Bible Translations


            Today’s English speaking Christian is faced with over 100 English translations of the Bible.  Because most believers in the English speaking church do not read Greek or Hebrew, they will be dependent on one or more of these translations in their reading and study of the Word of God.  To study the Word in a translation is nothing new; even Jesus and the apostles would have utilized the Septuagint in their reading of the Old Testament.  For over 1000 years the church recognized the Latin Vulgate as the received Word of God, and for some 300 years the King James Bible was the Bible of the English speaking world. 

            For most Bible students, the most basic tool that will be used in Bible study is a good translation of the Bible in the language of the reader.  One must realize however that there is no such thing as a perfect translation, and thus the diligent student of the Bible will utilize a variety of translations.

            It must be remembered that to study out of a variety of translations is simply one step among many in the observation stage of inductive Bible study.  When differences are observed between translations, this should prompt us to ask more intelligent interpretive questions.  Differences between translations often act as “red flags”, indicating difficult exegetical or textual issues within the text of the original language.  There is almost always a good reason why translations may differ in any particular passage, and to discover the reason behind a difference in translation will always lead to a more informed interpretation of the text.

            In comparing translations, the Bible student will observe that differences typically result from one of the following four reasons:


Exegetical Decision Making


            A very basic fact of translation is that whenever translation occurs, at some level interpretation will also follow.  This is because much of the work of translation involves the translator making syntactical choices regarding the meaning of a given word as it is found in a particular context.  Many questions of syntax are relatively straightforward, but at other times scholarly opinion can become quite varied.  Because of the flexible nature of Greek and Hebrew vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, translations will at times differ based upon the exegetical choices that translators have made.  To some extent, the readers of any given translation are subjecting themselves to the exegetical choices made by translation committees, and thus to study out of a variety of translations will always be preferred.


Theory of Translation


            Generally speaking, differences that occur as a result of theory of translation are more issues of style than substance, but these differences tend to be the most predominate as translations are compared.  Because no translation can be completely literal, all translations will employ a certain degree of dynamic equivalency in the process of translation from the original language to the receptor language.  The extent of degree to which a given translation will tend to veer from the literal will determine where on the scale a given translation might fall. 


·        Formal Equivalence (literal):  This is the attempt to translate by keeping as close as possible to the words and phrasing of the original language.  This theory will tend not to bridge differences between languages in areas of idiom, grammar, and culture.


·        Dynamic Equivalence:  This is the attempt to translate words, phrases, and idioms from the original language into precise equivalents in the receptor language.  More freedom is taken in dealing with the actual wording of the text, all the while seeking to convey the proper meaning of the text.


·        Paraphrase:  A paraphrase will take freedom in translating ideas rather than the words of the text.  A paraphrase can be very useful as a commentary, but by its very nature will be influenced tremendously by the interpretive choices of its translators. 


Textual Basis Behind a Translation


            One of the major reasons why translations may differ stems from issues involving the original language text from which the translations are based.  The work involved in establishing a standard Greek or Hebrew text for translation is the work of textual criticism, a necessary science which seeks to reproduce the most accurate text possible based upon available manuscript evidence.  Most modern translations utilize critical editions of the Greek and Hebrew texts which represent the best scholarly consensus regarding the wording of the original autographs.  For the Old Testament, this text is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), and for the New Testament it is typically found in the latest edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament.  In each of these texts, a critical apparatus is included which informs the reader of text critical issues that may be involved in any given verse.  Modern translations (especially in study Bible formats) usually have some means to indicate when textual issues are at hand.

            One will notice in comparing the King James or New King James Bibles to most other translations, that differences in the New Testament often involve textual discrepancies between the critical editions of the Greek text and the Greek text used as the basis for the King James Version, the Textus Receptus.


The Dynamic Nature of Living Languages


            Because living languages will change with time, using an accurate modern translation will alleviate the need for much concern in this area.  There are, however, those who prefer to use older translations, particularly the King James Version.  When studying from an older English translation, the reader should be aware of anachronistic and obsolete terms as well as archaic spelling and sentence construction that may hinder the reader’s understanding of the text.