What Is Most Important When Choosing A Bible Translation?

Derek Ouellette —  March 2, 2011

Of the readers and visitors of Covenant of Love, 50% who answered February’s poll said that when they go looking for a bible translation, what they look for most is how literal it is. 22% look for a bible translation they can easily read; 11% are most concerned with the Greek text underlining the translation; 6% choose a bible often based on how it feels to hold and 3% will choose a bible based predominately on it’s study notes. 8% said “other” which included things like it must contain the “entire OT” including the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books and some said it must be “gender inclusive”.

All of these have merit, of course. When I used to do a little translating I found myself leaning heavily toward as literal a translation I could create while still keeping it “readable”. But no translation, no matter how literal, is without interpretative bias. The weakness to literal translations is that – strictly speaking – it is impossible to have one while still making sense in the English language. This is because unlike the English language, word order is less important in Greek.

Having a bible that is readable can be both good and not so good. Good because a bible which cannot be read does not accomplish one of it’s primary tasks – that of being read; it becomes no good at all. Yet the more readable a translation is – to the extreme point of becoming a paraphrase – the more interpretation is done. The result may be a complete exchange of the word of God for the views of men (Romans 8:9 is a classic example).

For me, the Greek text beyond the English is crucial. There can be little doubt by anyone who’s done the study that the Greek Text behind the King James and New Kings James – the Textus Receptus – is the most corrupt. Note, we have no “perfect” Greek manuscripts today and in that sense they are all a little “corrupt” in some sense. And yes, they are still all highly reliable and trustworthy – even the King James – but this is one of the many reasons why many translations are useful.

I also appreciate translations which contain the Deuterocanonical books because – like the Church Fathers – I believe they are useful. I also think bible translations which are “gender inclusive” – to some extent – are useful too. For example, when Paul writes to a church and employs the Greek word for “brothers” we know that that word is meant to incorporate both men and women. A modern example is when we join a party and say “hey guys, what’s up?” We don’t mean to imply that only men are at the party. So a translation that conveys the idea of the text, “brothers and sisters” is preferable. The danger with “gender inclusive” language is when it dabbles in matters with great theological repercussions such as employing the term “Mother” in reference to God.

For all of the reasons listed above I’ll now reveal my vote: What is most important to me when choosing a bible translation is how the new bible feels in my hand. I voted for comfort. Because on my shelf I have bibles that are so literal they are difficult to understand and so readable they are laughable (and a wide variety in between). Bibles in the KJV tradition and others in the NA27ed. Bibles with the apocrypha and bibles without the apocrypha.

When so I go looking for a bible, I don’t look for one which I can use as my “standard” translation. I look for one that can contribute in some way to my understanding of what the original authors – and by default, the Original Author, intended to communicate.

[P.S. While you are here, you might as well cast your vote in March’s poll]

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Sudduth Rea Cummings

    Like you, I have a variety of Bibles. I like the English Standard Version best, but still refer to NIV and RSV. The Message is very useful for preaching illustrations and devotional reading. I have a couple of Holman Christian Bibles purely for their comfort in my hand. My lead favorite is the NRSV since it distorts the text for politically corrent purposes.

    Have you read about the latest New American Bible revision? They have come around to the KJV tradition in the 23rd Psalm, replaced the Roman usage of holocaust in favor of the more common burnt offerings. They’ve also replaced booty with spoils. The trouble with all the RC translations is that they do lack readable beauty.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks Sudduth, I was not aware of the NAB revisions.

  • Roger Harned

    I have many translations, some worn beyond convenience for continued regular use. The NIV (especially the updated), seems readable and true the original texts. I like cross-references to Strongs & available tables with Hebrew & Greek origins. Maps are helpful, especially for the OT. I am currently using the NSB Study Bible, which has many fine tools, including an online tool. For kids and new believers, I still like Eugene Peterson’s “The Message.” It is a great understandable paraphrase without all the jargon we tend to mix into our conversations for conversions.

    Lastly, I highly recommend using the internet, with many searchable Bibles, side-by-side version comparisons, and reliable interpretations of various expositors from our Christian heritage to current Biblical teachers. Playing out the Greek or Hebrew root words for my ear is helpful & seeing extensive definitions of these gives me a depth of understanding that no one translation can bring.

    Above all, I challenge us to study our Bibles. How can we take in all of the sin before us on TV for an hour or two or more every day, and not take even a few minutes EVERY DAY to study the Word of God?

    May the Lord bless you each and every minute you take to seek the Truth of His Word and apply it to your days.

    Lord, Jesus Christ, come soon~!

  • brad dickey

    I usually read in the NIV for pleasure, NASB for study, and NET I use for both, to check out language issues, etc. Their notes are 63K+strong from the translators on what the issues are with words and why they chose what they did. If you’ve never seen it, you can DL a free copy at http://WWW.Bible.org. I’m meaning to sharing information and since they dont’ make money, in fact they lose money, I am pretty sure I don’t meet any spam definitions.

    I’m extremely curious why rom 8:9 was such a good example. The heterodoxical nightmare that I am, has spent tons of time around that verse……

    You’re killing me man….. hurry up already, tell me! Oh, I gotta hit enter first.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Hey Brad, I devoted a whole post to explain the Romans 8:9 thing so as to not clog on comment space. Check it out by clicking the link below.