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Bible Translation Versus Interpretation

When looking at the vast array of Bibles, many Christians wonder how to select the best one for them.

Walk into the average Christian bookstore and you will find many different Bible translations available for purchase.

Since most of us are unable to read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, we are dependent on language scholars to translate the Word of God for us. Knowing this, we are privileged to have a number of different English translations available, as they make it possible for us to have more direct access to God’s Word than most Christians in earlier centuries possessed.

However, if Bible translation is just a matter of converting ancient languages into English, why are there so many different versions available? After all, the Canadian government regularly translates documents from French into English and vice versa without much difficulty. Why should translating the Bible be any different? The answer is that, unlike modern-day languages such as French or Spanish, the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek are fundamentally different from the English language. As a result, there is more to Bible translation than simply converting individual words from the original language into our language.

For example, a literal word-for-word translation of John 3:16 from Greek into English reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” As we can see, a simple word-for-word translation is virtually unreadable to most people. In order to achieve a functional translation, the grammatical structure needs substantial modification.

Types Of Translations

At the risk of oversimplification, there are three main categories of Bible translations.

1. Essentially literal: These translations retain much of the form and structure of the original language, and provide a word-for-word translation to the greatest degree possible. Translations in this category include King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), and the Revised Standard Version (RSV).

2. Dynamic equivalence: These translations employ a “thought-for-thought” approach that conveys the essential meaning of the original authors. Concepts and metaphors less widely known to modern-day readers are frequently rephrased. Translations in this category include New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), New International Reader’s Version (NIRV), New Living Translation (NLT), New Century Version (NCV), and the Contemporary English Version (CEV).

3. Free paraphrase: Paraphrases take great liberty with the biblical text and seek to convey the meaning of the author using contemporary phrases and metaphors. The best-known paraphrases are The Clear Word (TCW), The Living Bible (TLB), and The Message (MSG).

Within each of these categories there is a significant variation. For example, the NIV is generally more literal than other dynamic equivalent translations, while The Message makes bigger departures from the original text than The Living Bible or The Clear Word. Nevertheless, these categories are a useful way for the average Bible reader to differentiate from the plethora of translations available.

The essentially literal translations are closest to the original text as they take the actual Greek words and basically rephrase them into grammatically acceptable English.

What Should We Use?

Clearly, there are substantial differences between the different translations. The old saying that one Bible is as good as another simply does not hold true. With this in mind, it is our belief that Christians are wiser using an essentially literal translation, particularly for in-depth study and public reading. Since, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16), we should seek to read translations that reflect the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek words to the greatest degree possible. Jesus Himself said, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law” (Matthew 5:18), and we should be cautious about translations that alter the inspired Word of God.

Another reason for concern is that, in cases where there is more than one possible meaning of a biblical text, Christians reading dynamic equivalent translations or free paraphrases are frequently given only the translators’ interpretation.

The Transforming Word

All Christians and church congregations need to give careful consideration to which translation(s) they wish to use for personal and public reading. It is our conviction that we have become too dependent on Bible translators to do our interpreting for us. For those of us who are unable to read Hebrew and Greek, essentially literal translations are the closest thing we have to the original text of Scripture. Let’s use them more regularly in our personal study and public readings, without going to the extreme to think that God spoke to Jeremiah in King James Version English. He spoke, and the prophet did not only hear but also jot it down in Hebrew. His life was never again the same because God’s Word is not only inspired, but is also meant to convict, correct, and transform you and me - literally, dynamically, and freely.