Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Since then, it has been translated into hundreds of languages. English is one language that is fortunate enough to have many different translations of the Bible.

Translating from one language to another is a difficult task. Translators must take into account several important factors:

  • Words in the original language may not have direct equivalents in other languages.
  • Some expressions used in an ancient culture might not make sense in a modern-day culture.
  • The meaning of words change over time.

As such, Bible translations vary along a scale from one extreme to another. At one end you have what is called word-for-word translations, which aim to translate from one language to another using the exact wording from the original, or at least as close as possible. On the other end you have what is called thought-for-thought translations (sometimes called dynamic equivalency) which aim to translate not the exact words from the original, but rather the basic concepts. This allows the translators to update the language and expressions to fit modern-day understandings. The most extreme forms of a thought-for-thought translation are actually less of a translation and more like a paraphrase.

The chart below demonstrates roughly where several popular translations land in terms of being word-for-word or thought-for-thought in their approach.

The New International Version (NIV), which is the most popular English translation in the world, lands roughly in the middle of the scale.

Which translation is best for me?

It is wise to make use of several different translations. When doing careful Bible study, it is good to use a more word-for-word translation. However, for long reading and devotional purposes, a thought-for-thought translation is easier to read. You might use a very literal translation to lead a Bible study class, but a thought-for-thought translation when teaching the Bible to young children. It also depends on your own skill level in reading and the skill level of others if you are in a teaching setting. Combining several solid translations for various purposes tends to be one way to get the most out of Bible reading.

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