Choosing a Bible translation is a tough but important choice for every parent. Unless we are fluent in ancient Hebrew and Greek, we’re dependent on the work of scholars who translate into English for our usage. But how do we choose the best translation for us and for our children? Is there even such a thing as a “best” translation? Or are translations pretty much the same?
I say that the means by which we and our families receive the Word of God does matter. We serve a God of words. He has spoken to us by prophets and now by the Son. We can’t be willy nilly with those words.
Also, it would seem prudent that in our families we’re working in the same translation. This is definitely true if you try to memorize Scripture together. You’ll need the same translation to do that. For my part, I’m going to talk about the main things that matter most to our family, I think both by wisdom and by conscience.
(By the way, I’m going to use the abbreviations for the Bible translations throughout. I’ve listed them out at the bottom of the post if some or all are not familiar to you. And I give my quick opinion on each, as well.)
How to Translate in the First Place
If you’re at all familiar with Bible translations, you’ve probably heard of a spectrum between word-for-word and thought-for-thought. So, for instance, the NASB is largely called a word-for-word translation where, say, the NLT is thought-for-thought. So where word-for-word (in a made-up bible verse) might say something like “the man did not set his hand to the task”, the thought-for-thought might say “he didn’t do it.”
No harm, no foul, right?
If only it were so simple. In that last example, which is more accurate to the original? That really depends on how you look at it. While the former is (still in our fake example) closer to the word-for-word translation, doesn’t the latter get the point across more simply and accurately? And is that even the right question to ask?
Let me give a more familiar example. Most of us have a functional enough level of knowledge for Spanish to know we say gracias for “thank you” and de nada for “you’re welcome.” While the link between the English and Spanish for “thank you” is pretty similar, that is not the case for “you’re welcome.” De nada literally (or word-for-word) means “of nothing.” But when we translate it into English, that’s not how we translate it. Because the meaning (or thought) behind it is “you’re welcome” to English speakers. (And that’s not even to delve into the weirdness that “you’re welcome” doesn’t even make a ton of sense when you think about it on the English side—what are they welcome to? Regardless, we understand what it means.)
Even in basic functional translation, we don’t use word-for-word but something closer to thought-for-thought. Word-for-word is important to the translator, but for those of us on the ignorance side of the foreign language, we need thought-for-thought. That’s how we actually get past the level of words to understand the actual content and meaning.
One last note here. No translation is “literal” or “word-for-word”. If you know much about other languages, syntax alone gets us into trouble. Word-for-word, John 3:16 reads something like “Thus for he loved the God the world so that the son of him the only he gave that all the believing in him not be perishing but he may have life eternal.” And no one translates it that way.
Readability and Understandability
Having gotten the literal business out the way, I think we can agree that all translations are reordering or choosing words and phrases that will help convey meaning to us as non-native speakers. That takes us next into the next logical question: how much should a translator change words to thoughts before we’ve lost the original words altogether?
I want a Bible translation that will walk a line between using original words as much as possible while still retaining the thoughts and then also being understandable at the reading level. This is horribly subjective though. The translations walk along different lines. NASB, and to a lesser extent the ESV, lean hard on using as many original words and word orderings as possible. But, to be frank, I find them incredibly difficult to read and grasp the meaning. It’s like I have to read a verse and then paraphrase it in my head before I really get it. And I certainly don’t want my kids having to do an extra step to get understanding.
On the flip side, some translations like the NLT seem to have lost some sense of the original words at all. Occasionally I’ll read a verse in one of these translations and think, “wow, they really changed that even though it made sense without the changes.” But, truly, the NLT is incredibly easy to read. And I love it for that. But I sometimes wonder if it’s taken a step too far from the original languages in spots.
Making a Choice and Sticking to It
Despite all of this, at some point we have to pick something. I don’t think we serve our kids to bounce them from translation to translation—they need the stability to familiarize with the Bible and have the room to memorize it. I unfortunately can’t ever quite quote John 3:16 from memory anymore because I’ve learned too many translations of it and can’t quite keep them straight (despite how similarly all translations do it).
And I do think it’s the parents’ responsibility to pick a translation for their family. I know you could use your pastor’s or church’s or church curriculum’s “official” translation as your own. But aside from the transitory nature of life (What if you move? What if the pastor changes? What if a cooler new translation comes out and your church/pastor decides to change to that? What if they switch to a different curriculum next year?), God placed you in charge of raising your children in the training and instruction of the Lord Jesus. That’s not the pastor’s responsibility. It’s not even the church’s responsibility. It’s yours. Never lose sight of that.
So it seems to me that parents have the responsibility of making a discipleship decision in this, to choose what will best equip their kids. For our family, my emphasis has been on both accuracy and readability, with a heavy emphasis on my kids being able to understand what they’re reading as they read it.
What Our Family Uses
Having said all of that, our family uses the NIV. And the NIrV. Here’s how and why.
- I think the NIV does a really nice job walking between conveying the meaning of the original texts, while leaving the wording as close to the original whenever possible
- The NIV is not only super readable, but also incredibly popular; that means that if my kids are learning it and memorizing it, they have commonality with many other English-speaking Christians
- The NIV has been around long enough and is popular enough that I’m not too terribly concerned about it fading into obscurity; to say it differently, I think this translation will be around for a good long while
- The NIrV is an outstanding solution for the fact that all English bibles are seventh-grade reading level and up; it’s a simplified version of the NIV (so it has the same feel and flow), but is more appropriate for younger readers [Interestingly, I actually have our kids use this translation up to seventh or eighth grade, because it’s more important to me that they really understand what they’re reading than that they have a “grown-up” translation]
- When we read and memorize the Bible, we all use the NIV so that we’re all working from the same translation
Translations on the Market
Here’s a list of the major translations that move from more word-for-word to more thought-for-thought and beyond, along with my thoughts on each.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB) – I really enjoy this Bible for in-depth study, but it is a beast to read; most peg it at a eleventh grade reading level. It tries to retain original word and order as much as possible, but it sacrifices understandability in that effort.
- King James Version (KJV) – This is a solid translation that has been around for centuries now. My two main problems are these: first, we’ve found a lot of additional manuscripts (old copies of parts of the Bible) which they didn’t have at the time and help us to have more accurate translations. Second, the KJV English uses lots of obsolete language and is just hard to understand what it means.
- English Standard Version (ESV) – This came out about twenty years ago and tries to be a little more literal than the NIV. I appreciate what it’s trying to do, but I feel like it wants to sound a little KJVish and I find it’s phrasing frequently very awkward. It’s a solid translation, but too stilted for regular usage and memorization. And it comes in at an eighth grade reading level.
- New International Version (NIV) – This has been around for almost forty years and has been the most popular translation for most of that time. It has walked a nice line between literal and readable, coming in at a seventh grade reading level. Even though it upset many, I was glad by the recent update they did (with a few small exceptions) because it reflects their effort to stay up-to-date with both manuscript research and English language usage.
- Christian Standard Bible (CSB) – I’m really fine with this translation, which came about as an alternative to the NIV mainly for cheaper publication costs by LifeWay. I like the translation fine and find it similar to the NIV. I just can’t quite stomach that it was paid for by a particular denomination; that feels like an unhealthy conflict of interest, even though I know their translation team is excellent.
- New Living Translation (NLT) – I think of this like a loosey goosey NIV. It comes in around a sixth grade reading level. I think it tries a little too hard to be relevant and just makes some wonky translation choices at times. But it is so incredibly readable. If someone had just become a believer or struggled to read, I would give them this or an NIrV.
- New International Reader’s Version (NIrV) – This is a derivative translation of the NIV. It carries all the same translation philosophies, but aims for both shorter words and sentences where possible. It sits around a third or fourth grade reading level, and I love having my readers use this for personal Bible reading, because they can actually read it. My only complaint is that it gets marketed as a kids’ translation and I wish that weren’t the case, because it’s really great for anyone who struggles with literacy or even liking to read.
- The Message (MSG) – I add this as an afterthought since it’s not really a translation. Eugene Peterson never meant for it to be. Instead, it’s kind of a free-thought paraphrase of the Bible, trying to get across the ethos and emotions of the original. It’s not very accurate, but has super cool moments where you get swept up in the (pun fully intended) message of the Bible.