Making Sense of Different Bible Translations
Dr. Joe Alain, 2015
Early English Translations
The Latin Vulgate (Roman Catholic Version) was the main Bible used in the English church in Europe prior to the sixteenth century. During the sixteenth century there was an explosion of English versions of the Bible, due mainly to the following reasons: (1) The recovery of classical learning (especially the Greek language) during the Renaissance period, (2) The development of Gutenberg’s printing press (ca. 1540), and (3) The Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on the language of the Bible being in the tongue of the people, and the emphasis of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).
The English translations of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale stand above all the rest in the sixteenth century. The Authorized Version or King James Bible capped the series of translations begun by Tyndale (1611). Produced by a team of 54 scholars, the KJV became the Bible for English-speaking peoples for generations and a monument of the English language.
Why Is There a Need for New Translations?
(1) Advancements in textual criticism.
Biblical scholars have so many more early manuscripts of the Bible that were simply not available to Bible translators before. And these new discoveries of ancient copies of Scripture have aided our understanding of the Scriptures (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls).
(2) Our knowledge of biblical languages has increased. Since there are literally thousands of early Greek manuscripts of portions of the Bible, most modern translations are based on what is called a critical Greek text. What this means is that reliable and skilled biblical scholars have assembled these manuscripts into one text. Because not all scholars agree on the differing points of some specific passages, this explains why some translations differ at various points. A good translation will explain some of these additions, deletions, and differences in the margin or in a footnote in your Bible.
(3) The English language is continually changing. Words sometimes change meaning
over time and new words are continuing to come into common usage. Updating translations to reflect contemporary usage of any language makes it easier to understand the Bible’s timeless message.
Why Translations Read So Differently from One Another
The challenge for Bible translators is that they are working with texts that are tied to ancient cultures that are vastly different from that of today. Each translator or team of translators must make a choice concerning how they will bridge the gap between the original language of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and the language that they are translating into (for us, English). The act of translation means that the translator will make judgments based on his or her understanding of the original languages and the language they are translating into.
Three Theories of translation have been generally followed in bridging the gap between the original languages and the receptor language, in our case English.
Literal or Formal Equivalency (“Word Correspondence”). Following this process, the translator attempts to translate by keeping as close as possible to the exact words (Word Correspondence) and phrasing in the original language, yet still make sense in the receptor language (English). A formal equivalent translation will keep the historical distance intact at all points. This makes for a very good translation but sometimes it is disjointed sounding and awkward because of the differences between the two languages.
Dynamic Equivalency (“Functional”). Following this process, the translator attempts to translate words, idioms, and grammatical constructions from the original language into precise equivalents in the receptive language (English). This is considered a thought-for-thought translation. Such a translation keeps historical distance on all historical and most factual matters, but “updates” matters of language, grammar, and style. Meaning takes precedence over matters of structure and style.
Free (Paraphrases). Following this process, the translator attempts to translate the ideas from one language to another, with less concern about using the exact words of the original. Free translations, also called a paraphrases, are not technically translations and should not be treated as such. The Living Bible and The Message are representative of paraphrases.
Common Examples of Various Translations and Paraphrases
KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, HCSB, ESV
NIV, NLT, CEV, GNB, NEB
The Message, Phillips, The Living Bible
For Study, a good literal/formal equivalency Bible with the focus on biblical words is a must for Bible study but supplement with a dynamic equivalent translation like the NIV or NLT.
For Daily Use and study it’s good to have a literal/formal equivalent or dynamic translation with notes in the margin that reflect modern scholarship. Paraphrases are helpful for devotional reading and for clarifying difficult passages.
With so many excellent translations and resources available today, the Christian has a variety of great choices for both devotional reading and serious study.