Does It Matter Which Translation of Scripture You Read?

In reading through the Bible, does the actual Bible translation matter?  Isn’t sufficient that we are in the Word on a regular basis?  Well, if you are in Scripture consistently, then that is good, but translations do matter.  There are three essential things that I think should be considered when thinking about what Bible translation to use: the translation approach, stylistic readability, and the availability of study notes.

Translation Approach.  Before I became a Christian, my parents gave me a Revised Standard Version (RSV).  It was perhaps the most unappealing printed edition possible.  When I became a Christian, I received a Good News Bible (GNB—yes, the one with the stick figure line drawings).  When I went to college, I got a New International Version (NIV), which I thought at the time was the best modern translation available.  And then I started seminary.  In one of the first courses I took, my instructor had his Greek New Testament, his Hebrew Old Testament and was making points about covenant theology that I was totally not tracking with because I was not seeing them in my NIV.  I ended up going out and getting a New King James Version (NKJV), after which I was able to follow the instructor just fine.

This was my introduction to the difference between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence in translation.  You see, the challenge for translators is that they have to balance faithfulness to the original language with intelligibility in the receptor language.  If they take a literal approach and adhere closely to the syntax and grammar of the original language (formal equivalence), then there is the possibility that that will accentuate the distance between the reader and the text.  On the other hand, if they emphasize intelligibility, then it may come at the price of accuracy.  The NIV takes a dynamic equivalence approach to translation.  What this means is that it is trying to translate thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word.  Context becomes hugely important—perhaps overly so—in determining word choice within a translation, and as a result, nuances get lost.  This is why I was not able to follow my professor.

If this seems a little abstract, think about our daily lives.  With friends and family, we will often use specific words or very short phrases to communicate meaning, and such words or phrases are a stand-in for more complex ideas or shared experiences.  We do this when we quote movie lines, for example.  The short reference will be understood by both parties to a conversation because of the shared experience, history, or reference point.  The Bible does this too, which it why word choice syntax can become so important.  These words or phrases often connect one part of Scripture to another part.  If we over-contextualize translations, then we lose these allusions that add connectivity and depth to understanding Scripture.  For this reason, I think it is important to use a Bible translation that takes a formal equivalence approach to translation as one’s primary Bible for study and devotion.  Bibles in this category include the King James Version (KJV), the NKJV, the New American Standard Version (NASV, 1995 update), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Stylistic Readability.  If you read your Bible diligently, then you need a version that stylistically you can enjoy.  The Reformed Bible translator William Tyndale (1494-1536) once said in an argument with a bishop that “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”  The key to that goal is style, and it is important to note that the use of more modern language does not automatically mean that it is better.  The King James Bible has had the influence it has over the centuries because the translators incorporated a lot of Tyndale’s translations into their version and the KJV was crucial in defining the English language.  That stylistic influence continues to this day, despite archaisms, the “thee, thou, ye” pronouns, and antiquated verb forms.  Nor are those things necessarily impediments to intelligibility.  I have seen college-educated Christians complain they cannot understand the KJV, while at the same time seeing individuals with no more formal education than a GED demonstrate that they thoroughly understand the KJV.  The NKJV changes the verb tenses to modern usage, drops the old pronouns and removes the archaisms, but largely retains the stylistic flow of the KJV.  The translation committee for the ESV consciously included an individual to be attentive to the style of the translation who himself had great appreciation for the style of the KJV.  The NASV, though, has had a reputation for being somewhat wooden in its translation, although the 1995 update does read more smoothly than the earlier versions.

Availability of Study Notes.  There are a couple of schools of thought on study notes.  Some people do not like them and find them to be a distraction.  There is some truth to that.  In getting into Scripture, one really needs to be grappling with the text of Scripture, more so than the study notes.  Moreover, oftentimes study notes do not really add value, but are restatements of what already is in the text of Scripture.  On the other hand, good study notes can really help bring out connections in the text that are not necessarily self-evident and that can help boost one’s understanding of the text.  In my opinion, my preferred study bibles are Zondervan’s notes for the NIV, NASV, and KJV Study Bibles, Ligonier’s Reformation Study Bible (which comes in both the ESV and NKJV), and the ESV Study Bible.

For whatever it is worth, my personal preference in terms of Bible translation is for the NKJV.  It is a literal translation, and it reflects in footnotes the expanded understanding of the manuscript basis for the Bible that has improved since 1611.  Stylistically, it is similar to the KJV which has been so influential in the English-speaking world, and this is not diminished in moving to more modern language.  That said, I can recommend the other literal versions (ESV, KJV, and NASV) as well.