A difficult challenge was raised by a reader to my previous article “Faith in Writing.” The opinion was voiced that there should be one definitive translation of the Bible—that it not be open to opinion. My response is too long for the comment section, so I’ll try to answer it here as best I can.
I have to admit that I am not sure exactly what lies behind that comment. I’m certain it wasn’t the person’s intent, but taken to its extreme the idea proposed would prevent any translation of the Bible whatsoever. All that that would be left is the language in the oldest extant texts. How many people—how many scholars—speak the same Hebrew and Greek exactly as it existed in each of the many centuries of the writing of the Bible? At the very least, we need one translation for every known modern language. The people at Wycliffe are working on that project with all their might. They go several steps further to help people. I recently met a couple of their people working to create an alphabet for a culture that has no written form of its own language. If you’re looking for a good charity, consider them.
Each language poses its own problems. The common Greek used in the New Testament has three words for “love.” English has one. Different translations handle that kind of problem in different ways. Often the problem is inverted—several English words for a single Greek verb. It’s useful to be familiar with more than one translation.
In the English translations of John 3:16 we find the word “believe.” I am told by competent authority that the same word is translated “trust” in Spanish. Both are correct, but it’s easy to misinterpret the English versions, thinking that we simple must “believe” to attain salvation—mere “head knowledge”— a concept contradicted in other passages. The Spanish rendering better expresses Jesus’ command to fully “trust” in God the Son—to rely upon Him totally for our complete salvation–that we can’t earn it by our own power. The English is correct, but can be misconstrued. In this case, the Spanish is more accessible and gives the clear message of “heart knowledge.” It adds depth to our understanding. After all, Jesus later said that you must come to Him like little children.
Note also that I used the phrase “God the Son.” I’ve been taught that it better renders the original language than “Son of God.” It certainly better expresses the concept of the Trinity. My point is that multiple translations help overcome the limitations of any given language.
The next issue is the style of translation. “strict equivalency” attempts to render the best word-for-word translation in the original order wherever possible. That allows the scholar to drill down to the specific meaning of each word. But a passage can lose the idiomatic nuances or broader meaning or simply become hard to read. The NASB is a strong translation of this type.
On the other hand, “dynamic equivalency” translations translate idea-for-idea. The reader cannot allow his belief to hinge on any one word, but the overall meaning is more clearly rendered and more accessible. The New Living Translation is a strong translation of this type.
Then there are translations that do a better job of retaining the poetic style of the language. The New King James does a good job of that. Which is better? I think a serious reader needs more than one. Perhaps read the NLT for daily use, keep the NASB handy as a reference, and spend an occasional year reading the NKJ.
I find it helpful to reference the Amplified Bible when I have a question about a particular passage. It renders many alternate English words and phrases when more than one matches the original, giving a deeper understanding of the meaning of the writer—but it’s not a Bible for casual reading. The NIV falls somewhere in the middle and has gained wide acceptance in evangelical circles. Which is the best? All of them! The difference is really a question of style, not content.
I’ve heard it said that if the Lord can inspire prophets and fishermen to write His Word, then He can also protect His Word across languages and centuries. I believe that mainstream translations are all reliable. Josh McDowell in EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT shows in great detail just how accurate our modern translations are. Why not read it and see for yourself?