Lost in Translation: Finding the Right Bible for You

I first wrote this article a few years ago for New Horizons, a feature for young people looking at Christian undergraduate education. It has disappeared from the digital world, so I thought I’d post it again, slightly updated.

Finding a Bible of your own can be a daunting task. Walk into a Christian bookstore and you are confronted by hundreds of choices. So many different sizes, features and translations—enough to dizzy the mind and discourage any soul searcher.

So how do you find the right Bible for you when you are ready to ditch your grade three children’s Bible or move on from the dusty King James Bible your grandparents use to use?

Two Paths Diverged in the Library

One of the reasons there are so many choices is because there are different ways of approaching the translation of the ancient texts. Mostly, there are two kinds of translations that sit on either end of a spectrum: literal and dynamic equivalent.

The literal translation seeks to translate word for word from the manuscripts. A more literal approach is helpful for studying Scripture when you don’t know the original languages—which is most of us!

A dynamic equivalence approach isn’t translating word for word, but phrase for phrase or thought for thought. The importance of this approach is to capture the essence of what is being said and describe it authentically in English.

Every language is different. You know what I mean when I say, “What’s up?” But translate that into French or Japanese, and it doesn’t make any sense. Instead, in those languages you might say “Comment allez vous?” or “Genki desu ka?” And if you translated that Japanese phrase literally into English, it would mean, “Are you feeling energetic and vigorous?” An odd thing to ask a person when you are getting on a bus.

Since there are different approaches and different versions, let’s explore some of them to help you make your choice.

A Wooden Desk and a Notebook

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) has been a popular choice of literal translations for a generation. It sticks close to the text and tries to maintain word order, even if there are a few awkward phrases here or there. It is a great go-to Bible for studying Scripture seriously. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is literal like the NASB, but it is not as strict on word order, so is a little more readable.

The recently released English Standard Version (ESV) combines the poetry of the King James Bible and the literal phrasing of the NASB, but is still very much understandable and readable today. The ESV has the distinction of creating a formal, yet very approachable translation for people in high school or college. Interestingly, unlike a number of recent translations (NRSV, TNIV & NLT below), the ESV does not use gender-inclusive language when referring to people.

A Comfy Chair and a Cup of Joe

In the last century there were a number interesting paraphrases of Scripture. From the Cotton Patch Bible, which put Jesus’ stories in the context of the segregated South, to the Living Bible in everyone’s mid-century library, these Bibles were a great way of creating discussions and bringing Bible meaning into a new light.

No recent paraphrase, though, has been as popular and convincing as the Message. Written in view of the original texts by Christian spiritual director, Eugene Peterson, it is impressively conversational. Most editions drop the verse numbers, and present the text like a novel. The Message makes for a fantastic bedside reading Bible.

For those who want a readable, thought-for-thought version that is a more serious translation, the New Living Translation (NLT) commends itself on all accounts. It is easy to read, but captures the essence of the text accurately. It also comes in an array of student versions and study versions, and is my handheld Bible of choice.

The Best of Both Worlds?

Is there a way, though, to get a literal translation that uses the English we speak today? This desire for a translation that does everything may be why the New International Version (NIV) has become so popular.

The NIV was made by a committee of evangelicals in the seventies. It tries to capture the essence of today’s language but is still a pretty conservative translation. This is why you’ll more often than not see an NIV in a Christian home or church pew.

With time, English changes and moves on. As much as I love my large-print, leather NIV, there are some places where the translation could be improved and the language updated. The recently released revamp of the NIV in 2011 is a good improvement on the NIV. If your church or Bible study uses the NIV, you can still read along easily in the TNIV, but you have the advantage of a version that takes seriously the original text and this generation’s culture.

The Choice For You?

With on average a new major English translation every year for the last century, the choice can be difficult. But these descriptions should help you find the Bible you’ll absolutely love to read. And who knows, maybe someday one of your kids will dig up your dusty NIV, ESV or NLT from the attic, and you’ll be able to tell them about the years of encouragement you received from God’s word.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to Lost in Translation: Finding the Right Bible for You

  1. robstroud says:

    Nice discussion. We should also help younger believers understand that the theological positions of the translator(s) enter into the equation as well. For example, with the gender inclusion issue you cite–people who value contemporary language patterns and want to ensure everyone understands that many of the references to “men” in the Bible are clearly intended to mean “mankind/humankind” . . . and those who prefer to keep the text as close to the original, and explain such matters as they may be necessary.


    • You are absolutely right, Rob. I have deeper opinions on it–I took Hebrew and Greek, and teach Greek, so we were constantly talking about it. While it isn’t all about “he” vs. “they” and “Man” vs. “humanity,” that seems to be most of the anti-TNIV/NIV2011 conversation (there are some nonCalvinists that think that the NIV in general is too Calvinistic). The reality is that translators are quite close in most of these–my teachers were in each translation. The 2004/2011 NIV revisions had Gordon Fee, the ESV had JI Packer, and Eugene Peterson did the Message. They all teach at the same school, and yet they approach it differently.
      I think the translations are like tools. Our Pastor prefers the ESV, but if our church decides that the community is less educated than we think it is (the ESV is complex), we will switch. I use all the translations, but I’m a lover of language in general.
      C.S. Lewis, in Reflections on the Psalms, used the translation in the Prayer Book, and Dr Moffatt. Everyone has their favs.


  2. Joshua Duffy says:

    Great post. I personally prefer the NASB, but use the NIV 2011 and the NRSV quite a bit too.


  3. GailwhoknowsEnglishandEnglishLit says:

    The KJV is the most literal translation, the NKJV is as close to the literal translation of the original texts as English can come and still keep all the prose of the “old texts”. NIV does not acknowledge the Diety of Jesus, so I reject it, in fact many new translations reject the Diety of Jesus! When a text reads “and His mother and FATHER” it means Jesus was NOT a direct decendent of the Creator of the universe and a direct part of the triune God I serve! I cannot accept any version that diminishes Jesus to prophet or anything less than Saviour of mankind…also known as God who took on flesh! Read your versions carefully! Know your KJV! It is still the most accurate version in English to date! All the NKJV did was take out the ancient “thee and thou” and made it your and yours. Literal translation made a bit more readable! It is still the most accurate of any of the translations out there! Yes, it is hard to read for most “kids” who aren’t really taught English now anyway!(schooling rant will be another post) But if a person can read, a person can read the NKJV and KNOW Jesus is who He says He is!


  4. Thanks for the response, Gail. You will see by my article that I post tomorrow that I disagree about the King James–not from the point of accuracy, but from the point of how language works. I’d love your critique of it when it goes up.
    I also agree that we should “read your versions carefully”–they are interpretations.
    But the King James is not the most literal, and I don’t think it is the most accurate. I read from the Greek fairly easily (my Hebrew takes work), and I don’t see what you see in the King James. Moreover, the NIV and ESV committees say out loud that they believe in the deity of Jesus. Do you have an example of the modern versions covering that up?
    Thanks for your response.


  5. Keith says:

    As a pastor, I use the NRSV for my study Bible and sermon preparation, but I like to read the message, too, because it often gives me insight into the heart of the text I might not catch otherwise because it’s veiled in language I don’t always understand.

    When I’m reading, though, I love the CEV. My favorite translation so far–I just love the way it is written.


    • I mentioned the CEV on my facebook wall. I had a handy CEV NT I used on the treadmill/bike. The Message is done by Eugene Peterson. He wouldn’t know me from Adam (I suppose he knows Adam better), but I tutor his Regent College courses, so I get to stay at the heart of his ideas. I appreciate the Message.


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  9. sseeley80 says:

    Reblogged this on The Walk and commented:
    This is a good article to read if you are struggling to find the right Bible translation for you


  10. sseeley80 says:

    The NLT is my personal favorite because I like the flow of the language and find it easier to memorize. But when I want to study a passage in depth I use the NIV. This is a great article!


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