There are two general philosophies translators use when they do their work: formal or complete equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence translations try to give as literal a translation of the original text as possible. Translators using this philosophy try to stick close to the originals, even preserving much of the original word order.
Literal translations are an excellent resource for serious Bible study. Sometimes the meaning of a verse depends on subtle cues in the text; these cues are only preserved by literal translations.
The disadvantage of literal translations is that they are harder to read because more Hebrew and Greek style intrudes into the English text. Compare the following renderings of Leviticus 18:6-10 from the New American Standard Bible (NAS—a literal translation) and the New International Version (NIV—a dynamic translation):
The NAS reads: “None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness. . . . You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for their nakedness is yours.”
The NIV reads: “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. . . . Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father. Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere. Do not have sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter; that would dishonor you.”
Because literal translations can be difficult to read, many have produced more readable Bibles using the dynamic equivalence philosophy. According to this view, it does not matter whether the grammar and word order of the original is preserved in English so long as the meaning of the text is preserved. This frees up the translator to use better English style and word choice, producing more readable translations. In the above example, the dynamic equivalence translators were free to use the more readable expression “have sexual relations with” instead of being forced to reproduce the Hebrew idiom “uncover the nakedness of.”
The disadvantage of dynamic translation is that there is a price to pay for readability. Dynamic translations lose precision because they omit subtle cues to the meaning of a passage that only literal translations preserve. They also run a greater risk of reading the translators’ doctrinal views into the text because of the greater liberty in how to render it.
For example, dynamic Protestant translations, such as the NIV, tend to translate the Greek word ergon and its derivatives as “work” when it reinforces Protestant doctrine but as something else (such as “deeds” or “doing”) when it would serve Catholic doctrine.
The NIV renders Romans 4:2 “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works (ergon), he had something to boast about—but not before God.” This passage is used to support the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. But the NIV translates the erg- derivatives in Romans 2:6-7 differently: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done (erga).’ To those who by persistence in doing (ergou) good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”
If the erg- derivatives were translated consistently as “work” then it would be clear that the passage says God will judge “every person according to his works” and will give eternal life to those who seek immortality “by persistence in working good”—statements that support the Catholic view of salvation.
Even when there is no doctrinal agenda involved, it is difficult to do word studies in dynamic translations because of inconsistency in how words are rendered. Beyond this, the intent of the sacred author can be obscured.
Finding a Balance
Both literal and dynamic equivalence philosophies can be carried to extremes. One translation that carries literalism to a ludicrous extreme is the Concordant Version, which was translated by a man who had studied Greek and Hebrew for only a short time. He made a one-to-one rendering in which each word in the ancient originals was translated by one (and only one) word in English. This led to numerous absurdities. For example, compare how the Concordant Version of Genesis 1:20 compares with the NIV:
“And saying is God, ‘Roaming is the water with the roaming, living soul, and the flyer is flying over the earth on the face of the atmosphere of the heavens’” (Concordant Version).
“And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky’” (NIV).
At the other extreme from absurdly literal translations are absurdly dynamic ones, such as the Cotton-Patch Version (CPV). This was translated from Greek in the 1960s by a man named Clarence Jordan, who decided not only to replace ancient ways of speaking with modern ones (like most dynamic translations) but to replace items of ancient culture with items of modern ones.
Compare the NIV rendering of Matthew 9:16-17 with what is found in the CPV:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (NIV).
“Nobody ever uses new, unshrunk material to patch a dress that’s been washed. For in shrinking, it will pull the old material and make a tear. Nor do people put new tubes in old, bald tires. If they do, the tires will blow out, and the tubes will be ruined and the tires will be torn up. But they put new tubes in new tires and both give good mileage” (CPV).
Between the extremes of the Concordant Version and the Cotton-Patch Version is a spectrum of respectable translations that strike different balances between literal and dynamic equivalence.
Toward the literal end of the spectrum are translations such as the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New American Standard (NAS), and the Douay-Rheims Version.
Next come slightly less literal translations, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the Confraternity Version.
Then there are mostly dynamic translations such as the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Bible (NAB).
And finally, toward the very dynamic end of the spectrum are translations such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), the New English Bible (NEB), the Revised English Bible (REB), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the “Good News Bible,” whose translation is called Today’s English Version (TEV).
One translation that is hard to place on the spectrum is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The basic text of the NRSV is rendered literally, following the RSV, but it uses “gender inclusive language,” which tries to translate the original text into a modern “gender neutral” cultural equivalent. When you read the NRSV you will often encounter “friends,” “beloved,” and “brothers and sisters,” and then see a footnote stating “Gk brothers.” The NRSV also shows a preference for using “God” and “Christ” when the original text says “he.”
There is also a host of minor versions, most of which are dynamic equivalence translations. These include well-known ones, such as the Moffat, Philips, and Knox translations, and also unique, specialty versions such as the Jewish New Testament (JNT, translated by David Stern), which renders New Testament names and expressions with the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Yiddish equivalents.
Finally, there are a selection of paraphrases, which are not translations based on the original languages but are paraphrased versions of English translations. These tend toward the extreme dynamic end of the spectrum. The best known is the Living Bible (TLB), also known as “The Book.”
The basic question you need to ask when selecting a Bible version is the purpose you are pursuing. If you simply want a Bible for ordinary reading, a moderate or dynamic version would suffice. This would enable you to read more of the text quickly and comprehend its basic meaning, though it would not give you the details of its meaning, and you would have to watch out more for the translators’ doctrinal views coloring the text.
If you intend to do serious Bible study, a literal translation is what you want. This will enable you to catch more of the detailed implications of the text, but at the price of readability. You have to worry less about the translators’ views coloring the text, though even very literal translations are not free from this entirely.
A second question you will need to ask yourself is whether you want an old or a modern translation. Older versions, such as the King James and the Douay-Rheims, can sound more dignified, authoritative, and inspiring. But they are much harder to read and understand because English has changed in the almost four hundred years since they were done.
One down side to using certain modern translations is that they do not use the traditional renderings of certain passages and phrases, and the reader may find this annoying. The “Good News Bible” or TEV is especially known for non-traditional renderings. For example, “the abomination of desolation” referred to in the book of Daniel and the Gospels is called “the awful horror,” and the ark of the covenant is known as “the covenant box.”
Some Protestants will tell you that the only acceptable version of the Bible is the King James. This position is known as King James-onlyism. Its advocates often make jokes such as, “If the King James Version was good enough for the apostle Paul, it is good enough for me,” or, “My King James Version corrects your Greek text.”
They commonly claim that the King James is based on the only perfect set of manuscripts we have (a false claim; there is no perfect set of manuscripts; and the ones used for the KJV were compiled by a Catholic, Erasmus), that it is the only translation that avoids modern, liberal renderings, and that its translators were extremely saintly and scholarly men. Since the King James is also known as “the Authorized Version” (AV), its advocates sometimes argue that it is the only version to ever have been “authorized.” To this one may point out that it was only authorized in the Anglican church, which now uses other translations. For a still-in print critique of King James-onlyism, see D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate, A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).
As amusing as King James-onlyism may sound, some people take it very seriously. There is even a Catholic equivalent, which we might call “Douay-Rheims-onlyism.” The Douay-Rheims version, which predates the King James by a few years, (the complete KJV was published in 1611, but the complete Douay-Rheims in 1609) was the standard Bible for English-speaking Catholics until the 20th Century.
What many advocates of both King James-onlyism and Douay-Rheims-onlyism do not know is that neither Bible is the original issued in the 1600s. Over the last three centuries, numerous minor changes (for example, of spelling and grammar) have been made in the King James Version, with the result that most versions of the KJV currently on the market are significantly different from the original. This has led Late 20th Century publishers to re-issue the 1611 King James Version Bible.
The Douay-Rheims currently on the market is also not the original, 1609 version. It is technically called the “Douay-Challoner” version because it is a revision of the Douay-Rheims done in the mid-eighteenth century by Bishop Richard Challoner. He also consulted early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, meaning that the Douay Bible currently on the market is not simply a translation of the Vulgate (which many of its advocates do not realize).
For most the question of whether to use an old or a modern translation is not so pointed, and once a decision has been reached on this question it is possible to select a particular Bible version with relative ease.
We recommend staying away from translations with unconventional renderings, such as the TEV, and suggest using the Revised Standard Version- Catholic Edition. This is a Church-approved version of the RSV that has a few minor changes in the New Testament. It has been reissued by Ignatius Press under the title The Ignatius Bible.
In the end, there may not be a need to select only one translation of the Bible to use. There is no reason why a Christian cannot collect several versions of the Bible, aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each. It is often possible to get a better sense of what is being said in a passage by comparing several different translations.