Why are there so many versions of English?

Would you believe that there are literally hundreds of different translations of the Bible into English? For many people this huge variety is totally confusing and they just don't know which Bible to choose. How did we get into this situation anyway?

At the heart of the problem are two views as to what a translation should be. On one side are those who feel a translation should stick just as closely as possible to every word of the original Hebrew and Greek. They want the translation to be a literal transfer, word for word, of the original words into English. They feel this will provide the greatest accuracy possible and, after all, this is the aim, isn't it?

Unfortunately, that approach encounters real problems. Some words simply don't have an exact equivalent in English. The word order and the entire sentence structure just don't match from one language to another. So these word-for-word translations are wooden and unnatural. They may be used for close study, but they often fail in terms of comprehension and readability. On the other side are those who feel a translation should transfer the message, that is, the exact thought and emotion of the original text. To do this, it should use as many words as are necessary to reproduce the idea precisely in English. You don't really obtain accuracy, they contend, by a word-for-word translation, but you do when you convey the concept, the message, of the original, so that the reader understands it. In the end, they say, a thought-for-thought translation is actually more accurate as well as more understandable. They invite us to compare Job 36:33 in a literal translation (the venerable King James Version) and a thought-for-thought translation (the New International Version):

King James Version

New International Version

The noise thereof showeth concerning it, the cattle also concerning the vapor.

His thunder announces the coming storm; even the cattle make known its approach.

Of course, since the KJV dates from 1611, it contains some archaic language, but the message of the KJV in this verse is also very difficult to decipher. In the NIV in this case the thought comes through with more clarity.

Translations also differ as to the reading level of the reader. They vary from a third grade to a twelfth grade reading level. The lower reading level translations have shorter sentences, draw from a smaller English word pool, and avoid all uncommon words. Some employ a vocabulary limited to 1000 words.

Let's review several of the best-known translations. We cited two translations in the passage just quoted, and they are the two most widely used of all English translations:

  • The King James Version is loved for the majesty of its language and for the way God has used it in ministering to millions down through the centuries. Some Christians feel that no other translation can possibly replace it.
  • The New International Version is today the most widely distributed and utilized translation in the world. It is a thought-for-thought translation, but employs a moderately traditional tone that makes it appropriate for both public worship and personal reading.
  • A recent translation that is gaining widespread acceptance and uses contemporary terminology is the New Living Translation. It is both accurate and very readable.
  • Another widely used translation is the New American Standard Bible, which is a more literal rendition.
  • The New Revised Standard Version, is a contemporary thought-for-thought translation.
  • Many Roman Catholic readers prefer the New Jerusalem Bible.

So which is the best translation?

As you can see, there are many audiences and many different kinds of readers. You should decide what kind of reader you are and estimate your reading level. Are you seeking a literal translation or one that provides a thought-for-thought presentation? Do you prefer the historic dignity of theKing James Version, the widely accepted and respected New International Version, or the very readable and contemporary New Living Translation? Consult a knowledgeable Christian and then immerse yourself in God's Word!

Each translation has the power to transform your life. Though the cadence and the terminology may differ, the voice of God can speak to you through each one. Then the question remains: how will you respond to God's voice as He speaks to you from the pages of this life-changing book?