Ask Pastor Dave: Which Translation of the Bible Should I Use?

q-aThere are more translations of the Bible than most of us will ever read, and the list is growing. I can appreciate, then, the nature of this question. After all, if there are so many translations to choose from how do I decide which one I am going to consistently use? I am not a linguistic expert, but I will do my best to be helpful in answering this question. Determining the best translation depends on answering the question, “What’s my goal.”

First, we should consider what we want in a translation. The variations in philosophy of translation and form of presentation allow us to see a wide and diverse value to the versions available. Some might be better used for intensive study than others, while another might be best for group reading, and still another for teaching children. Unless you are an advocate of the King James Only (which is a whole other can of worms to discuss) there’s no reason to limit yourself to only one translation. We ought to pause, then, to consider the nature of translation.

The process of translating the Scriptures is both a science and an art. There is a goal and there are principles to be discussed, but translation is not a simple issue of correspondence. That is to say we are not merely looking for the one-to-one equivalent between Greek words and English words. Sometimes we find that a word in the Greek (or Hebrew) is the exact same as the English equivalent. But it’s not always that way; this is particularly true when we consider idiomatic phrases and the like. There is always a degree of interpretation that goes into the process. Though, it should be noted that linguistic interpretation is different from thematic interpretation, so it is not entirely fair to call all translations an interpretation without defining precisely what we mean. Nonetheless translators are making decisions about what English words best communicates the meaning of the original languages. Generally three philosophies have governed how translators make that decision.

One philosophy has been the literal style. In this process translators are looking for a literal word-for-word correspondence with the original languages. So translators attempt to duplicate the original sentence structures, verbal nuances, and idioms in order to maintain as high a level of accuracy as possible. These are great translations for intensive study, especially for those who are learning Greek or Hebrew. English translations like the ASV or NASB are examples of the literal style. These translations do not, however, always communicate very well; this is especially true for public reading.

The second philosophy does not feel the need to carry over a direct correspondence. The so-called Dynamic Equivalence theory aims more towards readability than a literal copy of style, structure, and idiom. So this process extracts the meaning of a text from its form and translates that meaning in language, structure, and idiomatic expressions that make sense to the modern reader. They aim to communicate the sense of the original text with as much clarity to the modern reader as is possible. These translations can be incredibly useful for teaching children, those with literacy challenges, or those with regional dialects.  They can serve well for certain kinds of public reading. Examples of this translation philosophy would be the NIV or the NLT.

The third philosophy attempts a via media, a middle road. The goal of a good translation should be to communicate as much of the original meaning in language readable and relevant to the contemporary audience. This is rarely achieved since one or the other of the preceding two philosophies will inevitably dominate the approach. This approach is sometimes called the Optimal Equivalence and good examples might by the ESV or the HCSB. I’ve used and appreciate both of these translations for doctrinal teaching and my personal devotional life. They sometimes sacrifice either accuracy or readability depending on the passage and the decision of the translators. In other words, these two are a decent compromises.

As you can see, then, answering this question requires us to consider carefully the goal we have in mind. Different translations may serve different purposes and so certain situations may call upon us to use a different translation. It should be said, however, that it is best for pastors to pick one translation from which you are going to consistently preach. If a congregation comes to expect the same translation week in and week out they can get their own copy of that translation and better follow along.  For my part I have chosen to preach from the English Standard Version, since that is the version most of our congregation uses. In the past I have preached from the New Living Translation (though I did not use it as the primary text for my studies), since many in our congregation struggled with basic literacy and the NLT was easy to understand. Which translation you use should, then, depend on your audience and your goal.

In study, of course, pastors ought to use a variety of translations to help them obtain the best understanding of the text and the most helpful communication of its main point. Your primary English text should lean in the direction of the literal style in order to aid you in the use of the original languages, this is especially true for those who struggle with the original languages or who do not know them. I prefer to use the ESV as my primary text because it leans towards a literal style while still being readable. The HCSB, on the other hand leans towards a dynamic equivalent style. It would be fine for preaching, but I wouldn’t use it as my primary study text.

This question actually involves a host of other relevant issues, but for want of space I won’t take the time to address them all – like for example the inclusive-language debate. In addition we could examine and discuss those translations which Christians should most assuredly not use – like those developed by the LGBQT community or those arising from within various cults. These are translations which aim to directly pervert the original meaning of the Scriptures. The New World Translation of the Jehovah Witnesses, for example, is a pseudotranslation which has been criticized by both religious and nonreligious scholars for its anachronistic interpretations and presuppositional biases. No Christians should consult these translations as fair representations of the original texts of the Old and New Testament.

There’s plenty more to say about translations of the Bible, but I’ll let this suffice. The best way to determine which translation you use is to consider your goal and the translation philosophy of a particular version. We have great freedom here, but it is best in our own personal studies to consult multiple translations.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the post, Pastor Dave! I love to hear pastors helping their church members understand and navigate issues of Bible translation. Well done!

    I do have one point of clarification, however. The term “optimal equivalence” was coined to explain how the HCSB proceeded in its translation philosophy. In truth, it does not apply to the ESV, which uses a literal or formal philosophy (see Leland Ryken’s “The Word of God in English”), since it is a revision of the RSV, which is a revision of the KJV.

    Couple other resources that might be helpful on this topic are:

    Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau (eds.), “Which Bible Translation Shall I Use?” — this book looks at ESV, HCSB, NLT, and NIV for their translation philosophies and applications around 16 specific passages of Scripture.

    Dave Brunn’s “One Bible, Many Versions” — a very helpful discussion about translation philosophy overall, with generous amounts of examples.

    And we’ve produced a book (free! hcsb.org/horizons) that goes a little deeper into our optimal equivalence philosophy and applications. Enjoy!

    Blessings to you and your ministry!

    Dr. Micah Carter
    HCSB Translation Spokesman
    Nashville, TN

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Thank you for the clarification Micah. I could not remember where I had seen that phrase “optimal equivalence.” I have something else in mind then the strict philosophy of the HCSB, though the appropriate terminology clearly eludes me. Some sort of via media is what I believe best represents the approaches of these newer translations.

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