God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate? (Trying again.)

My last attempt to see how people understand the accuracy of their Bible translations didn’t work. I got a lot of responses, but not one answer to the basic question.

So I’m trying again, with a poll:

Please feel free to comment after you’ve answered the poll.


January 20, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 9 Comments

What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate?

I’ve just returned from a three-day festival of learning in Kerhonkson, NY, where I spoke about, among other things, Bible translation.

Right at the end I was asked a great question, which I repeating here: What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate?

We all know that there is no Bible translation that’s 100% accurate. So:

1. Which Bible translation do you prefer?

2. How much of it do you think is accurate?

3. Why?

I’m looking forward to reading your responses.

January 18, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 18 Comments

Bible Gateway Unveils “Perspectives in Translation” Blog

Bible Gateway is one of the top destinations for different translations of the Bible. It has also announced that the widely-anticipated updated NIV translation (the so-called “2011” edition) will first be available on its website. So its new Perspectives in Translation blog, a joint project with The Gospel Coalition, is sure to receive attention.

The first posts just went live: a Welcome note, a question about “What Makes a Translation Accurate?,” and three answers (here, here, and here).

I’ll have more to say about the content soon. For now, take a look.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bible Translation: Where Melody and Mirrors Merge

Still following up on my question about accuracy and choosing Bible translations, and by way of answering my question about whether it’s okay if people choose what the Bible is, it occurs to me that music might be a useful comparison.

Many, many parts of the Bible have been set to music, and the options for any single passage usually range considerably. So people get to choose, for example, if they want Isaiah to be majestic or meditative, or if they want the Lord’s Prayer to be glorious, powerful, or pensive.

And most people — myself included — don’t see any problem with this. We should be able to choose how we want our religious music to sound.

But most people also agree — and again, I’m one of them — that we don’t get to choose what our religious texts mean, or, at least, that the options are more constrained.

So it seems to me that another way of looking of the question of choosing a Bible translation is this: Should a Bible translation be more like a melody (where everything is fair game), or more like a mirror (where accuracy is paramount)?

July 12, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 5 Comments

Choosing What the Bible Is

I recently asked how people choose a Bible translation. (And I have more here.)

One interesting (though entirely predictable) result was that some people prefer more than one translation: the NLT for “readability,” for example, but the NET for “accuracy,” or the NASB for use in formal settings.

Even people who only have one preferred translation usually like the translation for similar kinds of reasons.

The upshot of this, though, is that people are deciding for themselves what the Bible is.

You can decide to have a formal Bible, a chatty Bible, an accessible Bible, or an esoteric Bible. You can opt for a Christian OT or a Jewish OT (even though it’s the same text).

Do you think this is okay? Do you think it’s okay that people get to choose what the Bible is (for them)?

July 12, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 14 Comments

How Important is Accuracy?

“I like my Bible translation because it…” How would you complete that sentence?

I hear this sort of thing all the time — in comments on this blog, in discussions on similar blogs, via e-mail, in books, and from people who attend my lectures — and there are lots of reasons people like a particular translation.

But I’m surprised that the sentence almost never ends “…because it is accurate.”

Rather, I hear that people like a translation because it’s familiar, formal, chatty, accessible, entertaining, modern, gender-neutral, inclusive, etc.

I’ll post some more thoughts on this soon.

For now: Which translation do you prefer? And why?

July 6, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions | , , , | 11 Comments

Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?

From the about page comes this important question:

I am currently trying to find a good Bible translation to read and study from. What would you recommend and could you point me to any good articles/books/resources which could help me make this decision? Thanks!

It’s hard to imagine a reply that won’t get someone really angry with me, but I’ll still give it a shot.

My short answer is this: start with the New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”) or the New American Bible (“NAB”). Both are widely available, and in my opinion generally unsurpassed in accuracy (though each also has its own drawbacks).

The longer answer begins with some background. There are essentially four different kinds of English Bibles available today:

1. Paraphrases. These are like “English books based on the original Hebrew/Greek Bible,” sometimes only coming as close as a movie based on a book. The most common are The Message and The Living Bible. These tend to be written in colloquial, even chatty English, and are easy to read. But even though they are so accessible, I generally don’t recommend them, because they hide much of the original beauty and complexity of the Bible.

2. Word for Word Translations. I could equally call these “partial translations.” They take the words of the original Bible and try to reproduce each one in English. As a matter of translation, this is usually a really bad idea. But as a matter of religion (particularly for Jews) there are some good reasons to do this, so these partial translations of the Bible are more popular than they otherwise would be. The most common word-for-word translation is the English Standard Version (“ESV”). I don’t generally recommend publications that take this approach because they tend to create the wrong impression that the Bible was archaic or even incomprehensible.

3. Full Translations. These are Bibles that try to produce a true English equivalent of the text of the Bible, which is what you probably want. The most common are the New International Version (“NIV”), and the NRSV and NAB that I’ve already mentioned.

4. Outdated Full Translations. These are much older English translations, so they translate the Bible into English we no longer use. There’s no good theoretical reason to read one of these Bibles, but there’s a good practical reason. The King James Version (“KJV”) and the New King James Version (“NKJV”) are examples of this approach, and they are the most widely cited English Bible translations. When most people think of “what the Bible says,” they think of the KJV.

The reason I give all of this background is that at first glance each of (1), (2), and (4) seems to be appealing — for ease of reading, apparent fidelity to the text, and apparent authenticity — but they are each mostly misleading in this regard.

However, which Bible you ultimately want depends on what you want to do with it. If you belong to a religious community that has already chosen a translation, you probably want to stick with what your community has chosen; similarly, most translations reflect not only what the Bible originally meant but also what subsequent religious thinkers said that it meant. If you just want a general sense of what the Bible stories in Genesis or the Gospels are about, a paraphrase is the quickest path. The word-for-word translations frequently “sound like the Bible,” which can be comforting.

Regarding resources for deciding, the Better Bibles Blog has a wealth of helpful information and discussion. And lots of books explain the different Bible versions, but mostly with not enough insight into how translation works. Still, you might want to look at Philip Comfort’s Essential Guide to Bible Versions or Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation.

Finally, I would suggest that more important than a good translation is a good teacher to work with. Even a perfect translation (and none exists) would only be a starting point.

November 10, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments