For Christians, reading the Bible is one of the central ways in which we can draw closer to God. The Bible is full of instructions for life. Books like Proverbs offer guidance for how to live wisely, and the Gospels recount Jesus’ teachings of mercy and love. Having a Bible to go back to, day in and day out, is an essential part of a life of faith.
But which Bible should you choose? Which is translation of the Bible is best? There are a wide variety of Bible translations available. Different versions prioritize different elements of translation practices, with some more focused on staying true to the original text and others prioritizing being easier to read. It can feel daunting to determine which translation is right for you. Let’s take a look at the kinds of Bible translations out there and consider their strengths and weaknesses.
Types of Bible Translations
Broadly speaking, Bible translations can be divided into four categories: Word-for-Word translations, Meaning-for-Meaning translations, Thought-for-Thought translations, and Paraphrase translations. What sets these translations apart?
Word-for-Word translations, also known as “formal equivalence translations”, attempt to remain as close to the original text of scripture (written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) as possible. The goal of these translations is to preserve the accuracy of language. This can result in a Bible translation that is good for deep study but is a bit difficult to follow for new or casual readers. The original languages of the Bible use different idioms and speech patterns than we use today. In a translation focused on remaining close to the original languages, these idioms and patterns can feel slightly unfamiliar. But if you want a Bible with less modern interpretive license, this might be the type of translation for you.
If you are looking for a Word-for-Word translation, try the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), or the King James Version (KJV).
The second major category of Bible translations is Thought-for-Thought, or “dynamic equivalence translations”. Thought-for-Thought translations are more concerned with conveying the ideas and concepts of the original texts for modern readers. These translations adapt the language into more familiar modern English to make the text easier to understand and connect with. The goal then is to convey the original message or intent of the primary texts, occasionally employing more interpretive license. These translations are great for new believers, but do sacrifice some of the word exactness of a more literal translation.
If you are looking for a Thought-for-Thought translation, try the New Living Translation (NLT), the Common English Bible (CEB), or the New International Version (NIV).
The final two translation categories are perhaps better understood as subcategories of the previous two. Meaning-for-Meaning translations try to ride the middle ground between Word-for-Word and Thought-for-Thought. They adhere closely to the original texts but employ some interpretive license for sections of scripture where an exact translation muddies the meaning. Sometimes called “optimal equivalence translations”, these try to bring the best of both translations styles to their versions of the Bible. They are easier to read than some of the Word-for-Word translations but more precise than some of the Thought-for-Thought versions.
If you are looking for a Meaning-for-Meaning translation, try the New King James Version (NKJV) or the Christian Standard Bible (CSB).
Lastly, there are Paraphrase translations. As the name suggests, Paraphrase translations put aside the notion of any sort of one-to-one translation. Instead, these are narrative retellings of the stories of scripture. This can be extremely helpful for those with no knowledge of the stories of the Bible; they are engaging and compelling summaries of each Biblical book. However, for those looking to dig into the Bible, or for those who hold the importance of textual accuracy in high regard, these translations may not be the best fit.
If you are looking for a Paraphrase translation, try the New International Readers Version (NIRV), the Good News Translation (GNT), and The Message (MSG).
A Comparative Look
To further explore the way these various translation types differ, let's take a look at how four different versions translate the same verse, John 3:16.
- Word-for-Word translation, KJV: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
- Thought-for-Thought translation, NLT: "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."
- Meaning-for-Meaning translation, NKJV: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
- Paraphrase translation, MSG: "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him."
Which is Best?
With all the context for the types of translations of the Bible that are available, we may be left asking, "Which is the best Bible translation?" The truth is that there isn't one "best" translation. Which translation you prefer will depend heavily on your study needs, your familiarity with scripture, and personal preference (see best Bible studies for men and women alike). The most important thing is that you find a Bible that encourages you to be actively in the Word. If you're unsure which translation or translation type will be the best fit for you, try a few out! Read the King James Version (KJV) or the New Living Translation (NLT) or the English Standard Version (ESV). Figure out what you like and what you don't!
No matter which translation of the Bible you prefer to read, studying the Bible is an essential component of a life of faith. We study scripture in order to draw closer to God as well as to learn how to live better. Anytime we engage with the Bible, we have an opportunity to see and hear how God is speaking to us and moving in our lives. Choosing the best Bible translation for you is just the first step towards engaging with God's word every day. If you're looking for Bible, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles, written in the New Living Translation, to help you along your journey.