One of the most common questions I am asked when I travel and speak at Slavic churches is what English Bible translation I recommend. Most Slavic church leaders and pastors read a Russian version of the Bible, and therefore do not have a recommendation of an English version. Time after time, I’m finding young kids coming in to church with either a New World Translation (a manipulated translation by the Jehovah’s Witnesses) or a King James Version (KJV), though a great translation, its a version that most kids will not understand and will most likely lead them to not enjoy it and not make a daily habit of reading it.
So is there just “one” version that I can recommend? My answer is “depends.” Depends on what kind of reading and studying you want to accomplish. There are 3 different “types of translations” available, which is explained below. I think every believer who is serious about studying the Bible should own at least 2 of those types; one formal equivalence (word-for-word) translation and one functional equivalence (phrase-for-phrase) translation. As to which specific word-for-word translation I recommend, read further down.
THREE TYPES OF BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
1. Formal Equivalence (word-for-word).
- Translation examples: KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV, NJKV
2. Functional Equivalence (phrase-for-phrase)
- Translation examples: NIV, NLT, NET
- Translation examples: The Message, LB
Here is a chart that can help you see a better picture:
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY TRANSLATIONS?
One of the most frustrating discoveries for immigrants and learners of the English language is the discovery of the vast amount of translations of the Bible available. But, the reader must understand that the original books of the Bible were not written in English. The Old Testament writers used Hebrew, a Semitic language written from right to left with no vowels. The New Testament writers wrote in Greek.
Translators have to read the original language, and determine how to interpret it into English. That process is very complex, and the interpretations often times depend on the interpreter, his or her intentions and motives. Scholars and interpreters also differ on how a translation should be done: should the focus be on word-for-word or thought for thought and the clarity of the English expression? If the emphasis is placed on exactly following the wording of the original languages, readability suffers. If the translator stresses readability, literalness is sacrificed, and much more interpretation takes place.
Also, any language, including the English language, changes over time, leading to the need for updates of previous versions or entirely new ones.
COMPARING WORD-FOR-WORD VS. PHRASE-FOR-PRAHSE TRANSLATIONS
Word-for-word translations (like KJV, NASB, ESV, and RSV):
- Greater reliance on the text itself
- Less interpretation of original text (less reliance on the opinion of the translator of what the author is really saying)
- Better for in-depth biblical study
- More precision, though complex vocabulary and theological terminology
- Awkward English, less readable
- Relies more on the “reader” for interpretation (keep in mind, there are many different kinds of readers).
- More difficult for kids, non-Christian or new Christian to read and comprehend
- Might lead readers to reach wrong interpretive conclusions in casual reading
Phrase-for-phrase translations (like NIV, NLT, and NET)
- More readable
- Easier for kids, non-Christians to read and comprehend
- Priority is to convey meaning, therefore, less ambiguity in meaning
- Good for public Scripture reading
- More of the interpretation is done by trained scholars, not casual readers
- Less working with the form of the original text
- Not as good for careful Bible, or “word” study
- Often, bigger/longer because of the need to explain a technical term using a phrase or sentences
Because many Slavic believers are conservative in theology, they are more prone to come across fundamental Baptists who are strict, “KJV only” believers, and quickly become KJV fans only because of the comments they read. And in many Slavic circles, non-English readers are promoting KJV whole-heartedly because of the desire to align with conservatives, without much background or in-depth research.
The KJV was translated in 1611. There are over 300 words in the KJV that no longer mean what they meant in 1611. In addition to the constant use of thees and thous, a lot of other expressions are no longer used or now have different meanings. Languages, expressions and meanings change. Here are some examples: do you know what these expressions mean?
- “Sick of the palsy” (Mark 2:3)
- “Thou hast possessed my reins” (Ps. 139:13).
- “Decayeth and waxeth old” (Heb. 8:13)
- “Not in chambering and wantonness” (Rom. 13:13)
- “The instruments also of the churl are evil” (Isa. 32:7).
- “Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife” (Gen. 26:8).
- “By his neesings a light doth shine” (Job 41:18).
- “Ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing” (Jas. 2:3).
- “When divers were hardened, and believed not” (Acts 19:9)
- In many places in Paul’s letters, the KJV reads, “God forbid!” But the original has neither “God” nor “forbid.” Literally, it says, “May it never be!” A literal reading of “God forbid” can lead to very different theological conclusions.
Do you understand these phrases? Why force kids to try to understand these phrases?
Certainly, the KJV has had the greatest impact in shaping the English language. And for centuries, it was the standard translation. Overzealous fans of KJV will even say “if it was good enough for Jesus, why isn’t it good enough for today,” yet Jesus never used the KJV. What most people don’t know is that the KJV of today is not the KJV or 1611. It has undergone three revisions, incorporating more than 100,000 changes Also, the KJV was translated from manuscripts that were not of the “earliest” manuscripts discovered. Since 1611, there have been many earlier manuscripts discovered which translators have benefited and used as resources in newer translations. If one wishes to use a Bible that follows the same Greek and Hebrew texts as the KJV, I recommend the New King James Version (NKJV).
Dont get me wrong. At times during Bible study, I do go to the KJV and see how that version translates a certain scripture. But, even with a Bachelor’s degree from a University, I dont understand the KJV when I read it.
WHAT WORD-FOR-WORD TRANSLATION DO I RECOMMEND?
Because all translations must interpret, the use of several versions will call your attention to alternative readings of the text, and might highlight different aspects of the scriptures that another reading might not. In all serious study, look at several translations.
As for a churches, I believe it is wise to recommend one or two specific translations. During the message, several versions can be read and mentioned. But, it would be wise for the church to choose one translations, and use it for displaying on printed materials, slides, message outlines, and during public reading.
Here are the three versions I recommend: ESV, NASB, NJKV. The version I currently use the most during daily reading and Bible study is the ESV version.
There are other great word-for-word versions, but, in recommending a version for a larger audience, it is wiser to choose a version that is easily available for purchase, and easily available in different styles (leather, bound, large print, pocket size, etc…)
A church can also recommend and use the NIV as their primary translation, because it is easier to read for a younger audience, & it is widely available. It is a great phrase-for-phrase translation. But, I would then also recommend a word-for-word translation to the members who want to do a deeper study.
A word of caution concerning the NIV, their NIV 2011 version is “gender-neutral.” Though most scriptures are “gender-neutral,” I believe that some of Bible’s teaching on gender roles is affected by these changes. Also, the TNIV has changed some specific terminology (instead of “the Jews,” it will read “the Jewish leaders,” and when “Christ” is used as a title, they substitute is with the “Messiah”). Such interpretations can be misleading, and go beyond just translating. Therefore, when recommending the NIV version, I’d recommend the older NIV translation.
DO NOT USE THIS VERSION
Some versions don’t interpret—they distort. Some are notorious for omitting references to Christ’s blood, or for attempting to deny his deity. In these instances, the translators are neither faithful to the form or the meaning. They have perverted the Word of God.
Im often finding Slavic kids coming to church with “The New World Translation, probably because their parents picked it up for free somewhere. The “New World Translation” is a translation done by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Due to the denominational bias of the group, as well as to the lack of genuine biblical scholarship, the New World Translation is a bad translation and should not be used. Its spoken of as a word-for-word translation, and in many cases is literal to the point of being terrible English. But, at times, the Jehovah’s Witnesses twist the text and resort to an interpretive type of translation, to fit their teaching.
SOME COMMENTS ABOUT THE RUSSIAN SYNODAL VERSION
As mentioned, for those who read Russian, the Russian Synodal Version (RST) is the standard translation and is used by the Russian Orthodox Church, Protestant denominations (Baptists, Pentecostals), as well as the Roman Catholics. That translations was published in 1876. The Old Testament is based on the Jewish Masoretic text, while the New Testament is based on the Greek printed editions of that time.
Overall, it is a good translation. But because it is a good translation, the lack of urgency for different or newer translations has led to very few new translations available. Nevertheless, Russian readers should keep in mind that the Russian Synodal Version is a translation, and not the version that Jesus used, the “Only, Holy Spirit Anointed Version.”
There are some scriptures in the Russian Synodal Translation that are really hard to understand, and instead of trying to find ways to justify that scripture, a different translation would remove the confusion. For example, in James chapter 1, the words “temptation” and “testing” is used several times. In 1:12, the word “temptation” is used instead of “trial,” which can easily confuse the reader. Modern Russian translations like Slovo Zhizny (SZ) or the Russian New Testament (ERV-RU) make that change, and take away the confusion.
Another example of a questionable scripture translation in the Russian Synodal Translation, and even the English translations is Malachi 2:16. The NASB translation says,
“For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
The Russian Synodal Translation of that scripture literally reads,
“Если ты ненавидишь ее, отпусти, говорит Господь Бог Израилев; обида покроет одежду его, говорит Господь Саваоф; посему наблюдайте за духом вашим и не поступайте вероломно.”
Translated to English, it literally says,
“If you hate her, let her go, says the Lord God of Israel; a grievance will cover his garment, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
The Slovo Zhizny (SZ) translation interprets is just like NASB,
“Я ненавижу развод, – говорит Господь, Бог Израиля, – и того, кто покрывает свою одежду насилием[a], – говорит Господь Сил. – Поэтому оберегай себя и не нарушай верности.”
There is a very stark difference between “I hate divorce says the Lord” and “if you hate her, let her go.”
The above 2 examples from the Russian Synodal Tranlsation is meant to encourage all Russian readers to give other versions a chance. If something in the RST does not make sense or is unclear, check another Russian translation, or compare it with several other English translations. The RST is not THE ORIGINAL Bible. But, there sure is great benefit to most Russians having one main version, which is especially evident when there is public scripture reading, scripture memorization, and scripture reference. That is something English readers and congregations miss out on, with such variety and number of translations used in the same congregation.
Some Christians have made it their life mission to discredit paraphrase translations, like “The Message.” But, I believe if a paraphrase like The Message is treated like a paraphrase, it can be of great blessing and benefit. The Message is not a paraphrase of some anti-God book, it is a paraphrase of the Bible. Reading a paraphrase can lead you to further study of the Bible, or can highlight thoughts and areas you haven’t considered about a certain scripture.
A paraphrase cannot take place of a word-for-word translation, but can serve as a blessing to many readers. Enjoy it, when you can.
For further reading, here are 2 sources I used, in writing this blog:
Questions or comments? Would love to hear from you below!