The Best Translation of the Bible

I get asked this question quite often: “What is the best translation of the Bible?” Or “What translation do you use?” If I know the people well, I will give a snarky “I don’t use a translation, I read the original” or more pastorally, “The best translation is the one that people are willing to read.”

I tend to use the New International Version (NIV) in my preaching, teaching, and presentations largely because up to now I have been able to assume that church members will generally have it. My own preference is to use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) because of the careful work of the translators and editors behind the scenes—but to explain that would require another blog which we will save for another time.

Often the assumption behind the question of which translation is the best is that a “word-for-word translation,” or formal equivalent is more accurate than a dynamic equivalent, or more a thought-by thought translation. People who are bilingual don’t usually assume that a “word-for-word” translation is better since their daily life involves making sense of more than one language—and so they know that moving from one language to another is not so simple as matching the words in one language to words in another.

As I was learning some elementary Spanish I was told the following story that might illustrate the complexity of translation. A rather large lady who had learned enough Spanish to be dangerous once finished a meal and instead of requesting a cheque (“la cuenta, por favor”), looked up in her tourist dictionary the words for “how” and “much.” To which she found como and mucho. So she called out, “Como mucho!” And while the word como can mean how in some contexts and mucho is somewhat equivalent to much, together they did not mean what she was trying to say. Instead, because como is also the first person form of to eat (comer), she had announced “I eat a lot!” This exclamation certainly placed the wait person in an awkward place. While the translation was word-for-word, it did not translate well.

The goal of translation from one language to another should be communication. The best translation therefore will communicate the same message from the source language into the receptor language. The success of this enterprise will always be approximate and will be sufficient in most cases.  A good translation then is one that communicates. And basically all modern translations seek to do this and even the expansive The Message, though a paraphrase, is seeking to communication the ancient text to modern readers.

David Brunn in his study One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013) has demonstrated that so called “word-for-word” translations do not alway do what the translators promise. A good example might be the case of Philippians 3:2 where Paul refers to τὴν (the) κατατομή, rather, literally, “the cutting.” Three translations expands this single word by the following:

  • ESV: those who mutilate the flesh
  • NIV: those mutliators of the flesh
  • NASB: the false circumcision

The NIV is the only translation of these that is a dynamic equivalent translation, but the other word-for-word type translation is equally free with the “most literal,” one, the NASB, offering an interpretation rather than a very strict verbal translation. For many more examples, see Brunn’s book and for a more detail explanation of translation theory, see the second chapter of Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

Translation must be done case-by-case, that is, one sentence at a time and then in relationship to the larger thought unit to which it belongs. Thus, declaring the best translation of the Bible is a rather bold proclamation. No translation gets it right perfectly and therefore translations will do better with some texts than others but none will get it “best” all of the time. To move beyond this impasse requires more than picking your favorite translation.

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