Misconception: We Can’t Trust the Bible Because It’s Been Translated So Many Times (Part 2)

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Misconception: We Can’t Trust the Bible Because It’s Been Translated So Many Times

Last week we looked at this misconception and I said that one of the reasons there are so many different English translations is because there are different approaches or philosophies to translating.  These different approaches produce translations that are good for different things.  Someone follows one approach to produce a Bible translation that’s good for reading, while someone else follows a different approach to produce a translation that’s better for serious study.  Let’s take a look at these different approaches.


Word-for-Word or Thought-for-Thought?

The two main philosophies for translation are word-for-word translation or thought-for-thought.  With word-for-word translation you try to pick the best English word for each Greek word, for example.  This is a very literal way of translating.  With thought-for-thought translation you translate more at the thought level, rather then taking each word individually.  So this is taking the thought in a Greek phrase, for example, and putting that into an English phrase that best communicates that whole thought.

To help you grasp the difference let’s look at  a modern example .  Say you wanted to translate ¿Cuántos años tienes? from Spanish to English.  If you wanted to translate it word-for-word, very literally, it would be how many (Cuántos) years (años) do you have (tienes)?  However, if you wanted to translate it thought-for-thought, it would be How old are you?  Do you see the difference?

Now, our natural tendency is to think in terms of “Which is the best way to translate?”  And with the example above  most of us would probably go with “How old are you?” because that’s how we talk in English.  Though we can understand someone asking how many years we’ve had, that’s not how we’d say it.  However, I’d say that there’s not one best way to translate.

john316A thought-for-thought translation is certainly going to be easier to read, because it’s going to be written more like we talk, but readability isn’t the only consideration.  When you’re wanting to do some serious study of God’s word you often want to know exactly which words were chosen by the original author.  Say the author repeats the use of a certain word several times in a passage.  In a translation that more word-for-word you’ll see that in English, with a translation that’s more thought-for-thought, this might be lost as it’s put more like how we’d say each of those thoughts today.   So for the purpose of serious study, a literal word-for-word translation is going to serve you better.

Not One or the Other, But Both

Rather than thinking in terms of “What’s the one best English translation?” I think it’s better to think in terms of “What are some good translations for when you want to do a lot of reading?” (maybe when you want to read the whole Bible over the course of a year) and “What are some good translations when you want to do some serious study?” (maybe when you want to dig in and see what the Bible says about a controversial issue).  I’m thankful that we don’t have just one English translation.  I’m glad that I can choose from several translations and even compare them.  By comparing several translations you might get the best sense of the meaning.  In the past that would have meant spending money on several translations but today you can access several translations for free online, like at biblegateway.com, and you can even put multiple translations on the screen side by side.

Some Popular Translations Compared


The chart above from Zondervan shows where several popular Bible translations line up on the Word-for-Word / Thought-for-Thought spectrum.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is about the farthest to the left, it’s a very literal translation that doesn’t always read very smoothly but it’s great at getting at the original words. (An interlinear translation shows the original Greek text with literal English words shown between the Greek lines.  This is a great tool but it’s even harder to read.)

On the far right are The Message and the Living Bible.  These aren’t truly translations but rather paraphrases where one man has put the text into his own words.  These can be helpful for a fresh perspective but they shouldn’t be confused with scholarly translations.

More in the middle is a very popular translation, the New International Version (NIV).  It’s been around since 1973 but was recently updated in 2011.  For many, this translation strikes a good balance.  If you’re not sure where to start, I’d start here.

Another popular translation, a little further to the thought-for-thought side, is the New Living Translation (NLT).  I’ve really connected with how this translation puts things many times.

For an example of a how you can do a side by side comparison click here.


So I hope you can see that having several translations available is a good thing and I hope that you’ll spend some time on a regular basis getting into God’s Word.  If you’ve already placed your faith in Christ it will help you to grow closer to him and if you’re still checking out Christianity, why not let the Bible speak for itself?

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Posted on by Reasons for Hope 315 in Misconceptions, Reliable Documents

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