Is there a “best” Bible translation?

Is there a “best” Bible translation?

As a minister I am regularly asked if I have a preferred Bible translation. Here’s my usual response:

Every method of translating has its advantages and disadvantages.  And disagreement over which bible translation is best comes (in good measure) from disagreement over which advantages are more important than others.  Generally speaking, translations that seek to “mirror” the original language (in, e.g., its word order or word number) are called (rather unfortunately) “literal” or “wooden” (or, less frequently, “word for word”) translations (they are better called “direct” translations).  Translations that tend toward reworking the original language into “normal” English are often called “paraphrastic” (or, more technically, dynamic equivalence).  These terms are oversimplifications, but they suit our purposes for now.

So what are the advantages of each?

The advantage of the more literal, or direct, translations is that they “mirror” the original language; they aim to leave it to the reader to do the “heavy lifting” of further interpretation.  The advantage of the more paraphrastic translations is that, having done (more of) this “heavy lifting,” less is required of the reader.

The danger of the direct (or “word for word”) translation is that it risks incomplete communication:  that is, the reader simply doesn’t know what the English means; it is essentially vague, even incomprehensible.  For example, the ESV’s translation of Ps. 19:2 is, in my opinion, altogether difficult to understand:  “Day to day pours out speech”; another example from the ESV’s Psalms:  “You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy” (65.8; even the very “literal” NASB is more coherent:  “You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy”); or take the ESV’s translation of Luke 22.53:  “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (again, the NASB aims for greater coherence:  “but this hour and the power of darkness are yours”).

The danger of the more “paraphrastic” translation is that it risks incorrect communication:  the reader knows what the English says, but it is in fact the wrong meaning; it is essentially (though, of course, unintentionally) misleading.  That is, the translation team has made interpretive decisions for the reader instead of passing those decisions on to the reader.  A well-known example is the phrase “the love of God.”  The phrase could describe either (1) the love that a person has for God or (2) the love that God has for, e.g., his people.  In 1 John 2:5 the NRSV, NASB, and ESV all stick with (ambiguous) phrase “the love of God”:  “in him truly the love of God is perfected” (ESV); whereas the NIV reads, “love for God is truly made complete in him.” Why?  Because the NIV translation team was confident that one’s love for God was in view.  In contrast with this is the phrase’s usage in 1 John 3.17, where the NIV opts for the more ambiguous phrase “the love of God” (interestingly, perhaps ironically, the ESV here in 3.17 opts for a more precise translation instead of passing the decision on to the reader:  “how does God’s love abide in him?”).

We should not, however, take away from this that more direct translations (like the ESV, NASB, or NRSV) are not themselves deeply (and unavoidably) involved in the interpretive process:  they are regularly (and, again, unavoidably) making interpretative decisions for the reader.  Within New Testament studies a famous (even laborious) debate swirls around how to translate the Greek phrase pistis Xristou [πίστις Χριστοῦ]; traditionally translated “faith in Christ,” it could also readily be translated “the faithfulness of Christ” (or, just as easily, “Christ’s faith”).  But every translation regardless of its translation strategy can choose one (and only one) of these options:  in Romans 3.22 the ESV and NASB both stick with “faith in Jesus Christ”; both the NRSV and the NIV also choose this translation but provide an alternate translation in the margin (NRSV:  “the faith of Jesus Christ”; NIV:  “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”).

In short, “literal” (or, better said, direct) translations (like the NASB or ESV) risk communicating less meaning, while “paraphrastic” translations (like the NIV) risk communicating wrong meaning.

Consider the analogy of buying a new car:

On the one end of the spectrum is a car company that offers only one model, in one color, with all the exact same features.  No choice is given to the buyer; s/he is disempowered.  The company apparently thinks it knows exactly what the buyer wants.  Who do they think they are?!  We car buyers are, on the whole, competent drivers and know what to look for, if we had some options.

On the other end of the spectrum is a company that offers all manner of models in all kinds of colors, with an astonishing variety of features/options and even sends the basic components of the car to the buyer so that they are empowered to put the car together as they think best!

To buy from the first car company could well be something of a disappointment, if it’s not what the buyer needs or wants.  But to buy from the second car company could well be rather daunting:  it is “death by options,” not to mention the altogether daunting task of actually putting it together. Who would have the confidence (or desire) to do that?  After all, isn’t one paying the car company precisely for their expertise?

I’ve presented the discussion above without tipping my hand to what I prefer, to give a sense of why different kinds of translations of the Bible exist.  Now a few comments:

1.  The diversity of existing English translations is an incredible resource to the layperson who has no knowledge of the biblical languages:  take advantage of them!  E.g., read Mark’s gospel several times in the NIV and then in the NAS.  Even seminary-trained pastors should continue to rely on these English translations.

2.  On the whole, these English translations are very, very, very good:  the reader of these translations should have great confidence that they have genuine access to the meaning of the text of the original languages.  The amount of study that has gone into the reconstruction and interpretation/translation of the biblical text is utterly astonishing and, therefore, cause for much praise and thanks to God.  Literate Christians today have absolutely no excuse for not knowing their Bible intimately.

Now for some critique.

When reading a book or listening to a person speak, we come to understand how the author (or speaker) is using individual words, phrases, and sentences in the light of their wider context.  For example, the command “Put your hands in the air!” carries very different connotations depending on whether it comes gently from a parent who is cleaning up their 2-year-old after a messy breakfast or forcefully from a police officer who is about to arrest a criminal.  In other words, an intensive study of the verb “to put” (in the phrase “put your hands…”) or an analysis of the chemical constitution of “air” (from the phrase “in the air“) may be somewhat fruitful, but they will not provide the crucial piece that only the wider context provides for determining how the author was intending to use that phrase.  We can summarize this idea as follows:  meaning is primarily found not in the weeds (of individual words, phrases, or even sentences) but from the hilltops (of paragraphs and sections).

What’s the takeaway of all this for bible translation?

Well, “literal, word-for-word” translations can falsely give the impression of giving the reader an “access” to the “true meaning” of the original language, when in fact they can actually be confusing–indeed, even misleading.  Persons who are bilingual instinctively know that to provide a word-for-word translation can be misleading, at times humorously so.  For example, in Spanish one can say Hace un frio pelú, which, which word-for-word is:  “It is [or, does] hairy cold!”  But a far more accurate, if paraphrastic translation is:  “It is very cold!”

The point:  a so-called “literal” translation can actually be less accurate.  Why?  Because it makes the mistake of attempting to find meaning in the weeds, not from the hilltops.

Therefore, a “literal”/direct translation is not necessarily a better (i.e., more accurate) translation.  Within conservative evangelical circles “literal” translations are often given pride of place, partly (even primarily) because these translations, it is thought, pass on the interpretive decisions to the reader, instead of having the wool pulled over their eyes by some unknown group of “scholars” who think that they know what the text is really trying to say.

One could, then, accuse bible translators of interpretive “arrogance”—i.e., of making too many interpretive decisions for the reader.  This is not an illegitimate concern.  However, as we have said, translators (and Bible translation committees included) also has a responsibility to try to communicate what the text is trying to say; it would be irresponsible to shirk this task.  One can, then, also accuse bible translators of an interpretive “cowardice”—i.e., of refusing to make important interpretative decisions that enable effective communication to take place.  This, too, is a legitimate concern.

However, whereas the first concern seems to be expressed regularly (especially in conservative evangelical circles), the second is, in my opinion, given inadequate consideration.  When the refusal to make interpretative decisions prevents effective communication, that task simply falls to someone other than the translation committee—either to the reader or to the local pastor.  That is to say, the interpretive responsibility shifts from an experienced team of world-class biblical scholars and linguists (each of whom would, on the whole, vehemently assert his or her own fallibility–hence, the massive team effort) to a single person who may or may not have training in a bible college or seminary, who may have learned but (due to life and ministry choices made post-training) has largely forgotten Greek and Hebrew.

Are most ministers ready to take on this responsibility?

Overwhelmingly, I would answer, “No, they are not.”  Even within a denomination such as mine (where nearly all the ministers are seminary-trained and take 2-3 classes in the original languages), ministers may know enough of the biblical languages to read some of the more technical commentaries, and even this capacity over time often wanes. At best, they know enough to listen in on a scholarly discussion (which is very meaningful) but not enough to have an actual voice in the discussion.

That is the “best case” scenario.  But the situation is far from best case. Over the past ten years (since finishing seminary) I have regularly (probably 75% of the time) heard ministers from numerous denominations misuse their basic knowledge of Greek and Hebrew in the pulpit, taking their listeners  farther away from (instead of closer to) the text’s actual meaning, entirely unbeknownst to their congregation–and all with an air of authority that they do not possess:  somehow with their few credits of ancient languages they have managed to see what an entire team of highly trained scholars have missed.

Really?

[I will never forget what Dr. Robert Smith, a professor of preaching at Beeson Divinity School, said in lectures on preaching at Covenant Seminary.  Referring to the rampant presumption and pretense of authority with which many ministers preach today, he said–and I paraphrase (!):  “Some preachers preach like they just came from a press conference with God.”  Indeed, there are three words that need to be heard much more often from pulpits in America today:  “I don’t know.”  One can and must preach with God’s Word with authority, but one must preach what one knows to be true with authority.  Such “I don’t know” humility endears (vs. alienates) the congregation.  Again, the primary goal of seminary training in Greek and Hebrew is to give a minister a measure of access to scholarly discussion of the original text; it is not, generally, to give the minister an educated voice in that discussion, though with much discipline and time he could possibly get there.  My own experience is that, overwhelmingly, subsequent to seminary, ministers’ competency in the languages declines rapidly–which is very unfortunate.]

By now it is fairly obvious where my own preferences tend to be–viz., with the so-called dynamic equivalence translations (like the NIV).  Again, readers should take advantage of all the (very good) translations, comparing and contrasting, etc.  The Bible is a canon of books from very distant times and very different cultures. The goal of the translators is not to hide these distances or differences but to make them accessible by providing a text that is readable.

And that is a very, very difficult thing to do.

This is especially so in view of the relative illiteracy and secularism of our culture.  And, thus, one’s view of cultural engagement also comes into play in choosing a translation.  To state the matter polemically:  is choosing the NIV compromising by catering to the culture, or is choosing the ESV compromising by alienating the culture from the Bible by being too inaccessible and elitist?

As an aside (but an important aside), if one were to go into the library of any major research university and read modern English translations of almost any other ancient text (e.g., the Greek of Homer, the Latin of Cicero, the so-called Mishnaic Hebrew of the Babylonian Talmud), they would find that the translators use a strategy very similar to–indeed, even more paraphrastic than–the NIV.

Why?  What was it we said about weeds and hilltops?

So…read the various kinds of translations, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each.  And read the Bible at breadth (and do so repeatedly), for meaning is found primarily on the hilltops, not in the weeds.  If I were on a desert island and could have only one translation on me, it would be the NIV 2011.  But at present I do not live on a desert island.  There’s far more to be said here, but we’ll leave that for another time…. Push back with any questions.

[An aside:  I’ve been reading Hellenistic Greek and classical Hebrew, which is the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and Qumranic Hebrew on average of about 3 hours/day for the past nine years.  I’ve read Classical Greek but mostly the Greek of the NT era (e.g., Josephus, Philo, Strabo, Epictetus, Ignatius, et al.).  My Aramaic is presently in poor shape.  Aside from the Aramaic passages (where I consult English translations), I have a Greek and Hebrew Bible from which I do my devotional reading, preparation for teaching and preaching, and ongoing study for publishing. I’m on my fifth reading of the Hebrew Bible.  When reading the Bible at breadth (which I recommend), I will often consult various English translations (which are, more technically, called versions) to see what decisions they have made.  I usually consult the old NIV (1984), the new NIV (2011), the NAS (1995), the NRSV and the ESV (in its latest revision).  Because of this, I’ve consulted these four translations at breadth (and less so the NET and NLT), and have familiarity with them.  I mention all of this simply to give you a general sense of my facility with the Biblical languages, which is probably above that of most professors in seminaries, divinity schools, and religion departments but below, even well below, contemporary leaders in the study of the biblical languages, many of whom began these languages at an early age.]

2 thoughts on “Is there a “best” Bible translation?

  1. Bruce. Thank you for this post. Here’s a question if you have time. In some translations, the translators appear to (or at least attempt to) maintain the “artistic intrusions” or “elevated prose” inherent in the text. Sometimes in the form of a chiasmus (ex. Gen 2:4), where word order is necessary in order to perceive the construction; other times, simply in the poetry/song of the text, like Philippians 2. Which translation approach is most suited to represent these kinds things in English translations?

  2. Ronnie, I think one can make a fairly clear-cut distinction in the rules of engagement for translating different genres–e.g., prose vs. translating poetry.

    The NIV (2011) actually accounts for that chiasmus in Gen. 2.4 (unlike the NIV 1984).

    Indeed, in places the NIV keeps the Hebrew word order in its poetry; e.g., the last line of Gen. 3.19:

    The Hebrew word order: “…for dust you [are] and to dust you will return.”

    NIV: “…for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

    ESV/NAS: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

    Ironically, the NIV is more “literal” than the ESV/NAS, preserving the Hebrew word order. 🙂

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