English readers need to be able to read the Bible in English. This requires that the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek be translated into English and that demands a great deal of work, study, discussion, and decision. Different languages often function differently. Dictionaries between languages never seem to parallel exactly. So before a translation may be made, the translator (or translation team) must choose a translational theory.
Will each word be translated into its best English equivalent with no regard to sentence construction? This is called inter-linear translational theory and these sentences become extremely difficult to read because of the awkward word order or missing words which are often required to smooth out a sentence or thought when translated into English. In addition, a choice must still be made about which English word best represents the original language word. Sometimes this is easy but often it is not.
Or how about translating each word (or near word combination) as closely as possible with only minimum adjustments to sentence construction to meet English grammar requirements? If so, this is called formal equivalence. If the strictest formal equivalence is used, the translation reads fairly clunky but is still grammatically correct in English. Examples are the RSV, NASB and KJV. The ESV also falls within this category but is slightly less strict to formal equivalence theory and therefore is less clunky as say, the NASB. Bibles that use this translational theory make a good selection for a Bible used for study. Where the original is ambiguous, these translations tend to remain ambiguous. The idea is to get to the closest to word-for-word (although an interlinear is closer to a word-for-word translation). The disadvantage of these translations is found in how difficult it can become to read large amounts of text for devotional reading. Another disadvantage may be found in how these Bibles communicate a complete idea or thought to the average reader today. Often, these Bibles take a little more work on the part of the reader to get to the meaning of the passage.
Could it be possible that we translate thoughts expressed by the original audience into well communicated thoughts in English? How about a thought-for-thought or an idea-for-idea translation. This translation theory is often called dynamic or functional equivalence. The theory is to translate the entire idea or thought as a complete unit. The strictest of translations that uses this translational theory are sometimes called mediating translations. The 1984 NIV falls into this category, as does the HCSB and at times the ESV. The idea of phrases are translated into phrases, however great care is still given to the meaning of each word (most of the time). Mediating translations are good for devotional reading. They also make good translations to preach from. Less work is necessary to get the idea. A problem that surfaces at times is when gaps are filled in. A specific word may intentionality leave some ambiguity but is smoothed over as an entire thought is translated. The translators are well meaning, but when they start to fill in the gaps they are making even more choices for us as they translate (although any translation requires some choices and these choices are often biases by theology).
The loosest use of functional equivalence is sometimes called a paraphrase. Paraphrases tend to translate paragraph-to-paragraph, less attention is given to the meaning of individual words, and often the intention is to communicate by the same means as most English readers read and speakers. The Message is a good example of a paraphrase. The NLT resides somewhere between the mediating translation and the paraphrase, leaving us simply to call it a functional translation.
As scholars come together in their best efforts to translate the Bible, decisions must be made. Sometimes translational choices are driven by a theological outlook, bias, or by the understanding of changing English words. The translation theory itself also drives the decisions.
The video below demonstrates the process of translation on the ESV team when difficult words or ideas are being translated. In trying to determine the best word choice for the English Standard Bible (ESV), a team including Peter Williams, Gordon Wenham, Jack Collins, Wayne Grudem, and Paul House discuss and debate the differences between the words "slave," "servant," and "bond-servant." According to Dr. Grudem, the discussion took nearly 4 hours. The BBC boiled it down to 4 minutes.
In 2011, Liberty University hosted a biblical studies symposium asking the question, "Which Bible translation should I use?" Dr. Douglas Moo represented the NIV11 (a revision to the TNIV, which was a rejected revision to the NIV 1984). Dr. Wayne Grudem represented the ESV. And Dr. Ray Clendenen represented the HCSB. Each speaker was a part of the translation team of the Bible that he defended at the symposium and had about 40 minutes to argue for his translation over the other 2 represented at the symposium. Following the 3 speakers, a rebuttal and question and answer session concluded the evening.
Listening to each of these speakers will offer you a better understanding of what it is to translate the Bible. We should all be thankful for the hard work and dedication of these scholars to bring us the Bible in English. And we should recognized how blessed we are to have so many English options.
Video 1: Dr. Ray Clendenen and the Holman Christian Standard Bible
Video 2: Dr. Wayne Grudem and the English Standard Version
Video 3: Dr. Doug Moo and the New International Version
Video 4: Responses and Q and A
After reading this post and watching these videos, can you answer the question, "Which Bible translation should I use?" I might suggest that you use any translation that teaches and proclaims Christ in a way that brings about salvation and a transformed life in you. I might also recommend using using a different translation for your study and devotional reading. This may offer you some perspective that would go missed by strictly remaining with one translation.