When I went to seminary in 1977 there were basically a handful of English translations of the Bible to choose from. They were the Revised Standard Version, the King James Version, the American Standard Version, the New English Bible, the New Testament part of the New International Version, the New American Standard Version. There were some others but they were more paraphrases like the Living Bible. The two most common when I started seminary were the Revised Standard Version and the King James Version. Those were the two most used in churches. Then when the New International Version came out it was a huge success and it took the place of even the longstanding King James Version as the main text used in most evangelical churches. It was the Bible I studied and read from for years.
Today we have a plethora of translations. And many Christians are confused about which one to choose. I have to say it made it easier for me when I just had the New International Version and everyone else read it as well. But now with so many translations everyone has more choices and people use different ones. So which one should I use?
Why are there so many translations? The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and parts in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in the common Greek of the 1st century. So that means for you and me to read it we need someone to translate the original text. (I have a bit of an advantage in that I can read Hebrew and Greek, but still not good enough like English!) But since language changes that means translations have to change to make sure the words used communicate the right message. You have probably heard the phrase “lost in translation.” What that means is that the original idea or thought didn’t get communicated fully. Well that can happen with translations. There are certain nuances to an original word that one English word cannot fully express. So there are different translators that might choose to use a certain English word the translator believes best communicates the idea. For example the Greek word “paraclete” can mean “comforter, encourager, or counselor.” Which one do you choose? Well for the translator it often depends upon the context. So the translator might choose what he believes as the best, but that doesn’t necessarily leave out the other range of meanings. Also there are ancient idioms or phrases that would not be meaningful for us in our culture unless someone translated that idiom in a way that would make sense to us. For example if I said, “Go jump in the lake,” you could take that literally or figuratively depending upon the context in which I was saying it. So if a translator was communicating the figurative idea to someone in another culture he might say, “I reject your suggestion” because the figurative phrase “go jump in the lake” is not used in that culture.
Here is the problem: Many times it is very difficult for one translation to communicate all the different possibilities a word or phrase might mean. They want to minimize the “lost in translation.” But they know as times change idioms change, words change, etc. Therefore there is always a need for translators.
Then there are different approaches to translation. Some translations want to stick to what is a more “word for word” translation. The best example of this is the old American Standard Version. Today the English Standard Version and New American Standard versions follow this principle. Other translations want to be more dynamic in the sense they want a translation that communicates the idea the best in however many words it takes! The example of this would be the New Living Translation. And then there are many that are in-between such as the New International Version or the Holman Christian Standard Bible. No one single principle is wrong. You just need to be aware of their translation approach. And by the way all translators have their own biases when translating a text. It can’t be helped.
Also translators consider the reading level of the people using the text. We know that the reading level of say the King James Version is about 12 grade. That’s pretty high. But the reading level of the NIV is around eighth grade. So again, translators take their intended audience into consideration.
All this makes it quite confusing. So what should I do?
I personally use numerous translations depending upon what I want to do. If I am doing word studies then I would use a more word for word translation like the English Standard Version. If I am simply reading through the Bible, and I want to do it to get a broad quick context I might use a more dynamic translation such as the New Living Translation. What should I memorize from? I think the best is to use the translation that you use the most.
So here is my suggestions:
1) Use a variety of translations. This will often help look at the text differently and you will get a more broad understanding of the text.
2) Use more literal word for word translations for doing detailed study. These versions often have more Bible study tools made for them such as concordances. Also most commentators use these translations.
Thankfully in our rich electronic age we have access to a variety of translations without a big book shelf full of Bibles! If you have an IPAD or smartphone or similar device you can download an application called YOUVERSION. This is extremely helpful because it gives you access to many translations. And it’s free!
But if you don’t have a smart phone or tablet, then look for cheap deals at bookstores on different translations. They are out there.