If we value the Bible then choosing a good translation is obviously important. My opinions about this topic were very different before I came to seminary, i.e. before I knew anything at it, then they are now. I’ve had trouble writing this post, because there is so much to say. Instead of writing a ten page post, I’m going to recommend some resources and tell you my conclusion.
The best book I’ve come across is How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, and I refer you to that for a good overview of Bible translation. In their view, “the best translation is one that remains faithful to the original meaning of the text, but uses language that sounds as clear and natural to the modern reader as the Hebrew or Greek did to the original readers” (p. 29). One thing I’ve run across when talking about translations with people is the belief that literal means more accurate. That indeed may be true, but it can also be misleading. For example, what would a literal translation of “I had to bring home the bacon or I would be skating on thin ice” convey to a French speaker. Nothing. How about the literal French for potato – “apple of earth” – to an English speaker?” Nothing. Translations must convey meaning to the reader.
Fee and Stuart provide a helpful table on page 34 with pluses and minuses of the various types of translations.
Formal Equivalence (NASB, ESV, KJV) – “alter the form until the text is comprehensible.”
Mediating (NIV, HCSB, NET) – “alter the form until the text is clear.”
Functional Equivalence (NLT) – “alter the form until the text is natural.”
Formal Equivalence (NASB, ESV, KJV) – “can result in awkward English, obscurity, and inaccuracy.”
Mediating (NIV, HCSB, NET) – “more interpretation, so greater margin for interpretive error.”
Functional Equivalence (NLT) – “even more interpretation, so greater margin for error.”
What is the ideal? No translation at all since all translations distort the meaning in some way. What is the pragmatist approach? A translation written to a fourth grade level so that as many people as possible will be able to read it. With the ideal approach almost no one would be able to read it, and with the pragmatist approach distortion becomes too significant. As I become older I’m less and less of an idealist and more and more a pragmatist. The average American reading level is 8th grade, and that is the level the New York Times is written to. In Acts 29 and churches heavily influenced by John Piper, which I have been attending for most of the last decade, it is common to recommend the ESV which is written at a 10th grade level. Personally I don’t think this is wise. Do churches really want to recommend a translation that is several levels above the people’s ability to comprehend? This is even more significant for churches that minister to the poor.
Therefore, I think the best approach is the NIV for general use and the ESV for study. In some circles it is common to dismiss the NIV as an inaccurate translation, the “Nearly Inspired Version.” It’s worth pointing out that the NIV probably has the most conservative scholarly support of any translation (the NRSV has the most liberal scholarly support and is what I used for years). The ESV is one of the great translations and is recommended by some popular pastors as well as some great scholars over against the NIV. But I think some are too quick to demonize the NIV without understanding the translation process or considering the implications of recommending such a demanding Bible for general use. Yes there are poor translations in the NIV, but there are poor translations in all versions, including the ESV.
Which Bible Should I Use? A Comparison of 4 Major Recent Versions
Translating Truth by Several members of the ESV translation committee.
D A Carson, one of the great conservative scholars, on the limits of certain types of Bible translations
Review of the ESV by Rodney Decker, an expert on Greek
Review of the NIV by Daniel Wallace, a conservative who wrote the standard intermediate Greek textbook
A very instructive, pro ESV, article by a Bible scholar at Bethel Seminary entitled “Why the English Standard Version (ESV) Should Not Become the Standard English Version”