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Please note: 2023 supplemental episodes will be released here on the 7th of each month!

Apr 25, 2022

Hi there, and welcome to this bonus podcast for day 115. I will be discussing the two main types of Bible translations I recommend for most people. As a Bible translator since 1983, I feel that most Christians in the USA are not given enough information about why Bible translations differ in wording, and which kinds of Bible translations will be better for different kinds of readers. This is an important topic, so I am surprised at myself: I can’t believe that I haven’t released a dedicated podcast about this topic every year since 2014. ALSO, please stay tuned for the end of the podcast, because I want to recommend a fantastic new real-book Bible.

Because of more difficult content in this podcast, if you are not driving a car, it would be a great idea to open the episode notes so you can visually follow along and make sure you don’t miss something important. Look especially at the words I have made bold.

There are actually five types of Bible translations, but I will mainly discuss the two most-used types in this podcast. But let’s start with showing the two types with a translation example that is not from the Bible.

Consider this sentence:

Jill looked like a deer caught in the headlights when she heard Jack’s proposal.

Now let’s imagine a word-for-word translation for some language in Africa. Since we don’t know a language like that, let’s pretend we do and make a word-for-word translation into English. Here is my suggestion for that:

Jill appeared like a trapped gazelle in bright light upon hearing Jack’s desire.

What we have in this example (caught in the headlights) is a figure of speech. Americans rather frequently use this figure of speech. But a word-for-word translation for the hypothetical African audience would very likely be tricky for them to understand. They might not know what a gazelle would do if a bright light shone upon them. (For that matter, I don’t know if gazelle’s act like deer do when meeting with bright lights.) I think an African might understand “Jill appeared like a gazelle trapped in bright light” to be a gazelle trapped with a metal trap, in pain, and struggling to get loose when the bright light suddenly shines upon it. Our hypothetical African listener will probably get a very different idea about what is meant.

For our second hypothetical translation, let’s try giving the plain meaning like we would if we were explaining to an 8-year-old child. We might translate, “Jill was stunned by Jack’s proposal.” Or we might say, Jill was caught off guard and totally surprised by Jack’s offer.” In this example, I’ve dropped the figure of speech entirely and gone straight for the meaning.

These are the two main translation types that I want to explain: The first was what we call a literal translation, or a word-for-word translation. And the second is what I will call a meaning-based translation.

Literal: Jill appeared like a trapped gazelle in bright light …

Meaning-based: Jill was stunned by Jack’s proposal.

Which translation is ‘right’? Actually both translations can be considered right. But the word-for-word translation is difficult to understand for our hypothetical African listeners, because there are cultural factors involved in interpreting the figure of speech in this example. The listeners would likely come up with various interpretations about the poor, defenseless gazelle being trapped. Whereas, if Jill likes Jack, she may be thrilled at his proposal.

The meaning based translation is right too: “Jill was stunned by Jack’s proposal.” That translation is easy to understand, but if you remember the original sentence, you will miss the richness of the figure of speech.

The two main types of Bible translations have exactly the same problems as what I have shown in the two examples above.

The advantage of a literal, word-for-word translation is that it mirrors the form of the original text.

The disadvantage of a literal translation is that it cannot always clearly give the meaning in the target language.

The meaning-based translation is just the opposite:

The advantage of a meaning-based translation is that it shows the meaning clearly.

The disadvantage of a meaning-based translation is that it cannot mirror the form of the original text.

Every Bible translator starts out thinking, “I will be able to translate word-for-word and still clearly enough show the meaning.” For two languages that are strongly related to each other, a literal translation can often still be clear. But if we are thinking of translating ancient Hebrew and Greek into modern English, there is a huge gulf between the ancient and modern languages and cultures.

My first example involved an English figure of speech. But let me give you a chance to experience decoding an Indonesian figure of speech:

Yakobus adalah kacang yang sudah lupa kulitnya.

A word-for-word translation is this: Jack is a peanut that has forgotten his shell.

Now it is your turn to wonder what that could mean. You won’t guess, so I will tell you.

Here’s a meaning-based translation of “Jack is a peanut that has forgotten his shell.”

That means, Jack left his rural village to get an education in the city, and now has a good job with a high salary, but he has forgotten his humble beginnings. He never helps any of his friends and relatives in his home village.

There are many literal (or word-for-word) Bible translations in English. That kind of translation is easier to make. And not all literal translations are equally literal. Some fudge to be slightly more meaning-based. But for the purposes of this discussion, I will choose what I think is the most popular literal translation today: It is the ESV (English Standard Version). It is the translation that would translate, “Jill appeared like a trapped gazelle in bright light.” It is great at showing the word-for-word form of the original text, but not so good at giving you the meaning clearly. A literal translation I like better than the ESV is the WEBBE (World English Bible British Edition).

Meaning-based Bible translations are much rarer, because they require the translator to work much harder to accurately translate the meaning. For English language readers, I recommend the Weymouth New Testament in Modern Speech of 1901, The Good News Bible (TEV 1966), and the New Living Translation. There are a few more, but those are my favorites, and I will focus in this podcast on the NLT. The NLT would translate our example as “Jill was stunned by Jack’s proposal.”

The KJV is a literal translation, and an unfortunate part of the continuing legacy of the KJV, is that pastors often prefer using literal translations from the pulpit. But unfortunately this means that many ordinary people in the pew wind up using something like the ESV for their daily Bible reading at home. This means that many Christians who read their Bibles at home often struggle with hard-to-understand passages. If you normally read the ESV Bible and think you understand everything in it, well, I bet you haven’t yet read all of it!

Here is one of my most important recommendations for you: Make sure you have access to both kinds of translations. In other words, use both an ESV and an NLT Bible. That way you can quickly see the meaning (in the NLT), and you get a window into the word-for-word shape of the original text with the ESV.

My Daily Bible Reading podcasts have only been of two meaning-based translations. Why? Because they can be understood by people just listening to the recordings. It would be useless to record the ESV, because listeners would often miss the meaning.

Now I want to illustrate what I have been saying with a Bible passage. I wish I could spend an hour doing this, but I feel I must limit myself to only one example. I have chosen the topic statement for the book of Romans, chapter 1, verses 16-17. In the ESV verse 16 says,

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

If I had all the podcast listeners in front of me as a group, I would say to you, “Raise your hand if you are a Jew.” Usually in my audiences, no one raises their hand. At that point I say, “Raise your hand if you are a Greek.” Usually again, no one raises their hand. But then my question is, “Where do you fit in to Romans 1:16?” This verse says that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Sounds like you people who didn’t raise your hands are not able to be saved! So which one are we?” The answer is that Paul is contrasting Jews with everyone else. Greek was the universal language of culture and commerce at that time, even under the Roman government. Now let’s compare the same verse in the NLT:

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes— the Jew first and also the Gentile.

Now let’s look at verse 17 in the ESV:

For in it (referring back to the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

No English reader will suspect that there is anything kind of strange about the phrase ‘the righteous of God’. The problem is that ‘of God’ is a genitive in Greek, and genitives have a dozen different options for the meaning. ESV nearly always uses the word ‘of’ to translate genitives. But in this verse, ‘righteousness of God’ will mean that the Gospel is about revealing that God is righteous. Wait a minute! If God is righteous and I am not righteous, that is not Good News. He will punish me. Rather, in this verse, the genitive is one showing source. Just wait a moment and I will read the NLT.

A second significant problem in verse 17 is a grammatical construction that forms an idiom in Greek: For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. So the literal translation has zero meaning or leaves the reader to guess at meanings, which will probably be wrong.

Finally, because of the first two problems I just mentioned, it seems like the final quote from Habakkuk 2:4 doesn’t fit with what came before it. So we ask, why did Paul quote, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Now let me read the NLT to you:

17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”

Many years ago, I had a phone conversation with a woman who was a new believer. She liked reading her KJV, and I used Romans 1:16-17 to try to show her that she would be better off reading the NLT. The KJV has the same problem in v.17: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.” So I asked her what that means, and she quickly replied, “Oh, you know, the Catholic faith, the Mormon faith, the protestant faith.” Hello! None of those things existed when Paul wrote Romans. I give that story to show that a dangerous thing that happens when many people read the Bible: If we don’t understand something, we may just make up a meaning that sounds plausible to us. And as time goes on, we can get more and more convinced that our guesses are true.

Going back to the advantages and disadvantages of the two translation types, the ESV has made a very good literal translation of 1:17. The ESV closely mirrors the form of the Greek text, but the problem is that readers won’t grasp the meaning, unless perhaps there are study notes to guide them. On the other hand, the NLT has the disadvantage that it doesn’t match the word-for-word form of the Greek, but it nails the meaning. God is the source of our righteousness. NLT translates: This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. And the Greek idiom ‘from faith to faith’ means, “This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.” Finally, if you take the time to read verse 17 again, you will see that the quote at the end of the verse supports what Paul claims about the Good News about Christ.

I am passionate about people having access to at least one Bible that is a literal translation, and one that is a meaning-based translation.

Recently an elder in our church shared that he was struggling hard to read and understand Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. He was rather bitter in his complaints, saying, “Why did Jeremiah write like this? I can’t penetrate this stuff!” This is just one example of many I could share. Normal Christians like you and me who try to use a literal translation for devotional reading, and attempt to read every book in the Bible, will not enjoy the experience. This can clearly be seen in Indonesia, where the people have only had wide access to one literal translation since 1974. Indonesian Christians have been discouraged from reading their Bibles for too long, and that has seriously weakened the church throughout that country. Now, with our Plain Indonesian Translation, thousands of people have discovered that they enjoy reading the Bible. But now, through our 90-day Bible reading challenge, teenage kids and adults are rejoicing to find that they enjoy reading the New Testament, finishing it in 90 days, and many immediately start over to read it again.

Any Christian who wants to glorify God should read the whole Bible. And if we really want to glorify God, then we should read a translation that we understand. Reading a translation that you don’t understand fully will not help you or encourage you.

I need to give two important clarifications: Some people think that the NLT is a paraphrase because the first edition still contained some words or phrases that sounded like the Living Bible. The Living Bible deserves to be called a paraphrase, because it occasionally adds ideas not found in the original text, or fails to translate other things. But the New Living Translation is a highly researched and revised meaning-based translation. My second clarification is that The Message is an extreme paraphrase. Please don’t think it is a faithful translation. Please don’t quote it. Please don’t give it to a new Christian to read.

Here is the information about real-book Bibles I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast. I want you to know that no one at Tyndale House asked me to promote their products, and I am not getting paid anything for giving out this information.

Gale decided to give NLT Bibles to members of her Bible study groups, and I decided to give them to my small group. It has been a long time since we bought Bibles, and so we made some delightful discoveries. Tyndale House has several cool NLT Bibles right now. The NLT Illustrated Study Bible is incredible! Beautifully illustrated with maps and charts and many study notes and supplemental information. The hardcover edition is only $36.66. You might like the leather-like edition which is a bit more. However, at more than 2,500 pages, you won’t want to carry this Bible around.

Here’s what I am giving to some young people in our church, including our grandkids: There is a new kind of Bible developed by Tyndale House, called a Filament Enabled NLT Bible. This real-book Bible comes without study notes and maps, making it practical to carry and providing an uncluttered reading experience, but it has a companion cell phone app that gives you all the stuff you would get in a study Bible and even much more. You download the Filament app for your phone or tablet, and then you can take a picture of the page number or type in the page number for which you want to get more information. The app then gives you study notes, charts, timelines, and devotional material, including videos and even worship songs. There is a premium-value edition with a leather-like cover for just $15. For the person who wants to make notes, there is a beautiful wide margin edition available for $38. A large print Filament enabled Bible is about that same price. A genuine leather thin-line edition of the NLT Filament Bible is only $35.

I highly recommend an article linked at the very end of the episode notes entitled How Not to Argue About Which Bible Translation Is Best by Andy Naselli.

And may the Lord bless you ‘real good’.



See the second part of this page: Recommended Bible translations for devotional reading

Blog post:


Fantastic article: How Not to Argue About Which Bible Translation Is Best

June 13, 2017 | Andy Naselli