Choosing a Biblical Translation
The question comes up all the time, “What translation is best for me, my child, my teenager, etc…?” This is an issue which may be misunderstood by many and, it is easy to form incorrect opinions (or at least uninformed opinions) about various translations or versions of the Bible. So let’s take a few minutes to explore the issue. Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.
Here are some things to consider when selecting a translation:
1) Reading Level
2) Nature of the “translation”
3) Purpose of the copy you are buying
Let’s look at each of these a little more closely.
1) Reading Level
The translation you use to preach, teach, or recommend can be just as much a matter of contextualization as the social efforts you engage in or engage you people in or the way in which you lead or act as a ministry. If the people we work with can’t understand what they are reading, then we might be hard-pressed to make ground with them spiritually and see them grow in their faith.
Statistics would show that only 34 percent of High School students read at “proficient” levels. The average of reading levels in High School students in Americas is just above fifth grade level, with a significant number of books on high schooler’s most read list falling at this same grade level. This issue is evident in adult world as well. It is estimated that around 24% of adults are functionally illiterate, reading only on a fourth grade level. So you can see how the reading level of a translation can affect the ease with which people can engage the scriptures.
We must be careful not to expect all people to track with us if we are using language which is above their ability to comprehend. Should we challenge? Yes. Should we encourage growth and advancement? Yes. Should we lead people to seek to grow in their ability to understand the truth of God’s Word? Yes. Should we alienate because we are only willing to use scripture that is above many people’s ability to comprehend and understand? No.
Look at s table of translations and the estimated reading level of each:
Translation/ Reading Level
Taken from christianbook.com, please note there are various opinions about the reading levels of certain translations. This table serves only as a general guideline to help you in selecting a translation.
Reading level can be an important factor when selecting a translation, but it is not the only factor to consider.
2) Nature of the “Translation”
The word “translation” is sometimes misunderstood. It is simply meant to describe English “renderings” of the original Biblical languages and meanings. It can include “Word for Word” translations (Formal Equivalent), “Thought for “Thought translations (Dynamic or Functional Equivalent), or “Paraphrase”. Formal equivalents interpret meanings of individual words in their exact sequence, dynamic equivalents are a thought by thought or sense-for- sense interpretation of sentences or phrases that still capture the intended meaning of the text, and a paraphrase is an author’s idea of what the passage says in their own words. It is based in the original text, but is restated.
Let’s look at a general picture of where modern “translations” fall on a scale of how “literal” they are as translations. They are arranged from most literal on a descending scale (each category is listed to the right).
Interlinear Word for Word
RSV Thought for Thought
Taken from a graphic from notjustanotherbook.com
*The HCSB is actually considered “Optimal Equivalence” and uses word for word or literal translation when possible, but also employs footnotes to access original text if a passage demands so for readability.
Please note: This list may not be complete and there are other issues to consider when choosing a translation. For instance: NIVI, NRSV, TNIV, NCV, NLT, and CEV use gender neutral language in reference to God, so you may not want to consider them for your personal or corporate use even though they may be good for reading level. The NIV 2011 and the NET do not use gender neutral language for God, but they do use more inclusive language regarding all of mankind.
Word for Word translations probably provide the most accurate reading of the Biblical text but can at times, because awkward or more difficult to read because of word order.
Paraphrases are not best for use as your main translation because they deviate most from what the Biblical text actually says, meaning there are added ideas which are meant to enhance the passage’s understanding and provide a more robust reading experience. It is also not best to memorize scripture from a paraphrase or even the Amplified Bible due to the potential to have more words to memorize. It will also be further from the original text. This is probably not a deal breaker necessarily, but it is probably smart.
3) Purpose of the copy you are buying
Another thing to consider when choosing a translation would be the purpose of the copy of the Bible you are selecting.
Are you gifting a child?
Do you need a study bible?
Do you want to enhance your devotional reading?
You will need to consider what you need from the copy of the Bible you are selecting before making your choice. It is best to study from a more literal translation. It is best to teach from a more literal translation or solid dynamic equivalent, depending on the audience. It is best to memorize from a more literal translation or a dynamic equivalent that is close to literal. It is better choose gifts based on reading level or age level. It is acceptable to use a paraphrase to illustrate or to expand the view of what a passage is saying while teaching or preaching or if you want to add to your devotional reading.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but these are things that will be helpful to you as you consider which version or translation of scripture you will need or want to pick up. All of these, and other factors, can play into your selection of which translation is best.
So, what do you do with this?
Here is and idea (suggestion/ opinion): Use a more literal translation in study, preparation, and memory. Use more dynamic translations in teaching to certain groups or when recommending a Bible for those whose reading level may not be “proficient” or who might be younger, and use paraphrase to bolster your time in God’s word or to bring a fuller light onto a subject or passage. There is nothing wrong with having multiple copies of the word of God in front of you to help you better understand and experience the Truth of God’s Word.
There are some good guides available if you want more on the subject. Here is one that I think would be a good read:
How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth:
A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions by Gordon D. Fee, Mark L. Strauss
Hope this helps if you have people asking.