An Overview of Bible Translations

There are so many good Bible translations today. All English translations of the Bible are just that – translations. They are translations from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. English Bible translations have nearly a 500-year history, with the first full English translation completed in the early 1500’s. The invention of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation created a context that changed the world of Bible translations. Over the last 500 years, there has been much progress in English Bible translation.  Older and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, greater scholarship, more resources available, etc. have added faithful Bible translation.

Within the past 100 years, there has been tremendous growth in the amount of quality English Bible translations available. I don’t know about you, but I am thankful that there are so many good, faithful translations available today. Each faithful translation offers a unique perspective. They provide us with a useful tool that can help us to better read and understand the Bible.

When the Bible is translated, it typically falls into one of two translation approaches. It either takes a word-for-word approach (known as formal equivalent) or a thought-for-thought (known as functional equivalent) translation approach. Or it will fall somewhere along a continuum between these two bible translation approaches. But what do these two approaches to bible translation mean? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?

In word-for-word translations, the translators focus on each individual element in the original languages. They try to replicate the original form and structure as much as possible. They want one noun in the original to one noun in the new language; infinitive to infinitive; participle to participle; and so on. Formal equivalence focuses on replicating the original as-is. For example, if there is one noun in the original text, then they aim to have one noun in the translation. If the original has 14 words in the sentence, then they aim to have 14 words in the translated sentence.

One advantage of this approach is that it places a high value on the importance of understanding each individual word and the formal structure of the original language. However, that advantage is also the word-for-word’s primary disadvantage. Word-for-word approaches can follow the form and structure of the original to the point that they fail to “translate” the meaning in the new language. They can sacrifice understanding to the new language’s audience. These word-for-word translations can often be more difficult to read (because the translation is too “wooden”). They can be harder to understand (because there’s such a focus on words that readability, comprehension, and how it communicates to the modern reader has not been considered).

The other dominant type of Bible translations is thought-for-thought translations. Thought-for-thought translations focus on reproducing the overall meaning of the original biblical texts. They focus on the functional equivalence, reproducing the original words, phrases, and sentences into a form that makes the most sense in the new language. Thought-for-thought translations want the original text’s thoughts and meaning to communicate and make sense to the modern person. They are less concerned about replicating the exact grammar of another language and more concerned about reproducing the meaning, ensuring the message comes across and makes sense to the reader.

The advantage of thought-for-thought translations is they are more readable and easier to understand. The meaning of the text is often clearer to the modern reader. The disadvantage of this approach is that a precise meaning of an individual phrase of thought from the original text has been interpreted to make more sense to the modern reader.

People often like to judge which bible translations approach they think is best. With so many different denominations and schools of Christian thought, often, each one will lean more toward either the word-for-word or the thought-for-thought approaches as the best one…or fall somewhere on the continuum between the two bible translation approaches. They will hold to one view as being “the best” because it is supposedly “more literal.” But more literal in what sense – more literal to form or function?

Oddly enough, every translation (even those considered more word-for-word) have to use some level of formal (word-for-word) and functional equivalence (thought-for-thought) in its translation. It’s just the nature of translating between two languages. The idea of a “literal translation” (or one that does not have to do some level of interpretation or paraphrasing) is an oxymoron. All translations have to do some level of interpretation and paraphrasing or it will not make sense in the translated language. For example, think about how would you translate “como se llama?”, “como estas?” or “que tal?” from Spanish to English.

Rathan judge only one approach as “the” right way, I see great value in both bible translation approaches. Each approach produces its own type of translation, and each translation will have its corresponding advantages. I have and often use both types of Bible translations. Instead of thinking only one approach as “the” approach and one translation as “the” Bible, I see all faithful English translations as tools that can help me to better understand God’s Word. They all have some value to add, depending on my goals as a reader.

If I’m deeply studying a particular passage, I’m prone to use multiple translations from both sides of the translation continuum. When I’m focusing on a particular nuance of grammatical structure or syntax, I’m prone to use one type of translation. If I’m focusing on reading, devotion, or broader comprehension and understanding, I’m prone to use another type of translation. But all faithful translations have some value to add in helping me to better understand God’s Word.

While there are several good Bible translations, you might want to consider The Bridge Bible.

If you just want to pick up the Bible and be able to read and understand it, then The Bridge might be a good one for you (since 30% of people understand the Bible better when reading The Bridge over other leading, modern, English Bible translations).

Are you a beginning Bible reader? Then the Bridge might be good for you (since it fills in the gaps between the biblical and contemporary world for the modern reader).

If you have tried to read the Bible in the past and thought you did not always understand what you were reading, then consider giving The Bridge a try (it aims to make sense for those who have struggled with reading the Bible).

Are you a regular Bible reader of any word-for-word or thought-for-thought translation? Are looking for a faithful, fresh perspective to unlock the sense of the text or to find fresh energy in passages that you have become familiar with? Then you might consider The Bridge a helpful Bible translation.

Just Released – The Gospel of John

See & study the Gospel of John in a new light with this easy to read and easy to understand Bible translation. Order your copy on Amazon or read sample verses.

Available Now – Revelation!

Get your copy of Revelation and discover an easy to understand Bible that makes Scripture less mysterious. Available in both print and ebook; visit Amazon to get your copy.

Revelation-Easy to Understand Bible