Which English Bible Translation is ‘Best’?
I am often asked which English translation is “the best”? But the answer to that question is not a simple one. We have to understand that any English “translation” is not technically “the best.” When possible it is always better to study the text in its original language. But even then we know that, for example, the modern (or resurrected) Hebrew language taught today is not exactly the same Hebrew as was used and spoken in the days of Moses; which is itself slightly different than the language spoken by King David or the prophets. Language is constantly changing and evolving with changes in culture over time. That does not mean our Scriptures are unreliable: quite the contrary. Nonetheless, like the Hebrew, if one studies and understands biblical Greek today, the Greek he or she learns will still vary from what was used in Yeshua’s day. However, with all the changes in language over the years, we can still be confident that the truth itself (ultimate reality) remains unchanging. The only thing that does change is the manner in which we communicate that truth.
So what are we to do? Which English translation is “best” for in-depth Bible study?
The answer first requires additional background and understanding about how translations are accomplished. The various philosophies of translation will impact the type of translation and the quality of the outcome and purpose or use that might be appropriate for a particular version. For example, the need of the moment is very different for someone reading to a child versus someone studying a technical point in Seminary.
There are two primary philosophies of translation that modern translators use—verbal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Verbal equivalence is the manner of translation that attempts to give as close as possible a word-for-word translation in the target language. Examples of a word-for-word translation include the NASB (New American Standard Bible) or ESV (English Standard Version). These translations attempt to be as literal as possible, translating each specific word carefully with a corresponding English word that is as close to the original Hebrew or Greek as possible in terms of carrying the overall meaning of the term. Exact one-for-one correspondence is not always possible from one language to another and this is where translators must make a decision between available words in the receiver language. This practice can at times make the translation a bit difficult to read, or at least not as smooth in the English, because of the differences in the construction of the grammar, or unique types of speech such as puns or other slang expressions that may not translate well or clearly or may require additional explanation to bring the meaning through from one language to another. Verbal equivalent translations will often show you when they add words not found in the original language by putting those words in italics. Sometimes these extra words are implied by the context and provide greater clarity in the English. At other times the translators may in fact be inserting the term falsely based on their particular theological bias.
Dynamic equivalence, on the other hand, seeks to provide a one-for-one translation of the ideas, but not necessarily words. In other words, the translator reads the original language and then proceeds to grasp or capture the meaning and intent of those words (however they may interpret them) and translate that same meaning into the target language. We call this a thought-for-thought translation approach. The NIV (New International Version) is an example of a dynamic equivalence translation. With dynamic equivalence, the translator is not concerned about translating each word, but rather, focuses on translating the essential meaning of each sentence and chooses whatever words in the target language that might help him or her convey that meaning. While dynamic equivalence is great for English readability, it is not so good for in-depth study because it allows far too many opportunities for the translator’s personal bias to slip into the text. Many modern translations have actually changed the meaning of certain texts from what the original Hebrew or Greek actually states. Often this is a result of easily identified theological biases.
While all translations use some amount of both approaches (dynamic and verbal), when it comes to in-depth Bible study using an English translation, the “best” option is to use a verbal equivalence Bible such as NASB or ESV, or even better, use an Interlinear Bible and multiple Lexicons (i.e. Language Dictionaries). Of course, learning the basics of both Hebrew and Greek is also a huge advantage and it really isn’t that hard to do. At BibleInteract, Dr. Anne Davis has put together some introductory courses that can get you started. Once you learn the basic alphabets of both Hebrew and Greek you can then begin to use all the extra tools and computer helps out there with much greater skill.
Remember, when it comes to any English translation certain biases will be present; however, this is not something that is difficult to overcome or figure out. It simply takes a little time, effort, and research. The more you work with the text, the easier it will be to pick these biases out in whichever verbal equivalence Bible you ultimately choose to use.