Picking a Translation

I got a request from an e-mailer to blog on translations. This is the first one of such posts.

There are a number of good translations available, and there are advocates for each one, and they use a variety of reasons for why they are advocates for one over another. I think there is a quick and generally useful question to ask, and the answer to that question can determine which translation to use.

The question is this: “What is my purpose?”

If I want to do careful study of the Bible in English, even down to the point of diagramming sentences, then specific translations will be better; if I want to choose a Bible that will be good for reading the Bible in large chunks, then I would choose another; if I want a Bible that is good for public reading, then yet another. So, the question “What is my purpose?” is very important and can usually settle the question.

So, let me answer this question with translations that are best for specific questions.

1. If you want to study the Bible technically, you want a more literal translation

KJV, ASV (1901), NASB, RSV and NRSV.

2. If you want to read the Bible in larger chunks, and so want a readable, smooth translation:

NIV and TNIV, Living Bible, New Living Translation

3. If you want a Bible that is really good for public reading:

KJV, NRSV, NIV and TNIV, NLT; in England many use the NEB

4. If you want a Bible that is sensitive to gender inclusivity:


Now, you may ask this question of me: “Which do you prefer?” The answer is the same, “It depends on my purpose.”

Having said that, for eleven years I have carried the NRSV to class (along with the JPS Tanakh, which has Hebrew and the JPS English translation). This Fall I am beginning to carry the TNIV, the Today’s NIV translation. Why? Because I support the attempt to make the Bible readable for as many as possible and no more offensive than it needs to be. I think the notes on the Christ vs. Messiah and the “adoption to sonship” issue are overcooked notes, but I still think this is the best and most readable translation we have today for a classroom setting. And I really like the new TNIV Thinline, with two-color (maroon and brown) leather is a handsome thing to carry. (Now, if they’d all jettison the idea that the words of Jesus need to be in red.)

Tomorrow, I’ll blog on translation theory (and do my best to avoid the technical discussions).

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  • You didn’t even list the ESV.

  • Only because I haven’t used one, or even read one.

  • I’m curious about your perspective on the NET Bible (New English Translation) hosted at http://www.bible.org/

  • I love the ESV for the classic feel and I use it for study — alongside my other two favorite more dynamic equivalent translations – the NLT and the TNIV. (Scot, weren’t you one of the NT translators for the NLT?)On Sunday morning the scripture is read from the NLT but I’ve been preaching with the TNIV in hand.The “words of Jesus in red” enhancement is one of the silliest things publishers ever dreamed up. It adds an unnecessary layer of editorial interpretation. (Just where do Jesus’ words end and the gospel writer’s words begin?) And I find that my middle-age eyes have a harder and harder time focusing on red type. Zondervan gave all of the ministers at the Covenant Midwinter Conference a very nice leather TNIV (even got it a few days before the public release) but I had to give it up because the font wasn’t crisp enough for the size and the red print in the gospels was impossible for me to read (even with my bi-focals). Aging happens. So I bought a TNIV pew Bible with larger font and no red. Works great.

  • Here here on the ESV . . .

  • Glen,I looked at the Net Bible some time ago, and have not made use of it. But, your comment here led me to the website, and I just read James 1 carefully, and I like what I see. It is very literal, it is grammatically clear so that the original Greek can be experienced, and the notes are useful. I’d class it with those translations that are designed for studying the Bible rather than reading privately or aloud.

  • I like the ESV; it’s more readable than the old-standby literal translations, yet still useful for study.wrt the NET Bible, it has the best translator’s notes, bar none. The study notes, on the other hand… ah, not so much. The translation itself also seems well-done, imho. For readability, probably a bit more wooden than the NIV, and for study the translator’s notes often make it work. (Remember also that the NIV has been around a while now, and today reads more fluidly in some passages than did the first release.)My caveat – the ESV and NET are still newer on the scene and I’ve interacted with them less than say the NIV, but I’m liking them both so far.For public reading, there’s also JBPhillips, though perhaps less common these days… and before someone else brings it up, perhaps we’d best not discuss The Message. btw, the NLT had public reading in mind as one of the translation goals, and it does pull that off well.btw, I have to say you’re a brave man, Scot – this can get to be a thorny topic for some!

  • On the ESV, I confess (Brother Maynard) that some of the rancor that prompted it, which has been blogged by others, and which led to the fiasco at Zondervan over their NIVI when James Dobson put on his punching gloves, has influenced me and I simply haven’t used it.Permit me also that I read the Greek and rarely read the translations except in public and in classes. I am working very closely with NRSV and TNIV right now in my James commentary.

  • “Permit me also that I read the Greek and rarely read the translations except in public and in classes. I am working very closely with NRSV and TNIV right now in my James commentary.”Show off. 😉 I think the number of ESV comments should prompt a reading and a post on it in the next few weeks. I feel God leading you, Scot.

  • I was hoping the “permit me” would be granted.I don’t even have one, Steve. Is it online?

  • Steve,I just read the ESV on James 1, and like the Net Bible, it is very literal. I don’t like what it does witih “righteousness of God” in 1:20 (righteousness that God requires — for this sticks it into a forensic righteousness mode and this is not what that text is really about) but it is a good translation for study. I don’t think it is all that smooth, but all this on the basis of one passage. I’d have to see more.You a fan of ESV?Again, it gets down to purpose: I tend to think of an English translation as something that will be read in public, in church and in class, and I wonder about how it will be heard and what impact it will have. For that reason, I like the more inclusive translations.

  • Hi Scot,Have you used or do you have any opinions about the New Jerusalem Bible or New American Bible as translations of Scripture? I’m wondeing how suitable you think they are for general reading purposes and/or study?

  • My wife was recently reading through John 1, and happened to just grab a bible off of the shelf in my office. She didn’t get much further than the first verse:”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”It seems she had drifted over to the dark side of the shelf, and picked up the New World Translation.

  • I used the NJB for awhile and like it. Sturdy translation; sometimes the English came off as strange and nearly impossible to read aloud.

  • Howdy, Scot.Appreciate your comments. My primary study Bible has been the GNT and Hebrew OT. However, for English I have been an NAS/NKJ user for many years. However, I also like the God’s Word translation (available on e-sword). To me it does a better job than NLT in many places, I like the one-column format, and the parallel lines esepcially for Hebrew poetry. I don’t particularly care for the way they translated dikaisounh, though.I served as pastor of three congregations that were test congregations for the GW translation (1988-1995).

  • TNIV all the way. I do refer to ESV sometimes, but its desire for a classical feel to it, I’m afraid renders it a less clear read than a TNIV or NRSV. And I too disagree with those (and their stated reasons) who have actually signed as against one particular translation- in this case, the TNIV. TNIV is an improvement, I think, both in accuracy and readability over the NIV.I want to work on reading especially Greek and Hebrew. By the way, any scholar like yourself ought to read regularly from the original language text. I don’t see that as boasting at all. Besides, those languages I don’t believe are any harder than other world languages (koine greek is much easier than classical greek, I’ve been told).

  • Scot,Makes you wonder – a lot of newer translations seem to undergo some opposition. TNIV took flak over the gender-inclusive thing as well.’course, we’d all like to ditch them and refer to the original languages, but here again it’s as you say: what is my purpose? I was having a brew with an old friend the other evening and we were talking about this issue… we’ve both retained enough of our Greek and Hebrew study to make use of it will all the tools before us, but with secular jobs, families, and church involvement there’s little opportunity to keep it current.This does take us back to the essence of your post (or series). For the average person in the pew, this is the dilemma – and to have good direction on the selection of a translation will prove helpful, down where the little people camp out. Sometimes people can be proper snobs about translations.Permit me a true story: The day I picked up my compact ESV, there was a store in town that would give you 30% off if you traded in an old Bible, which was then donated someplace or other. I was browsing and intending to pick up the ESV, and there was a fellow in the aisle with the Bibles looking for a translation for his son — and he was going on fairly loudly about the NLT and Ken Taylor and “amillennial crap” that his original translation – oh, not a translation, a paraphrase – was full of, and was this new one done by Ken Taylor and was it full of the same “amillennial agenda”? I grumbled and kept my distance until he went and sat down to leaf through it a bit with his son, then I retrieved what I was after. I knew who the fellow was though he didn’t know me. About this time I bumped into a friend, who proceeded to introduce me to the aforementioned NLT-shopper, who immediately started to ask me about the NLT. Evidently he took my word for it, as he did make the purchase. Now the sad part. I’ve been to the guy’s church, as he’s the pastor of a well-enough-known church in the city. I wonder if he makes recommendations to his congregation about what translation to use.Unrelated question – anyone found a translation that handles poetic literature well? I recall the NJB did, but then I haven’t used it in a long time. Different translations might therefore handle different types of literature better, no? Reminds me of the book Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert… a collection of poems by a fictional poet, written in German and then translated into English. The results are… well, it’s a very funny book.Look forward to the next installment(s).Gratia vobis et pax,

  • Scot, a dear pastor friend tipped me off today about your blog post. As a Bible translator myself, and evaluator (and sometimes editor) of English versions, I’m always eager to read how others make English translation recommendations. You wrote well. I have linked to your post from my own.I have done quantified studies (as scientific as I can make them) of all the major English versions, including the newcomers, ESV, TNIV, and HCSB. The results of the studies are posted on my Bible Translation website.

  • Scot, if only others were as willing to consider that one translation does not fit all.On a couple of questions I would answer differently. For example, in response to 1. If you want to study the Bible technically … I would not qualify it with “you want a more literal translation”, Instead I’d say learn the source languages.And for 3. If you want a Bible that is really good for public reading I would cut out most of your suggestions. Committees that consider the public reading of their translation are as rare as hen’s teeth. Reading the prefaces and monographs produced by translation committees I can only identified three groups who made public reading a deliberate evaluation criteria. The KJV is one, then there is a long wait until the 1990s when the Contemporary English Version and God’s Word translations were published. The NEB has other virutes but readability (and comprehension) is not one of them. Its wordings are heavily sesquipedalian.There is a further question that needs to be asked What is the reading level of the person asking for advice?. The average US adult only has a reading skill equivalent to grade 6. And not that long the BBC News web site was reporting that a large minority of children the UK’s equivalent of grade 6 were unable to read at that level either.

  • Administrator

    Brother Maynard,
    I agree with you on the NJB and poetry. Isn’t it WL Knox’s translation that is unparalleled for poetry?
    The NLT was by a team and I was on the Luke team. I like that translation, and do use it some myself, but my students don’t and the churches were I speak don’t, so I gravitate toward the translation being used in the groups to which I am privileged to speak.

  • Administrator

    Wayne, I’ve been to your site. Very nice.
    Trevor, thanks for these comments. Very few will actually learn the original languages well enough to see the problems that language brings to the surface. I’ve been around enough translators to know that the “aural” plays a significant role in many translations. That last point is very good: average reading level factors into translations also — Good News Translation (used to be Good News for Modern Man).

  • Scot, several comments were about the ESV and you mentioned that you did not have a copy yet. It is nearly identical to the RSV which you are probably quite familiar with already. The “liberal” RSV readings have been changed to “conservative” wordings. There have been a few other minor changes, but for all practical purposes it is still the RSV. I, personally, do not care for all the obsolete and obscure English in the ESV and RSV (I disagree with the ESV claim for itself that its kind of English has “literary excellence”). I have large files with problem wordings I have found in the ESV. They can be found on my ESV links webpage, which references the ESV website, its blog, endorsements of the ESV from church leaders, ESV reviews (others noted the same problems with the ESV English that I have noted), etc.
    Because the ESV is becoming a phenomenon among some segments of Christians, you may want to get a copy so that you can answer questions about it. You can get the ESV free by downloading it in electronic format to use in the very user-friendly freeware program e-sword. There are links to the e-sword program and its ESV module on my ESV links page in the “Bible programs with ESV modules” section.
    I am impressed with your blog. I had visited it before, but since my focus on on Bible translation and biblical scholarship I had not spent much time on it. Now that you have posted on Bible translation, and also now that you have moved to your new blogging service and have one of the most attractive blog templates I have ever seen, I’ll be coming back more often. If you have an RSS feed, I’ll be sure to add you to my RSS Reader.

  • Administrator

    Thanks Wayne.

  • I recently purchased a copy of the Jerusalem Bible — the Readers’ Edition with massively abbridged notes, as the original is rather difficult to find. I’ve known of it for a long time, but it was when reading Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary that I really came into contact with it — all the Biblical quotes in the book are from the JB. The language flows quite well to my ear and has made simply sitting and reading quite possible.
    I made the comment to a friend that until I’d read from this translation I’d been bothered by a sense of “woodenness”, the lack of a sense of the personality of the authors and of the persons in the narratives. I’m not sure why this should be the case, as I have no problem in understanding the language of other translations… perhaps it has to do with cutting my teeth on the many other translations and having developed the bad habit of only reading intellectually. Perhaps it’s just that the style of the language is significantly different to allow me to escape former habits, but at any rate I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
    I didn’t choose the NJB merely because in a quick comparison of the language the JB sounded better to my ears.

  • Peter Kirk

    Already commented on a previous incarnation of this blog:
    Here in England very few Bible editions use red letters for the words of Jesus. So if you don’t like that, order a British edition. And we spell correctly! 😉
    But I don’t think many churches here are still using NEB. Some may have moved on to its revision the REB.
    I’m a TNIV fan myself. I like its general style, which I am used to after 25 years of using NIV – much more natural English than RSV, NRSV or ESV. But TNIV has improved on many of my less favourite aspects of NIV: not only its gender related language, also its reading the NT back into the OT by using of capital letters for “Son” e.g. Psalm 2:7,12.

  • Peter, thanks for this. I thought many were still using the NEB. Do you not find the TNIV to be too American in its English?

  • Trevor Jenkins

    The GNB/TEV does have a slightly lower reading level than some of the other translations mentioned here. I deliberately left if out of my list because its original audience was to have been EFL (English as a Foreign Language) users.
    Picking up Ephrem’s comment about the JB/NJB. My copy of the JB is also the abridged notes edition, in fact mine has almost no notes what so ever. And although I’ve only recently added the NJB to my shelves it has a feature that really catches my eye — its clean and consistent presentation. Something that the NEB does have too. My new NJB hasn’t really had the use I expected to give as my God’s Word translation arrived a few days afterwards and that’s got a very clean presentation. I really enjoy reading GW. One common theme to all these translations is the publisher used a single column.

  • I am an old KJV, NIV, NASB user.
    However, as of late, I mostly use the ESV, NET and ISV.
    I recommend everyone download e-sword which will allow you to compare/contrast many of the versions mentioned.
    Someone asked about a “poetic” translation…I would recommend you check out the ISV. You can find out more about the ISV at http://www.isv.org/
    Titus 1:12 ISV One of their very own prophets said, “Liars ever, men of Crete, Savage brutes that live to eat.”
    More examples of the poetic style in the ISV:

  • Andrew

    Don’t you find that the NRSV trades accuracy for inclusiveness? The cases where readings were changed to reflect a more gender inclusive reading sometimes changes the number of persons in order to do so. In the preface, Metzger states regarding this that, “several mandates stood in tension and even in conflict.”
    I appreciate translators’ attempts to be sensitive to inclusive readings, but it seems that there is sometimes a conflict between inclusiveness and precision in translation.

  • Andrew,
    Tomorrow’s post will deal with this.

  • 20 times around the block… » Blog Archive » Translations

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