One of the things I have the privilege of talking about today in my role as Bible publisher happens to be something I talked a great deal about in a very different job I had nearly 20 years ago in college. Working as a sales associate for an independently owned Christian bookstore during a portion of those years, I was often asked by people shopping for a Bible, “What’s the difference between translations?” or “Is one better than the other?” It was a common question to be asked as an in-store associate back then, and it’s a common question to be asked as a Bible publisher today. So, to put the question bluntly, what is the difference?
On one level, the question about differences can be answered by looking at the history of English translations. So, for the inquirer wanting to know the specifics of this translation over the next, one could do a deep dive into the translation commitments of those overseeing the translation, noting specifically the textual and philosophical commitments that informed their translation decisions. An example from the textual side, for instance, is asking which manuscripts (MSS), and how many MSS, were consulted in the production of the translation.
This level of detail can be important, especially when comparing older English translations to new ones—for instance, whereas the King James Version was partly created by using a half-dozen later Greek MSS, many English translations today have had the benefit of consulting a larger reservoir of earlier Greek MSS in light of archeological findings and research.
In addition to textual differences, however, there’s also the issue of philosophical differences that exist on the translation level. For some translations, there’s a philosophical commitment on their part to present a translation in what translators have called a “formal” rendering of the original text—that is, a “word-for-word” translation.
The sentiment behind “word for word” being, if the MSS have 10 words in a given sentence, then the translation itself should have 10 words, each English word aligning with a corresponding Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word in the MSS. The preference is to lean toward a very literal translation of the text as much as possible.
For other translations, there’s a philosophical commitment on their part to present a translation that has come to be known as “dynamic,” or “thought for thought.” Where the “formal” represents the more word-for-word literalness of translating the text, the “dynamic” approach emphasizes making a translation more readable by focusing on supplying the meaning of the text in the contemporary idiom. Thus, instead of focusing exclusively on word-for-word text alignment, the dynamic philosophy of translation places greater emphasis on supplying the meaning of the text in a readable fashion, arguing that an exact literal rendering doesn’t necessarily relate the text’s intended meaning.
Now, there are obvious reasons for why one translation or another would choose to lean in either direction. On the one hand, for the formal camp, the value is in being an accurate representative of the form of the original text, despite however clunky a literal translation may render and how it might obscure the intended meaning from readers untrained in the biblical languages.
On the other hand, for the dynamic camp, the value is in providing the meaning of the text in a readable fashion, all the while realizing that the translators may have missed the point of the original meaning—either intentionally or unintentionally (although, it should be noted on this point that none of the major English translations challenge any point of major doctrine).
A Spectrum for Translations
Placing the major English translations on a spectrum can help situate to what varying degree the different translations fall in the formal/dynamic divide.
This is a helpful visual showing where the majority of English translations fall in terms of translation philosophy. One question that may arise upon seeing this, however, is how it was determined where each translation falls. In other words, who determines that the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), for instance, falls somewhere in the middle whereas the New Living Translation (NLT) leans more heavily in the dynamic space?
Using computerized statistical analysis for the purpose of linguistic comparisons, research conducted by the Global Bible Initiative developed a quantitative evaluation of the major English translations based upon the two criteria represented in these two schools of translation philosophy: literal versus readable.
Ranking each translation on these two criteria, their research indicated the following:
On some level, not much has changed since my early college years in explaining the differences between the translations as an in-store associate. Even back then, I used the framework of formal or dynamic in terms of their translation philosophy. It wasn’t until much later, however, that I realized these two categories have potentially created a false dilemma, a mistaken either/or scenario.
What if the choices aren’t so binary? Was there space for a third way, a philosophy that seeks to take the best from both ends of the spectrum, being optimal in terms of its faithfulness to the original text and faithful in its readability in contemporary English? I believe so. Sure, binary options are easy to explain, but they sometimes fail to accurately represent the details in reality. After all, all of the major English translations have tried to incorporate both aspects of the continuum to varying degrees.
So, if you’ve been curious as to what distinguishes English Bible translations, hopefully this brief overview has provided some insight. The scholars and language experts that have worked on these translations have done a tremendously faithful job in rendering the text in the English language, so it’s important that I end by underscoring our need to be faithful in reading the text and hiding God’s Word in our hearts.
As you undergo the faithful study of Scripture, pick up a formal translation, one that’s dynamic, or one that seeks to optimally blend both aspects together, and just read. Be faithful to consistent reading, be faithful in deep reflection upon what you’ve read, and be found faithful in responding positively in obedience to God’s Word over your life.