The other day the question was brought up during a lecture as to what was the best English translation of the Bible. The professor being questioned is one of the most learned men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. His grasp of the Hebrew and Greek language is astounding, especially to someone like me who managed to barely avoid flunking out of Greek 101 by the skin of my teeth. I was pretty confident that the professor was going to say the ESV, since multiple sources had told me it was the most direct translation. To my surprise, his response was not that simple.
“What do you mean when you say best?” asked the professor.
The inquiring student was a little thrown off by this, to him (and myself) it seems as if this would have been an easy question to answer for someone with such a firm understanding of the Greek and Hebrew languages.
“I mean, which one translation do you think is the most accurate,” replied the student.
“Do you mean to say which is the most accurate translation from Greek to English, or do you mean which translation most accurately conveys the meaning of the original Greek?” was the reply question the professor gave.
We never got a definite answer from the professor. I know what version of the English Bible he uses (NASV) but I also know that he regularly points out ways in which the translation could have been better.
I guess what I’m saying is that language is very interesting in that I can say virtually the same thing in English and another language, but that does not mean that it is going to translate over with the exact same meaning. Language encapsulates much more than just words that mean things, it subtly holds ideas and aspects of culture within.
For example, if I were to say someone is “frugal” or “economical” you would probably assume that this person is good at managing money. If I were to say that the same person is “cheap” or “miserly” you would probably picture someone greedy, selfish, and money obsessed. On a technical level there is really no difference in someone who is “frugal” and one who is “cheap” but to someone fluent in English there are very different connotations. There are hundreds of examples in English of words that mean the same thing, and yet they don’t.
There’s also a myriad of idioms and figures of speech that a direct translation could not capture. If I were to directly translate the phrase “by the skin of my teeth” that I used in the first paragraph into Chinese it would make no sense. In the same way if I were to say a Chinese saying like 三人成虎 (Three men make a tiger) you would have no idea what I was talking about.
In the same way we have to be careful when we read scriptures that we aren’t too literal in our translating. An easy example that usually doesn’t trip up anyone is Psalm 91:4 which reads:
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”
I don’t think there are any Christian doctrines out there that would take this verse and argue that God is some kind of giant bird in the sky. Most people understand this verse for what it is, but that can’t be said for all passages.
The Bible is more of a library than a single book, and as a result it’s important to remember that not every passage should be read the same way. We can’t read the Apocalyptic literature of Revelation the same way we read the Gospel account of Luke. We can’t read the legal code of Leviticus in the same vein as the Didactic poem of Job.
Meaning and truth are a lot more nuanced than simply translating Greek and Hebrew directly into English. With the Bible we have been entrusted with a massive library of narratives, holiness codes, historical documentation, philosophy, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic prose, gospel messages, and letter writings. The authors that composed these books were not all writing with the end goal of being read by 21st century english speakers, and we have to remember than in our studies. The Bible is an amazing collection of works, all of which seek to reveal something about God and the nature of man, and it must be treated as such.
So which version of the Bible is the best? I don’t really know if I’m qualified to say. I’m a NIV fan myself because it tends to be a good balance between “word for word” and “thought for thought” translations. If you are curious about what version of the Bible might work best for you I found this nifty graph that might help you out: