What is a translation? The meaning itself is, “the process of translating words or text from one language into another” (Merriam-Webster). There are many debates in regards to Bible translations. These debates range anywhere from which versions of the Bible are the best, doubts about whether or not any translation(s) can truly be trusted and some even question if we should translate the Bible’s original languages into any other language at all.
TRANSLATING THE BIBLE INTO OTHER LANGUAGES IS NECESSARY AND BIBLICAL
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (with parts in Aramaic: Genesis 31:47; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4-7:28; etc.). The New Testament was originally written in Greek (that is, the “koine” Greek which means “common” Greek). As Greek culture (along with the Greek language) began to influence societies, there was a need for Jews who were no longer fluent with the Hebrew language to have a Greek translation. Around the 200s B.C., about 70 Alexandrian Jews completed translating the Greek Translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (also referred to as the LXX).
We know that translating God’s word into other languages is a biblical process because 1) Jesus and the apostles used the Greek Old Testament during their ministry; 2) the apostles frequently quoted from the Septuagint when writing the New Testament; 3) the Bible itself directly speaks of translating (Ezra 4:7; Matthew 1:23; Acts 2:7-12).
Translating the Bible is also essential. God doesn’t expect everyone to study the original languages and know them fluently, although today it is much easier to have access to such tools. God wants to make getting the message out as easy as possible. Even when the Church began in Acts 2, each heard the gospel in their own language (Acts 2:5-11).
TRANSLATING THE BIBLE INTO LATIN
For a while, much of the world was Greek-speaking. However, by the 300s A.D. Latin had become a major spoken language, thus the need to translate the Bible in Latin. One of the most famous Latin translations of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate, primarily translated by Jerome beginning in A.D 382. By the 1200s, the Latin Vulgate became the primary Latin translation used in the Western world – and by the 1500s, it became the official version of the Roman Catholic Church.
TRANSLATING THE BIBLE INTO ENGLISH
With regard to the English language, in the 400s and 500s, Germanic groups of people such as the Angles (where we get the word “England” and “English”) and Saxons, migrated to what is now known as England and developed what is now known as the Old English language (thus the birth of the English language that would eventually become the third most common language in the present world). As the Roman Catholic Church continued to enforce Latin, the English-speaking nations were in great need of English translations. As the Church of England (also known as the Episcopal Church) was in the process of dividing off the Roman Catholic Church (which occurred in 1534), William Tyndale completed the first printed New Testament in English in 1526 and Myles Coverdale completed the first printed Bible (Old and New Testaments) in English in 1535.
In 1539, Myles Coverdale helped to prepare the Great Bible which became the first authorized English Bible under King Henry VIII of England. Many of the bishops of the Church of England realized several inadequacies of the Great Bible and began to use their own translation in 1568 (which became known as the Bishops’ Bible; the second authorized translation of England). The third authorized version of the Bible was commissioned by King James I and was completed by 47 men of the Church of England in 1611.
KING JAMES 1611 AND KING JAMES VERSION
When the King James was written in 1611 (known as Authorized Version or the King James 1611), it contained not only the extra uninspired books known as the Apocrypha (which were included simply for historical and literary value, making up a total of 80 books), but it also contained the old Elizabethan English (which would now be considered a type of literary English usually understood on a college level). For example, Matthew 4:16 reads, “The people which sate in darkenesse, saw great light: and to them which sate in the region and shadow of death, light is sprung vp.”
When the King James 1611 version was complied, the translators didn’t believe that the Apocrypha was inspired. They added those books into the Bible as a means to add historical and literary value to the Bible student. Yet, as time went on some began reading the Apocrypha as if it was the Bible. Therefore, in around 1629 the Apocrypha began to be omitted from the Authorized Version in 1629 and the Elizabethan English was being changed to an updated English during. This is what we know as the “regular” and “modern” King James Version.
THE “KING JAMES ONLY” CROWD
There are some today who hold to, what many have called, the “King James Only” belief. This is the belief that only the King James is the authorized version and all modern-day versions are corrupt and horrible. There are at least 2 ways to respond to this belief and accusation.
First, the whole reasoning is built upon a presupposition. There is no logical reason to believe that the King James version should be the only legitimate English translation. The Bible wasn’t written in English. Paul never preached from the King James Version and the King James version is simply one translation out of many.
The reasons as to why some believe the King James is the best is because it is “the oldest.” But as has already been pointed out, it is not the oldest English Translation. The Tyndale and Coverdale Translation’s predated the King James Versions. Of course, if indeed the only “authorized” version of the Bible is the King James, then that same person would be forced to use the original authorized King James 1611 version which includes the Apocrypha and uses Elizabethan English since that is truly the “original” King James. However, the Tyndale and Coverdale Translation’s predated the King James Versions.
However, let’s consider the general argument here. The idea here is that as time goes on, translations must be getting further removed from the original, but such is not the case.
Not only do we have nearly all of the manuscripts used in producing the King James Version, their wording is found in the early printed Greek New Testaments of the 16th century. Furthermore, the number of Greek manuscripts known today is nearly one hundred times greater than the number used in producing the King James Version. Not only this, but the principal manuscripts on which modern translations are based are significantly earlier than those that stand behind the King James Version. Our earliest date to the second century and the other major manuscripts are from the fourth and fifth centuries. Altogether, over four hundred manuscripts are known today that predate the earliest ones used by Erasmus. Below will give you a general idea:
King James 1611 – 10th Century – 6 manuscripts
Revised Version 1881 – 4th Century – 2,000 manuscripts
New English Translation 2005 – 2nd Century – 5,700 manuscripts
Modern translations are based on earlier and more numerous manuscripts than the King James Version. The manuscripts that stand behind the King James Version are not forgotten; rather, better and earlier witnesses have displaced them — and in a modern English that isn’t hundreds of years old. Many preachers who use the King James Version have to translate the English translation just for their audience to be able to understand what the King James Version is trying to say.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS TODAY AND WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
There are numerous English Translations today. In fact, I have had friends who have taken whole books of the Bible in their original language and translated them. There are just too many English Translations to count. In my Greek class, we even translated sections of the Bible and just about every student would translation it slightly different. Why is that?
Since we do not have the originals, scholars seek to reproduce the text by judging which manuscripts are most likely to be closer to the original. This is called “textual criticism”. Broadly speaking, there are two philosophies of textual criticism.
View A: The more reliable text is determined by the older manuscripts (closer to the time of the autographs) – even though there are relatively fewer of them.
View B: The more reliable text is a consensus of the majority of manuscripts – even though they are relatively newer (further in time from the autographs).
View C: A combination of the older manuscripts coupled with a consensus of the newer, majority manuscripts.
Without over simplifying things, the KJV and NKJV basically follow philosophy B and C, and all other translations follow philosophy A and C. This explains some of the differences between these families of translations.
Translating from one language into another is very difficult. It involves the balance between being faithful to the intent of the original language while being readable in the receptor language.
Broadly speaking, translations fall along the following spectrum:
(a) literal – “word-for-word” translation;
(b) dynamic equivalence – “thought-for-thought” translation.
Different translations choose a different target along this spectrum. While it would seem logical to simply follow the word-for-word method, there is a big problem. Not all words translate to different languages and not all sayings make sense in different languages.
For example, it would be hard to translate into Korean the English idiom: “Someone busted your bubble.” We would have to first translate literally what that means in English: “Someone destroyed your expectations.” Then, translate it as close to Korean as possible. Another problem would be actual words. There are some words in some languages that are non-existent in other languages. When translating, one will do the best that they to provide the word they deem most acceptable in that language.
On the most literal side of the spectrum would be the ASV of 1901, NASB, ESV (English Standard), KJV, NKJV, and NRSV (New Revised Standard). In the middle of the spectrum would be the NIV and HCSB (Holman Christian Standard). On the more readable scale would be: NCV (New Century) and NLT (New Living). There are also several paraphrases like the Message and the Living Bible.
WHICH TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE SHOULD I USE?
Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians have been so dogmatic about a certain translation (typically the King James Version) that they have unintentionally confused those seeking to know Jesus through Bible study. Instead of knowing that we can study the Bible in our hands, some have caused a cloud of doubt about whether or not we can trust ANY Bible translation. So, what translation of the Bible should you use? Here are some general guidelines in determining this answer:
First, understand that all translations are just that, translations. They are not the source. No matter what terminology one wishes to use to describe them, they are still translations. The Scriptures were not written in English—or Spanish, or Russian or Chinese, or Arabic, for that matter. They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And any and every English translation of the Scriptures is a translation and cannot, by the very nature of the translation process and communicate word-for-word every time what the original source text says. A strict word-for-word translation is a unicorn. It does not and cannot exist. Every translation by its very nature contains an “interpretation of meaning.” Meaning must absolutely be interpreted—and mediated to the reader—at every turn.
Typically, this is when someone will begin to point out one or two flaws with a certain interpretation in attempts to show superiority of their version over yours. Here is the problem. All translations are going to have flaws and weaknesses because they are, in fact, a translation. For a short list of examples, see attachment A.
Second, a good translation first and foremost communicates as closely the MEANING of the source as possible, for the target audience. And what that looks like will depend on a variety of factors, including time and location and cultural norms.
Third, a good translation will have foot notes explaining why they used a certain word, or added/admitted something from the body of the text. For Bible translation, a good translation gets a person into the text, asking questions and digging deeper. Footnotes are always helpful for a good translator because they flesh out the meaning of the source language without taking up space in the actual text of the translation. They can explain translation difficulties and cultural differences as well as other features of the language which would not otherwise be evident to the average English reader (or Spanish or Dutch, or what have you, depending on the language of the translation).
Fourth, it is wise to use multiple translations when digging deep into the text. When there is a debatable point or something that might seem a little off from what others are reading, then look at their translation.
Personally, I use the New King James Version. It is where I have most of my memorization and it is a good and fair translation. When I am studying, I will use other translations and even look to the original languages themselves. I also know the weaknesses of the New King James Version. Knowing the weaknesses of the version you use is a “strength.” At the end of the day, there is not a de facto version of the Bible. Study what you have, read what you have, compare it with over versions, discuss with other Christians and always make context the king in your conclusions.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF DIFFERENT BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
When a translation is produced, what should be some of the objectives? The following list of questions should draw attention to the problems in producing a translation. Should a translation strive for literal accuracy or should it strive for a greater reliability and opt for a dynamic equivalence? What should be done with unique words, that is, words which do not have a corresponding word in the language into which the version is being translated? Should these words be transliterated (that is, the writing of letters or words in the characters of another alphabet/language, such as, the Greek Beta is the English letter “B”, etc.)? How should idioms be dealt with, that is, those words or phrases which are peculiar to a particular people or language? For example, we use the phrase, “you are pulling my leg” to indicate that someone is joking with us. However, how would one get that meaning into another language?
Realizing that even though the original writings of God’s word are perfect, the translation is not. Usually it is better to seek a translation which was produced by a group of men versus a “one-man” translation, thereby reducing the likelihood of the translator’s views creeping in. Some translations, like the Cotton-patch Version, handle the Bible as if it were a storybook and are very flippant in the words chosen. Along with this point, the translators should definitely believe in the inspiration of the Bible. The presuppositions of the translators are very serious. If a translator does not believe in the miracles of the Bible, then he will be disposed to rationalize them away as much as possible. And such will be seen in the following survey of some of the strengths and weaknesses of some of the major translations.
King James Version
Strengths: This translation has stood the test of time and many critics. It is available almost everywhere and provides a consistent standard from which to work.
Weaknesses: The translation is aged and some words have changed their meaning while others have ceased to be used altogether. For instance, “concupiscence” (Romans 7:8; Colossians 3:5), “harbergeon” (Exodus 28:32; 39:23). Other words which could be looked up in a concordance are: “almug”, “algum”, “chode”, “charashim”, “chapt”, “kab”, “nard”, “pilled”, “stacte”, “wimples”, “tatches”, “brigadine,” “purtenance.”
A more serious weakness is the Calvinistic influence seen in such passages like “such as should be saved” (instead of, “those who are being saved” – as they gladly receive God’s word, repent and are baptized, Acts 2:38, 41, 47). The translation does not always make a needed distinction between two Greek words. For example, hell and hades (Matthew 16:18; Acts 2:27); devil and demons (James 2:19), and “Easter” in Acts 12:4 which should be translated “Passover”.
American Standard Version (1901)
Strengths: The ASV was an attempt to bring the KJV up to date, resulting in 36,191 corrections (most of them being the correction of spellings and updating of archaic words). The translators of the ASV were very concerned for accuracy, and thus produced a very literal translation. They did, however, opt for the oldest manuscripts for their primary text rather than the Received Text of the King James tradition. It, however, did retain the dignity of the KJV.
Weaknesses: While bringing many of the archaic words up-to-date, it still left many uncorrected. Its strong attempt toward literalness resulted in a very difficult to read and awkward worded text. While having a better textual base to work from, the ASV was too quick to delete words from the text (e.g. Acts 8:37, again due to relying primarily on the older manuscripts). Also, in some places the translation itself is poor (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:16).
Revised Standard Version (1952)
Strengths: Since the ASV was not received as expected, the RSV was an attempt to update it. Not only did it use the oldest manuscripts as its text, but it also used other helpful sources, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It shows a strong concern for the English style. The translation eliminated most of the archaic words. The passages they didn’t include, they relegated to brackets and footnotes (e.g. Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11, relying heavily on the earlier manuscripts).
Weaknesses: The translators were inconsistent with the pronouns “thee” and “you.” In some instances, the translation is inaccurate. For example, Genesis 12:3; 22:17,18: “bless themselves” (c.f. Galatians 3:16). The translators appear to have a liberal mindset, even denying certain miraculous elements of the Scriptures (cf. Isaiah 7:14).
New American Standard Bible (1970)
Strengths: The NASB was an attempt to modernize the language of the Bible following the goals of the ASV (though it was not an attempt to revise it). The NASB attempts to be very faithful to the text, like the ASV, and is much more readable than the ASV. The NASB shows a strong attention to the tense of the Greek verbs.
Weaknesses: The initial release of the NASB contained many typographical errors and poor printing. It was produced by a private organization which has refused to release the names of the translators. Although it has gained some popularity in recent years, it has not received very wide distribution. Perhaps the most serious flaw in the translation is the outright contradictions it makes (c.f. Matthew 5:17; Ephesians 2:14). The NASB does some things good but on a whole it is not the same quality as the original ASV.
Living Bible Paraphrased (1971)
Strengths: The paraphrase has been very popular with the younger crowd. It is also very readable.
Weaknesses: First and foremost, it is not a translation but a paraphrase, and makes no claim to be faithful to the original text of the Bible. It is quite often inaccurate. There is a big push for the views of its author (c.f. Romans 4:9,12; Colossians 1:2,3; Isaiah 2:3; 2 Timothy 4:1; John 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21; et al.) Pure vulgarity is found in 1 Samuel 20:30 and John 9:34.
Today’s English Version (“Good News Bible” – 1978)
Strengths: It is simple to read. Its translators had as a goal to produce a translation with a very simple vocabulary, like that of an ordinary newspaper. The TEV was produced by the United Bible Society, and thus the translation has received very wide distribution.
Weaknesses: The translators show a lack of real ability in several passages. For example, Acts 20:7 “Saturday evening,”; Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16 can convey a weak view towards following God; and Acts 8:20 uses profanity. The translators had an aversion to using the word “blood”. And, what was believed to be a strength, its simplicity, is also a weakness in that it is too simple in some places by not conveying the sense of the original (in essence, taking away from God’s the original).
New International Version (1978)
Strengths: The NIV is a more reverent and dignified translation than many of the other modern speech versions. It is also accurate in many places. It has very precise renderings in some places other translations don’t have (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It enjoys a wide-spread popularity among the younger as well.
Weaknesses: A strong Calvinistic slant is seen in many of the passages. For example, it appears that the doctrine of original sin is brought into Psalm 51:5 and other doctrinal problems are seen in Ephesians 1:13; Romans 10:10; etc.
New King James Version (1983)
Strengths: The NKJV returns to the same type of textual base as that of the original KJV (Received text that favors majority text versus the oldest manuscripts available). The translation attempts to be very accurate. Also, the NKJV removed any Calvinistic slant from certain passages where it appeared in the original KJV (Matthew 19:32; Acts 2:47; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 5:17). In addition to all of this, the translation is dignified.
Weaknesses: The NKJV has been accused of failing to put the text fully into the language of the modern-day man on the street. This may not be a just criticism upon reflection. It is the case that sometimes the “language on the street” becomes outdated very quickly. Therefore, the use of standard words versus the common street language may turn out to be a strength for the NKJV.