[NOTE: This is the 7th post in a series of entries intending to help readers learn how to study their Bible.]
As we consider the importance of responsible interpretation of the Bible [remember 2 Timothy 2:15?], I think we should pause and consider the topic of translations. The difference between "interpretation" and "translation" is like the difference between a chef and a dietitian. A chef takes raw ingredients and "translates" them into a delicious meal. He could fry, bake, grill or sear fish...depending on his customer. In the end, fish is fish, but the chef has the job of presentation. The dietitian, however, isn't given such luxury of personal preference. He or she must analyze the meal and draw conclusions about the amount of sodium, calories, protein, etc. These conclusions are based on the substance, not presentation. Still, the dietitian will be limited by the meal that the chef prepares.
We have a variety of translations of the Bible. However these translations differ in presentation. They are the result of different scholars who are writing the language of the Bible for particular audiences to digest. I think about the multitude of translations in three basic categories:
LITERAL TRANSLATIONS: These translations are true to the original, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible. However, because they are word-for-word designed, some find them to be too "wooden," or stiff. In other words, they don't sound like we speak. They are the most accurate for personal study. Example of literal translations include the New King James Version, the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible.
FREE TRANSLATIONS: Opposite of literal translation are those translations which are freer in their syntax, grammar and word content. The translators have taken liberty to rearrange the parts to smooth out the readability of the text. While these translations often "flow" and have an easier readability, they are not as dependable for deeper study. They are paraphrases, relying on the translator's style and perspective. Free translations include The Message, the Living Bible and J.B. Phillip's The New Testament in Modern English.
DYNAMIC EQUIVALENT: A moderating option between literal and free translations is the dynamic equivalent translation. These phrase-by-phrase versions maintain the historical distance between the original language and the current language, but updates style and grammar. Examples of these translations include New International Version and the New English Bible.
Here is a list of Bibles from most literal to most free:
King James (KJV)
New King James (NKJV)
English Standard (ESV)
New American Standard NASB)
Revised Standard (RSV)
New Revised Standard (NRSV)
New American Bible
New International (NIV)
New English Bible
Good News Bible
Phillips Modern English
Living Bible (LB)
New Living Bible (NLT)
Contemporary English (CEV, "The Promise")
Today's English Version
Which version should you choose? I encourage Bible students to use whichever version is most readable to them for their personal, devotional time. However, when it comes to serious study, the student should use a Bible that is closer to a literal translation. I enjoy reading The Message, but it does not provide the necessary accuracy of the ESV or NASB when it comes to thorough study. Good interpretation starts with the right translation.