It’s easy to feel like you’re navigating uncharted waters in the vast expanse of English Bible translations. With so many options, each claiming to be the “most accurate” or the “most readable,” how do you pick the one that truly suits your needs?

Well, you’re in luck, because I’ve got the ultimate guide to help you navigate through the maze of options out there.  In this guide, we’ll explore the key factors to consider when selecting a translation, along with an overview of some of the most popular options on the market today, to help you make an informed decision. So grab a cup of tea, get cozy, and let’s dive in!

Understanding Translation Philosophies

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of specific translations, it’s essential that we first understand the translation philosophies behind English Bibles.

A translation philosophy refers to a set of principles and guidelines that play a crucial role in the decisions and methods employed by translators when converting a text from one language to another.

It aids in establishing priorities, defining goals, and determining the approach that translators will employ to effectively translate the source manuscript. The choice of philosophy depends on factors like the purpose of the translation, the intended audience, and the preferences of the translators.

By carefully assessing these factors, translators can ensure that their chosen philosophy aligns with both their objectives and the expectations of their audience.

This is what helps shape and guide their decisions throughout the translation process, resulting in an outcome that communicates the original message while meeting specific requirements. However, like everything else, each translation philosophy has strengths and weaknesses.

That said, let’s explore the three primary translation philosophies behind English Bible Translations:

1. Formal Equivalence

Also called word-for-word translations, formal equivalence translations aim to faithfully render the original language text of the Bible into English as literally and accurately as possible. These translations prioritize preserving the precise words and grammatical structures of the original languages the Bible was written in i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The main objective is to closely mirror the wording of the source text, even if it results in a slightly less smooth or more challenging read in English.

Because of the unwavering commitment to accuracy and faithfulness to the original languages, word-for-word translations are highly esteemed for academic study, exegetical analysis, and theological research. Scholars and students often favor these translations for in-depth exploration of the biblical text, as they provide a solid foundation for textual analysis and interpretation.

Examples of Word-for-Word Translations include:

  • English Standard Version (ESV): A highly literal translation that prioritizes accuracy and has gained popularity in both academic and Christian communities.
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB): Known for its precision, the NASB is a word-for-word translation often favored by those who appreciate a close adherence to the original languages.
  • King James Version (KJV): While not a modern translation, the KJV is a classic example of a word-for-word translation and has had a profound influence on English literature.

Other examples include the NKJV, RSV, and the Amplified Bible.

Limitations Word-for-Word Translations:

The literal rendering can lead to sentences that are complex or challenging for modern readers to understand. This may affect readability, particularly for those new to the Bible.

2. Dynamic or Functional Equivalence:

Also known as thought-for-thought translations, dynamic equivalence translations take a different approach compared to word-for-word translations. Instead of sticking strictly to each word and maintaining the original grammatical structures, thought-for-thought translations focus on capturing the meaning of the original text and then putting it into words that can be easily understood.

The goal is to make the content clearer and more understandable for today’s English readers. As a result, these translations provide a smoother and more natural reading experience, making them relatable in today’s context.

This makes thought-for-thought translations perfect for personal devotional reading, group study, and outreach efforts. They’re also widely used in educational settings, youth ministries, and missions work because of their clarity and accessibility.

Nevertheless, depending on the translation, you might notice varying levels of formality. Some thought-for-thought translations use casual, everyday language, while others keep a more formal tone.

Examples of Thought-for-Thought Translations:

  • New Living Translation (NLT): Emphasizes readability and clarity, making it suitable for a wide range of readers, including those who are new to the Bible.
  • Contemporary English Version (CEV): Designed for easy comprehension, especially by children and those with limited English proficiency.
  • Good News Translation (GNT) / Today’s English Version (TEV):  This is a translation that aims for clarity and ease of understanding. It’s often used in outreach and educational settings due to its simplicity.
  • Common English Bible (CEB): Combines accuracy with contemporary language. It seeks to balance accessibility with a commitment to conveying the original meaning.

Limitations of Thought-for-Thought Translations:

The readers may receive a misinterpreted translation if the translators misunderstood the meaning of a text in the source manuscript. Because of this, readers may believe that the Bible is stating something that it isn’t.

3. Optimal Equivalence

Optimal equivalence is like finding the sweet spot in translation philosophy by aiming to blend the literal accuracy of word-for-word translations with the readability and clarity of thought-for-thought translations.

The goal here is to offer a translation that stays true to the original text’s meaning while feeling natural and understandable to modern readers. The term “optimal equivalence” captures the idea that the aim is to strike the best possible balance between these two translation methods.

When using optimal equivalence translations, you’ll often find explanatory notes accompanying the text. These notes serve to clarify translation choices and highlight any significant variations in interpretation.

Thanks to this thoughtful approach, optimal equivalence translations are pretty versatile. They cater to both study sessions and devotional reading, making them a go-to choice for a diverse audience; ranging from scholars to those who are just starting their journey with the Bible.

Examples of Optimal Equivalence Translations:

  • New International Version (NIV): A widely used and popular optimal equivalence translation that strikes a balance between accuracy and readability. It is often chosen for personal devotion and study.
  • Christian Standard Bible (CSB): This translation seeks to be both accurate and readable, providing an optimal balance between formal and dynamic equivalence.
  • New English Translation (NET): Known for its extensive footnotes, the NET Bible aims for transparency in translation decisions while prioritizing readability.

Other examples include the REB and NRSV.

4. Paraphrases

Also known as free translation, paraphrases in Bible translation are a whole different ball game compared to the word-for-word (formal equivalence) or thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence) translations.

Instead of sticking to the original wording, paraphrases restate or rephrase the original text while aiming to convey the same meaning. This often means using simpler and more modern language, making the Bible feel like a friendly conversation.

This is because they are designed to be highly relatable and readable. Hence, making the Bible more understandable to modern readers, especially those who may struggle with traditional translations. 

Examples of Paraphrases:

  • The Message: Perhaps the most well-known example of a paraphrase, The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson, seeks to present the Bible in a contemporary and conversational style, prioritizing accessibility and readability over literal accuracy.
  • The Living Bible: Another paraphrase, The Living Bible, authored by Kenneth N. Taylor, was created with the intention of making the Scriptures more understandable for a general audience, particularly children and young readers.

However, it’s worth noting that while paraphrases excel at making the Bible relatable, they’re not considered translations in the traditional sense. And here is why:

With paraphrases, translators have quite a bit of freedom to put their own spin on things. This means that what you end up with reflects more of the translator’s personal style and interpretation rather than being a strict copy of the source manuscript. It is for this reason that you’ll find that some paraphrases don’t stick closely to the original wording and structure of the source languages. Instead, they’re more like artistic interpretations, offering a free-flowing take on the text that can sometimes stray pretty far from the literal meaning of the original words.

Limitations of Paraphrases:

  • Risk of Distortion: Paraphrases can sometimes unintentionally twist the original message because they’re all about interpretation. While they aim for clarity and simplicity, there’s a chance they might oversimplify things or miss out on subtle nuances from the original text.
  • Limited Scholarly Use: Because paraphrases are more interpretative, they’re not usually the go-to for serious scholarly stuff or a deep dive into the Bible. For academic research where precision is key, scholars tend to stick with word-for-word or thought-for-thought translations.

An example of different translation philosophies at work using Romans 8:29:

  • NASB (Formal equivalence): For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren;
  • NLT (Dynamic equivalence): For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
  • NIV (Optimal equivalence): For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
  • The Message (Paraphrase): God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son.
An image of a Bible Translation Spectrum.
Image from Scripture Union Canada

Do your Due Diligence

Choosing the right translation for your needs goes beyond just looking at its translation philosophy. Before you make a decision, it’s important to do a bit of digging to make sure the translation is reputable. Here are a three pointers to help you do this:

  1. Translator(s): Knowing who worked on the translation; whether it was one person or a team can tell you a lot about its background and how it was put together. Checking out the translators’ credentials can also give you confidence in the translation’s accuracy. (Pro tip: Always go with a translation worked on by a team. A team approach ensures a collaborative effort with diverse perspectives, minimizing individual biases and providing a more balanced interpretation. Multiple translators can cross-check and validate each other’s work, enhancing accuracy and reducing the risk of errors.
  1. Revision History: Finding out if a translation has been revised tells you if it’s been updated to fix mistakes or improvements made based on newly found manuscripts. Revisions can also help keep the language fresh and relevant.  Side Note: There’s usually talk about some Bible translations being labeled as “evil” because they leave out certain verses, but these changes actually come from revisions based on newer and more accurate manuscripts that scholars have discovered. By using earlier versions, translators are able to correct mistakes and create more precise translations. At times, when scribes were copying manuscripts, they added extra details. But thanks to recent discoveries of older manuscripts, we’re able to spot these additions and make sure our translations stay true to the original Scripture. It’s all about making sure the translations align with what was originally written.
  1. Review Process: Finding out who checked the translation, like scholars or a committee, can give you a sense of how trustworthy it is. Translations that have been carefully reviewed are usually more reliable.

Taking these factors into account can help you find a translation that’s not only easy to read but also accurate and trustworthy.

The Passion Translation??

The need for background research on Bible translations becomes evident when we look at a “translation” like The Passion Translation. This relatively recent translation of the Bible has become quite popular, especially within hypercharismatic circles. However, most Bible scholars don’t consider it a legitimate translation, and here’s a few reasons why:

  • Translator and Methodology: A major critique of The Passion Translation (TPT) is that it’s mainly the work of one person, Brian Simmons, who doesn’t have the typical academic credentials expected of Bible translators. Simmons claims to have received a commission from Jesus in a vision to translate the TPT and asserts receiving direct revelations from God during the process. However, mainstream scholars generally emphasize the importance of being knowledgeable in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to translate the Bible.
  • Translation Primarily from Aramaic: TPT claims to be translated primarily from Aramaic sources, with Simmons asserting new insights and revelations during this process. However, scholars argue that, while Aramaic might’ve been spoken in Jesus’ time, the New Testament was written in Greek. Claiming to translate directly from Aramaic introduces an unnecessary layer of interpretation and potentially risks deviating from the original intentions of the authors.
  • Lack of Scholarly Review: The Passion Translation has not undergone the same level of review and scholarly scrutiny as more established translations. Many Bible scholars stress the importance of rigorous academic review to ensure accuracy and fidelity to the original texts. As a result, TPT has not received endorsements from reputable scholars, academic institutions, or denominational bodies.

To learn more about the concerns raised by scholars about TPT you can read the following:

Or watch the following videos:

Nonetheless, translating the Bible isn’t a walk in the park. So, it’s a good idea for those of us who aren’t experts in this area to take it slow before criticizing those who have. It’s a challenging task that requires a deep understanding of both languages and a lot of care to capture the true essence of the text.

Still, Stuck on Which Translation to Choose?

Well, I recommend having multiple Bible translations. For your main reading and study, you can consider an optimal equivalent translation. Remember how it strikes the sweet spot between a word-for-word and a thought-for-thought translation? Well, a translation like The New International Version (NIV), should be a solid choice.

To complement your main translation, add in a thought-for-thought one like the New Living Translation (NLT) or the CEV. These help to make complex passages easier to grasp. I personally use the NLT for this.

And don’t forget a word-for-word translation like the English Standard Version (ESV). If possible look for a version with extra insights, like a Study Bible to enrich your understanding. Word-for-word translations are perfect for diving deep into God’s word because they adhere closely to the original text.

Having this variety ensures you get a well-rounded view of the Scriptures and helps you delve deeper into God’s word with clarity and understanding.

If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into your Bible study by learning how to interpret the Bible correctly, feel free to check out our Bible Study archives. In there, you will find resourceful articles to help you.

Free Stock photos by Vecteezy


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