There is a lot one could write on the subject of Bible translations. Seriously — you would be surprised at the huge volume of information that’s available regarding the theories of translation, the history of different Bible versions, the theological ramifications of having separate versions of God’s Word available for public consumption, and much more.
One of the mistakes people make when they shop for a Bible translation is to say, “I want a literal translation.” The truth is that every version of the Bible is marketed as a literal translation. There are no Bibles currently on the market that are promoted as “not literal.”
What we need to understand is that different Bible translations have different ideas of what should be considered “literal.” Fortunately, there are just two major approaches on which we need to focus: word-for-word translations and thought-for-thought translations.
Word-for-Word translations are pretty self-explanatory — the translators focused on each individual word in the ancient texts, deciphered what those words meant, and then combined them together to form thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, and so on. The advantage of these translations is that they pay painstaking attention to the meaning of each word, which does help preserve the integrity of the original texts. The disadvantage is that these translations can sometimes be more difficult to read and comprehend.
Thought-for-thought translations focus more on the complete meaning of the different phrases in the original texts. Rather than isolate individual words, these versions attempt to capture the meaning of the original text within their original languages, and then translate that meaning into modern prose. As an advantage, these versions are typically easier to comprehend and feel more modern. As a disadvantage, people aren’t always certain about the exact meaning of a phrase or thought in the original languages, which can lead to different translations today.
Here is a helpful comparison for identifying where different translations fall on the scale between word-for-word and thought-for-thought.
Now that you understand the different types of translations, let’s quickly highlight five of the major Bible versions available today.
King James Version (KJV).
This translation represents the gold-standard for many people, and it certainly is the oldest of the major versions available today — the original KJV debuted in 1611, although it has undergone major revisions since that time. The KJV falls on the word-for-word end of the translation spectrum and is considered by many to be a more “literal” version of God’s Word than more modern translations.
The opinion of many is that the King James Version helped revolutionize the English language and paved the way for many people to experience God’s Word for themselves — but it’s out of date. Further, many believe the wording of the KJV rings as archaic in today’s world, and at times it can be almost impossible to decipher the meaning of the text given the major changes our language has experienced in 400 years.
New King James Version (NKJV).
The New King James Version was published in 1982 by Thomas Nelson, and was intended to be a more modern expression of the original KJV. The goal was to create a translation that kept the word-for-word integrity of the KJV, but was easier to read and understand. This translation was largely a success. The NKJV is a truly modern translation that does a good job of highlighting the best parts of its predecessor.
New International Version (NIV).
The NIV is far and away the best-selling Bible translation in recent decades, and for good reason. The translators chose to focus on clarity and readability with the NIV, and by and large they did a masterful job of communicating the thought-for-thought meaning of the original languages in a way that is understandable today.
Many people have been critical of recent revisions to the NIV, including an alternate version called the TNIV, which included gender-neutral language and became highly controversial. Published by Zondervan, the NIV seems to have struck a better balance in a 2011 revision, which includes a shade of gender neutrality for human beings (as in, “humankind” instead of “mankind”), but does not alter the masculine language typically applied to God in Scripture.
New Living Translation (NLT).
Originally published in 1966 by Tyndale House (named after translator William Tyndale), the NLT is a thought-for-thought translation that feels decidedly different from the NIV. The NLT translation feels very informal when you read it — almost like you’re reading someone’s summary of the biblical text. For this reason, many typically look to the NLT when they feel confused about the meaning of a text, but don’t always use it for everyday study.
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
The HCSB is a relatively new translation, published in 1999. It’s a bit revolutionary because it attempts to bridge the gap between word-for-word translation and thought-for-thought. Basically, the translators mostly used word-for-word translations, but when the meaning of specific words wasn’t immediately clear, they switched to a thought-for-thought philosophy.
The result is a Bible version that remains true to the integrity of the text, but also compares well with the NIV and NLT in terms of readability.
English Standard Version (ESV).
The ESV is the newest major translation, published in 2001. It leans more toward the word-for-word spectrum and has quickly become popular with pastors and theologians who value the idea of remaining true to the ancient texts in their original languages. The ESV also has a literary quality that many other translations lack — it often helps the Bible feel more like a work of great literature rather than a manual for daily life.
If one of the above translations stands out as interesting or appealing, please give it a try. Go to BibleGateway.com and switch between translations on some of your favorite verses to get a feel for the differences between them.
And whatever you do, keep reading!