As English readers, we have a wealth of Bible translations available to us, a privilege that many non-English speaking people do not have. Each Bible translation is grounded in a slightly different set of translation decisions. In bringing the meaning of the original language into English, translation teams had to decide whether they would translate word for word or thought for thought. All translations fall somewhere on this spectrum. The word for word translations try to be precise in the meaning of each word, but sacrifice readability in English to do that. It can make for some clunky phrases that take more focused reading. The thought for thought translations are smoother to read and memorize. While less precise, they are still helpful. Below, I’ve listed some popular translations with some information to help you decide when and how to use each of them.
Word for Word
New American Standard Bible (NASB): Precise and highly respected. Of the most popular translations, NASB is the one I find most clunky to read, but is my go-to when I’m trying to decipher a difficult passage because of it’s strong emphasis on word-for-word translation.
English Standard Version (ESV): A good balance of precision and readability. The ESV is the primary translation I study, read, and memorize out of. I find that the readability really helps my reading comprehension and my ability to memorize, but because it is more word-for-word than many other translations, I have more confidence when I’m studying out of.
King James Version (KJV): Some people like to read and study out of the KJV. While it is a word for word translation, it is also an old translation. English has changed a lot since King James commissioned a translation of the Bible, so it’s precision has lessened as the meaning of English words and phrases have shifted. I find it valuable as a cultural artifact and occasional reference, but not fruitful for close study. While the New King James Version (NKJV) is updated, it’s emphasis on maintaining the poetry of the original means that it has many of the same handicaps as the original for the modern reader.
New International Version (NIV): The NIV is the most popular translation for good reason. It is a balance between word for word and thought for thought. It is readable and reliable. I use this as a secondary translation for reading and also for frequent reference while studying.
Thought for Thought
New Living Translation (NLT): The NLT balances word for word and thought for thought well, though with more of an emphasis on thought for thought than the NIV. I find it useful to read while I’m in the process of studying a book because it helps me have fresh eyes for the text. However, like all of the thought for thought translations, I think it’s most useful as a supplemental translation rather than the primary one for reading and studying. That said, it’s got a lower reading grade level than the word for word translations, so it’s a good Bible for a middle school kid who is past the stage of needing a children’s Bible, but still has trouble reading from the NIV or ESV.
The Message: Technically The Message is considered a thought for thought translation, but reading it side by side with the NASB, ESV, or even NIV reveals such differences between in text that I consider it useful only as a commentary. I know people who read it to have fresh eyes for the text, but I’ve found the NLT to be more useful for that purpose.
Whatever Bible translation you choose to use, the Holy Spirit can and will work through it to show you God and to draw into deeper relationship with him. But if our goal is to understand the Bible as well as we possibly can in order to know and obey God as much as we possibly can, choosing a good, reliable translation of the Bible will help us along the way.