We’re talking about how to choose a Bible version for you family this month.
Last week we talked about the different manuscripts translators use. Today we’re going to look at different approaches scholars use when they translate.
Obviously, the Bible wasn’t originally written in English. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew (though portions of Daniel are in Aramaic). The New Testament was written in Greek. And they were written thousands of years ago, so things like capitalization, spelling, punctuation, and even the meanings of certain words have changed since then.
It takes a lot of careful scholarship and some degree of interpretation to convey what those millennia-old, foreign language texts mean in twenty-first century English.
However, there are a few different ways to approach this, which is where people start to have a difference of opinion.
We’re going to get a little nerdy here for a second, but the two main schools of thought on Bible translation are called formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. You may have also heard these called word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations.
Formal Equivalence, or word-for-word translation is just what it sounds like. For every word in the biblical manuscripts, translators try to “ensure that every word in the original was rendered by an English equivalent,” (The Legacy of the King James Bible, by Leeland Ryken) with as little change to the original structure and word order.
This sounds like the ideal, doesn’t it? Of course we want our English translation to line up as closely as possible with what the Hebrew or Greek actually say.
However, problems arise when there isn’t a perfectly equivalent word in English to the word the Hebrew or Greek uses. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language (or even seen one of those BuzzFeed articles about words we should steal from other languages), you know what I’m talking about.
Also, sometimes trying too hard to carry the structure of the original languages into English can make for some awkwardly-worded sentences that can make them harder to understand.
Bibles that use this translation philosophy include the New American Standard (NASB), King James (KJV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).
Dynamic Equivalence, on the other hand, is known as a thought-for-thought translation because of its tendency to take a whole phrase of words and try to carefully render them in the way that makes the most sense in English, even if that yields more or fewer words than the original.
The major advantage of this type of translation is its clarity, but one of the major drawbacks is that sometimes to render a thought in a way that’s clear in English, translators may unintentionally narrow the meaning of the original text.
Translations that use dynamic equivalence include the New Living Translation (NLT) and the New International Version (NIV).
A couple more things to note
A few versions of the Bible are not true translations of the text, but rather, English paraphrases. These versions tend to be very easy and compelling to read, and can be useful compliments to Bible reading, but should not be used exclusively for serious study of the Bible.
Paraphrase Bibles include The Living Bible, The Messge, and, as far as I can tell, the new Passion “translation” of the Bible.
Another Bible that stands out from the traditional formal vs. dynamic equivalence debate is the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). This is a recent update of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and claims to try to strike a balance between the two schools of translation. They call their philosophy “optimal equivalence” and I’m intrigued. But even if the CSB does a great job blending these two translation philosophies, I don’t think that makes it the single best translation, because I don’t think there is such a thing.
As I mentioned before, there is no perfect English translation of the Bible.
If you’re trying to really understand what a particular verse means (and you don’t speak Hebrew or Greek) the best way will always be to compare several different translations. Moreover, when it comes to choosing the right version for you, there are still other factors to consider, like our different reading abilities and study needs.
And those are the things we’ll talk about next week.