How to break down the purposes and meanings of different Bible translations
After a quick Google search, one will find that despite the debate on the exact number, there might be an excessive number of English Bible translations. Many believers find it difficult to navigate the large number of translations and do not know which translations to read and how to approach them.
An article by Lifeway explained why there is such a variety in translations.
“The different approaches to translation philosophy take into consideration diverse meanings, contexts and cultures as well as grammatical decisions like tense, voice and parts of speech from a variety of available manuscripts,” the article reads.
The article said that there are three main approaches to Bible translation.
The first approach is the formal equivalent, which “are word-for-word and emphasize literal accuracy to original languages.” These include NASB, ESV, RVR, KJV and NKJV (a more readable version of the original King James Bible). Since these texts are especially concerned with accuracy and original meaning, these translations are a good place to start when approaching the Bible.
The second approach is the dynamic equivalent translations, which are “thought-for-thought and emphasize readability.” Many readers may find these translations to help with comprehending difficult and confusing passages. These include NIV and NLT.
Lastly, optimal equivalent translations “pursue both linguistic precision to the original languages and readability.” These passages are similarly helpful for readers looking for clarity on a particular passage. This type of translation includes CSB, NET and NVI.
Mike Contreras, senior applied theology major, uses a variety of translations in his personal and academic study. However, he uses the English Standard Version (ESV) as his primary biblical text because it is a word-for-word (formal equivalent).
He then works his way to a thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalent or optimal equivalent translation) version for deeper clarity and understanding.
“With confusing passages, it is useful to read many different translations to see if any help give a better understanding of the texts,” Contreras said. “I would recommend reading a few translations in order of most literal to the more thought-for-thought. An order (readers) could use (is) NASB, ESV, NIV, NLT.”
Contreras encouraged students to dive into outside sources as well for a more well-rounded understanding of the biblical texts.
“Ultimately, to gain a good understanding of a confusing text, I would recommend more than just English translation comparisons,” Contreras said. “I would recommend diving into various study Bibles, commentaries and even (search) online to find various interpretations or answers to specific questions.
“Diving into these resources is (highly) valuable because the most important thing when reading a text is finding and understanding the text’s historical and literary context.”
Damara Wilson, senior applied theology major, shared similar advice to Contreras on this topic. Wilson also prefers the ESV Bible translation due to its word-for-word approach.
“I like translations that shoot for word-for-word accuracy and translation,” Wilson said. “I’ve found the ESV translation to be the best fit for me.”
Alongside the ESV, Wilson prefers a variety of references to gain deeper clarity and understanding of the meaning of any given passage.
“When I’m curious about the meaning or wording I’ll look at the NLT, NIV and sometimes the AMP,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s closing advice to those attempting to navigate different translations places a large emphasis on individuality with the ultimate goal of knowing the Lord more deeply.
“I would say stick to the reputable translations and find one that is easy for you to understand,” Wilson said. “The point of Bible translation is to help us understand God’s word better. Some people will be helped through the NIV and others through ESV, but they all serve the purpose of helping us know God through his word.”