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5 Keys to Picking the Best Bible Translation For You

by Stephen Hebert on Wednesday - 7 February 2007

in Biblical Studies, Ministry

Because I love Bible translation, people often ask me: “What do you look for in a translation?”

This is a difficult question to answer because it’s such a personal thing. You can take the following 5 items with a grain of salt. But, deep down, you know I’m right!

1. Readability

By far, the most important factor in finding a translation is readability. This, after all, is why you’re looking for a translation in the first place, isn’t it? The vast majority of people can’t read the Bible in its original languages. Most people have difficulty understanding the King James Version. A translation written in contemporary vernacular with a contemporary phrasing works best for most people.

It is important to understand that every translation is going to water down the original. This is especially true when we start talking about “contemporary” language. Greek and Hebrew are ancient languages with grammatical systems quite different from modern English. The watering down that occurs from using plain-spoken normal English is necessary to make the text accessible to the masses.

2. Word-for-Word is a Must (Paraphrase and Perish)

This issue could be the topic of a series of posts. Do I go with a word-for-word translation, or a translation that paraphrases and gets the main idea across?

When we’re talking about God’s Word, why would you want it paraphrased? Wouldn’t you want to get the best idea possible of exactly what he is saying?

Paraphrase translations, like Eugene Peterson’s The Message can be interesting reads. However, I have trouble calling it the Bible. When we’re trying to dig into God’s word, we don’t typically reach for the “Bible Stories” picture books that we read as kids. The Message, like these picture books, is great for a getting a rough sketch of what the Bible has to say, but it is not good for digging in.

Notice that I am not knocking these translations completely. I think they’re great for reading the Gospels, or 1 and 2 Samuel. They’re great for reading stories. But, when we get into the nitty-gritty of Paul and other philosophical writings, we need to read the text for ourselves.

A word-for-word translation allows us the best access to the original without knowledge of the languages involved.

3. Who’s Translating This Thing?

Some translations are produced by a single-hand. These are to be avoided (even if it’s my translation!).

When we look at abstract paintings, we all kind of see what we want to see. We are influenced by the artist’s use of color and line, but, ultimately, the interpretation is ours.

When a translator translates, he/she is interpreting the biblical canvas. The words of the author move the translator in a certain direction, but, ultimately, the translator determines the interpretation.

If you choose a translation done by a single person, you are subjecting yourself to one interpretation of the text. Remember that in this scenario, you are an art critic who does not have access to the original. Would you rather have the reviews of one person or a group of people on which to base your opinion of the art?

Most of the major translations are done by committee. These include the English Standard Version (my translation of choice), New American Standard, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc. Committees are good because they check each other’s work. Everything gets smoothed out by the process.

The second question to ask is: “Who are these committee people?”

Some committees are highly academic. The New Revised Standard Version, for example, is primarily composed by biblical scholars. Some committees are more confessional in their translation. I believe this is the case with the New International Version.

Other committees try to blend the two. This, I believe, is the case with the English Standard Version—a healthy compromise between academic rigor and faith in the text.

Finally, translations produced by individual denominations (or even groups that some would label “cults”) are to be avoided. Like the single-hand translations mentioned above, these tend to allow ideology to overrule prudent decision-making.

4. How is the Text Presented?

This delves more into the area of “picking a Bible” as the same translation can be presented in different ways. But, I’ll mention it here, because it’s important.

Do you like lots of study notes? Better be careful. I’ve gone through the NIV Study Bible and found plenty of stuff that I felt was misrepresenting the facts. Sometimes this stuff is really helpful, sometimes it’s misleading.

Do you like cross-references? I do, though my current Bible doesn’t have them. Cross-references are an excellent way to help you traverse the text. Like links on a website, they allow you to access information that would otherwise be difficult to find.

Do you like a concordance? Concordances found in the backs of most Bibles are incomplete and, therefore, useless. Just my opinion. Look for a complete concordance to fit your serious study needs.

Do you like maps? Abso-dang-lutely. Where the heck is “Ashdod”? Trusty maps in the back give you an answer. Maps have always helped me visualize the world. Maybe they can help you too!

5. Play the Field

It can’t hurt to try a bunch of different translations out. This can be done a number of different ways:

  • Borrow from a friend.
  • Borrow from a local library.
  • Uses sites like Bible Gateway and Unbound Bible to narrow down your selections.
  • Pew and Gift Bibles are inexpensive. If you really want to put a translation through it’s paces, buy a few and spend significant time with them.

Whatever translation you choose, remember to spend some good time using it before jumping ship. I have been devoted to the ESV for over a year now, and it’s style feels like an extension of me. When I pick up the text it is instantly familiar, allowing me to listen to what God is trying to tell me.

Happy hunting!

UPDATES:

  • BibleGateway.com has some information about each translation that it provides. Go to their versions page to find out more information about the publishers and histories of various translations.
  • Check out the Better Bibles Blog for more on versions and translation.

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