibid., 197.

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