What your Bible translation does

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In my previous article talking about how to slow down our reading of the Bible I mentioned that you might find it helpful to read from a different translation from time to time.  I thought it might be helpful to talk a little about choosing Bible translations in terms of how they function. 

There are a number of reasons why there are different Bible versions out there, the simplest reason is that language itself changes over time.  Of course, this is obvious when you compare ye olde worlde English in the KJV but you may even notice that how we use language has changed since the NIV was first published back in 1984.

Another factor has been the discovery of manuscripts so that we have more copies of the Green and Hebrew texts. Although we have high confidence in the copy accuracy and therefore the translation of the Authorised and Revised versions, these new discoveries give us a higher level of precision accuracy. 

However the biggest factor is translation philosophy. There are two main approaches to this. Formal Equivalence aims to replicate the form of the translated language as closely as possible, to get as close to the exact word for word option as possible and to follow the grammar and syntax. Og course an exact word for word translation that is readable isn’t possible. Try picking up an interlinear New Testament, all the world order is jumbled and some words may have a range of meaning where it matters that you get the right one. However, the AV, ASV and ESV try to follow the form as closely as possible. At the other end of the spectrum a paraphrase aims to carry the thought of a sentence or paragraph.  This however may not mirror vocabulary or syntax so well. 

This has often been presented as choice between accuracy and readability. However, I’m not sure that is a fair categorisation of things. A word for word translation may not be the most accurate.  When I preached with a Spanish translator, sometimes they would seem to talk for a while, much longer than what I said. I would ask why? The interpreter would explain that if they replicated exactly what I had said, it would make no sense in Spanish and might even convey a different idea to what I was saying. Sometimes when I told a joke, the interpreter would say “laugh, he is joking now!” Some things like puns simply don’t translate.

I think it is horses for courses. The choice of word can be intentional. To see how a word is repeated through a passage may require you to use a formal equivalent. This will also help you see the structure of the language which is very important when we are learning to slow down to read. However, sometimes we can get a more accurate meaning across by  using a thought for thought translation.

Formal and Dynamic Equivalent Translation

Here is a diagram showing how different Bible versions fit on a scale. Some lean more towards paraphrase, others towards a more formal equivalent.  Some try to sit somewhere in between. I personally find a formal equivalent translation like the ESV helpful when studying but something like the NLT better for reading the text for personal devotion of public preaching.