Which Translation Should I Choose?
NIV or ESV? Or perhaps NASB or KJV? Have you ever wondered why there are so many different translations of the Bible? Have you ever wondered if one translation is better than all the rest? Which translation should you read? Well, my hope is that in the next 3 minutes you’ll have a better grasp of this issue and feel more confident when you choose which translation to read and recommend.
The Bible is powerful. As Christians, we believe that the Creator God himself has chosen to reveal himself through the Scriptures. We believe that he personally inspired them, and that he has continued to work through them since they were first written down. Furthermore, as spiritual descendants of the Reformation, we hold to the saying “Sola Scriptura,” which signifies that our beliefs come from Scripture Alone, rather than from church tradition, or a pastor, or a pope. Thus, questions like this really matter to us.
As someone who grew up speaking and reading English, Ukrainian, and Russian, I easily understand the difficulties faced by translators and the reason why there are so many translations. I translated sermons from Russian into English for foreign guests many times in my teenage years, and have had interpreters translate my own sermons from English into Ukrainian or Russian as I preached them after I reached adulthood. I’ve experienced firsthand some of the difficulties of conveying the same idea across two different languages. The trouble is that no language is identical to another. There are always words which don’t have an identical equivalent, and often tones and nuances are “lost in translation.” No translation will be without drawbacks, especially in a language like English which has such a rich and varied dictionary.
Translators generally try to follow one of two methods (or a combination of them) when it comes to interpretation. They are known as ‘thought-for-thought’ translations and ‘word-for-word’ translations. Word-for-word translations are usually used for more formal things, such as international treaties, cross-language business deals, and official documentation like passports. Thought-for-thought is generally used when interpreting conversations, works of literature, and songs.
The difficulty is that the Bible does not neatly fit into a single genre. Each word is important, but sometimes if each word is directly translated then the intended nuance or meaning is lost, or it becomes distractingly and unintentionally long-winded. The great news is that none of the major respected English translations contain heresy. All of them have dedicated teams of translators who are genuinely doing their best to faithfully translate the original texts. The differences between them are pretty much a matter of wording, rather than meaning. For example, Colossians 2:4 in the NIV says “I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” While in the ESV it says “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.”
So, which translation should you choose? Probably different ones for different purposes.
Whenever I am wrestling with a particular passage deeply, maybe for a sermon, or just for personal benefit, I look at multiple different translations. Often the difference in wording gives me a deeper understanding of what God is saying in the particular passage, and I’ll often pay particular attention to what the word-for-word translations are saying.
When you are reading or memorising the Bible for your personal devotions, it is probably worthwhile to choose a translation which you easily understand. For me, I love to read and listen to the NIV or NLT. It’s worth experimenting to see which translation works for best for you.
When you are reading the Bible in a group, like at church or in a Growth Group, it’s generally helpful to use the same translation as the other members of the group, so that the superficial difference of words like “delude” and “deceive” won’t slow the conversation down. In practice, this means that on Sundays I switch my Bible app into the NIV translation which we use in our services at Oasis Church.
Above all, don’t let the plethora of choice paralyse you. Spend time with the Bible, because God will use it to transform you to become more like Jesus. He will use it to give you peace, and help you share in his eternal and glorious joy.
P.S. Here’s a helpful graphic which helps to explain where the different translations lie on the “translation spectrum”.