Which translation is the right one?

Well, not just the King James Version (KJV). If you enjoy reading Elizabethan English, fine, enjoy it. It has the advantage of being the most frequently quoted source in the English language, so it actually pays to know the words of the KJV. But understand that you’re going to misinterpret some things simply because the English language has changed in the last 450 years.

Technically, the original Greek is the right version for the New Testament, and Hebrew for the Old Testament (but there’s more to it than that). But a lot of us don’t read Greek or Hebrew, either ancient or modern, so we’re stuck using English translations. Some of these, like the New King James Version (NKJV,) are very good. Some others, like the New World Bible (NWB) used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not acceptable at all. Some of the ones that are easiest to read, like The Message, are not particularly good translations. Some of the most difficult to read, like the New American Standard Bible (NASB), are the best translations for study. There are different reasons to use different versions.

I’ll explain all of that below. Just so you have a starting point, I normally use the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the edition published in 1995. It has a reputation as a very precise translation, but one that is awkwardly worded and a bit difficult to read. That suits me; I like hearing the words of the Apostles as they said them (or as nearly as possible in English), and I like doing the research that that demands in order to grasp what they actually meant. I don’t like accepting some translator’s interpretations. My approach doesn’t suit everybody, though.

If you don’t want to use the NASB because you’re not a grammar Nazi/dinosaur like I am, the English Standard Version (ESV,) which is a modern re-working of the old Revised Standard Version (RSV,) is just about as accurate and is a bit more friendly to read. If you want something that’s going to give it to you in plain English and leave nothing for you to research, though, I think the New Living Translation is acceptable. The Message is also acceptable (barely) but it takes “dynamic equivalence” to an extreme (I’ll explain below), so don’t use it without a more exact translation nearby to consult. If you want something halfway between those two extremes (accurate-but-awkward versus readable-but-imprecise,) the New King James and the Holman Christian Standard Bible seem to be pretty good compromises.

A lot of churches use the New International Version (NIV) published in 1974 as their pew bible. It’s easy to read and is reasonably accurate, but it has a strong, Evangelical bias that makes it unsuitable for serious study. Personally, I find the wording to be so plain as to make memorization nearly impossible. But if it’s the only Bible you have, it will do.

Let me explain a few things about translation, so you’ll understand why it’s important whose translation you use.

First of all, to understand any language, you have to understand the culture that uses (or used) that language. If you don’t know the culture, you’re going to miss a lot of what they’re trying to say.

Let me give you a quick example. Suppose some reader in 2260 AD picks up something I wrote recently and read, “I had to jump through hoops to get my PA driver’s license.” He might not know that “PA” refers to a state government, and depending on what they do for transportation in 2260 AD, he might not understand why I wanted a driver’s license, or what such a thing was.

But the most difficult problem lays here: what would he make of the phrase, “jump through hoops?” The general meaning seems plain enough; I had to do something difficult and/or unpleasant. But why “hoops?” And why “jump?” And did I LITERALLY have to jump through something, and if so, why? And who made me do it? What would happen to me if I didn’t? And so on.

We use the expression without thinking. Some of us, if we had to explain it, might remember that it’s a reference to circus acts in which trained animals are commanded to jump through a metal hoop in order to please the crowd. The general sense of “something difficult and unpleasant” turns out to be incomplete; jumping through hoops, in its original sense and in the way it’s used today, actually means to do something difficult and completely unnecessary in order to get something from a superior, usually a government bureaucrat or a boss. The bureaucracy is being compared to the circus trainer, and we’re compared to the dumb animals that are forced to do useless things just to make the masters happy.

The point is that unless that reader does enough research to find the origin of the phrase, “jump through hoops,” he’s not going to understand the phrase as it was meant by its author. And the same thing is true of the Bible: if we don’t know enough about the cultures in which the books were composed, we might misunderstand what the author had in mind, sometimes pretty badly. Translators have to take these things into account when they translate a phrase.

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