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More about Bible Translations

Apr 26, 2017

There are basically four types of Bible products: I urge that everyone have a literal translation (like ESV, NASB), because literal translations show you the word-for-word form of the original text. Because of being literal, such translations cannot give you a good impression of the overall meaning of the text expressed in natural English. So I urge that everyone also read a meaning-based translation (like GNT/NLT), which will show you what the text means in natural English. (Meaning-based translations are sometimes called dynamic or free translations.) 

Literal translations mirror the form of the original language in an almost word for word manner, but cannot always give the meaning of the original language text in natural English.

Meaning-based translations give the meaning of the original language text in natural English, but cannot mirror the form of the original language.

The two other types: The Living Bible is a paraphrase, and is sometimes too free/dynamic and sometimes does not completely capture the correct meaning. The Message is even worse! Finally, the fourth type of Bible product are mixed translations—half-way between literal translations and meaning-based translations (like the NIV and HCSB). They tend to be literal when the meaning of a literal translation can be understood. They may be quite free and dynamic where a literal translation would be hard to understand. The difficulty is that the reader will not know which verses are translated literally and which are translated freely/dynamically. Which one do I suggest for reading through the Bible in a year? I urge that you pick one of the two meaning-based translations mentioned above. This kind of translation will encourage you to keep going in your daily readings, because the text of the Bible will make sense to you. I can just hear someone saying, “Well, I understand my literal translation perfectly well!” That is often true for the portions that you generally read, or the passages that are often quoted in church meetings. But if you read all of the Bible, there are places where you will have difficulty understanding properly in a literal translation. Let me give you three examples for you to compare between the above two kinds of translations: Isaiah 7:18-25, Ecclesiastes 12:1-8. There many places in the New Testament where a modern English reader will assume they understand, but often do not understand properly. The topic sentence of Romans in chapter 1:16-17 is a good example. Note that every Christian still needs access to a good literal translation: You will want your literal translation any time you are doing in depth study, and usually you will want to take it with you to your church meetings.

I count it a great privilege to have been at a Bible translation conference led by the Bible Society of Indonesia where Bob Bratcher was teaching on 2nd Peter. Dr. Bratcher was the lead translator for the Today's English Version, which was renamed as the Good News Bible, and then finally renamed again as the Good News Translation. Bob talked of the controversies that his translation caused in 1966, and I relate this story because some of you may have heard negative things about this translation. At the time the TEV came out, the Bible-reading public was not yet accustomed to using different kinds of translations. They were used to the King James. The RSV had been published but was also a cause for controversy and poorly received by conservatives. One thing that helped the popularity of the TEV was that the paperback edition of the New Testament could be purchased for just 25 cents in the late 60s. So the TEV paved the way to the Christian public accepting other translations. However, as Bratcher told us, it was really the emergence of the Living Bible that taught people that it is OK to have more than one Bible. As it happens, in his work with the United Bible Societies, Bratcher also produced many Bible Translation Handbooks for Bible translators, especially for the New Testament books. These books have been a huge aid to all Bible translators, and another reason why the TEV/GNT has had a significant impact on many Bible translations all over the world— including translations like the NIV and the NLT. If you want to see dig deeper concerning a certain passage, the UBS Translation Handbooks (available via the Logos Bible software) give translational alternatives and insight into the GNT renderings.

After many years reading other translations in my devotions, in twenty15-16 I read the GNT again. It was interesting for me to come back to it after so many years of not reading it. As a teenager, I can remember thinking that it was ‘wordy’, because I was used to the RSV. But now that I have worked as a Bible translator and have read the NLT, I no longer feel the GNT is wordy or unnatural in its expression. I also note that somewhere along the line, someone has revised a few of the verses that caused criticism. The GNT is not quite so dynamic as the NLT. This now-neglected translation is a wonderful one to choose for a year's study of the Bible. I think every English-speaking Christian should read all of the GNT at least once in their life.

 Here's a great article by Andy Naselli: How not to Argue about Which Bible Translation is Best

If you want quite an in depth view into Bible translation, I suggest listening to the incomplete NET category in the Daily Bible Reading Podcast.