How to Choose a (Bible) Translation

Choosing a Bible translation is not easy or straightforward.

While readability or comprehensibility are important, accuracy reigns supreme, for the simple reason that inaccuracies may be defined as failures of translation. A failed translation is an invention of the translator rather than a representation of the intent of the original author. The author’s thoughts must first be “translated onto paper,” and from there they are translated into English (or the language of your translation), and from there into your own mental representation of their meaning.

So accuracy beats out readability and comprehensibility, which are also important (as is beauty/poetry). Things are not quite as simple as “accuracy wins,” however, because what a translation does, ultimately, is convey the thoughts lying behind the original text into the reader’s fallible human understanding, and we are each capable of different degrees of understanding depending on how hard we try, our background knowledge, and maybe our native smarts as well.

A careful, responsible reader naturally understands that he must work hard to grasp the full and rich meaning of a difficult text. Hence it is probable that a diligent scholar working primarily with a “paraphrase” text might, by consulting several commentaries that take apart the key terms, actually come to understand the text better than someone who uses a “literal” or “formal equivalence” translation.

Moreover, many of the more literal translations, like the King James Version, tend to choose more precisely correct words and phrases that, it so happens, are uncommon, abstract, or require background knowledge to understand. Unless a reader makes a genuine effort to engage with the text—to double-check that he really does understand what is going on—then the more “precisely correct” word may leave a fuzzier representation of the original author’s meaning in his head than a “roughly correct” word would.

Indeed, it seems probable that if you wanted to read a translation and have the very best chance of getting utterly confused about the meaning of the text, you would choose a difficult, strictly literal translation and then read it quickly and without assistance. If you must read a relatively difficult or obscure text, like the Bible, for the first time quickly and without assistance, it is highly probable that you should choose a paraphrase, because then you will emerge from the experience with more of the original author’s thoughts.1

But make no mistake: if you read a paraphrase, you will fail to understand many things, maybe mostly unimportant things, but some more important and occasionally even crucial things. This is because the meaning you glean from a paraphrase uses more familiar concepts, while the original text is naturally difficult for you because the thoughts behind it are sometimes quite simply unfamiliar concepts. You cannot properly translate the Bible into “modern colloquial English” for the very simple reason that “modern colloquial English” draws on or expresses a conceptual scheme—an integrated set of concepts representing the world—that is quite different from the conceptual schemes used in the Bible.

When you read news or a blog post without difficulty, the reason you understand it easily is that you and the author draw on the same background knowledge and use words or concepts in a similar way. Ancient, obscure, technical, and academic texts are hard to read because they require background knowledge you lack, or because they use words or concepts you have never encountered. This is not to say you cannot learn the background knowledge and concepts, maybe even easily; but it is to say that you must actually take the time to learn, or you simply will not understand the text.

What do these observations entail about translations? By themselves, they do not really help us to choose a translation, because the choice of a translation does not solve the problem of getting correct understandings from a text. But they do entail something important about how to read hard texts, and the Bible in particular.

If our goal is to get the most accurate possible understanding of the text, then we must indeed begin with a literal translation. A paraphrase like The Message or Easy-to-Read Version—and even a “dynamic equivalence” like the Christian Standard Bible or the New International Version—will substitute modern English words and phrasings in place of more obscure ones, as long as they are “good enough.” This is “dangerous” for purposes of getting the most accurate possible comprehension, because it gives you a false sense of understanding: you are missing something from the text, and you do not even know it, because it is systematically hidden from you by a misleadingly “simple” word choice.

An example (chosen more or less at random) should make this point clearer. The Good News Translation—a paraphrasing translation—renders Proverbs 15:4 as: “Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit.” This utterly leaves out an essential reference to the “Tree of Life,” as in the (more literal, but still “dynamic”) English Standard Bible: “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” This reference, which requires background knowledge from the book of Genesis, adds richness to the text (the Tree of Life in the Garden of Evil literally gave sustenance to the first humans, but was available to them only as long as they lived in purity, according to God’s commandments). This suggests that the gentle words in question give us sustenance of some sort.

But the New American Standard Bible, a literal translation, goes one step further: “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit.” The translators chose the rather obscure phrase “soothing tongue,” which the GNT rendered as “kind words” and the ESB as “gentle tongue.” What is the original Hebrew word for “gentle” or “soothing” here? Apparently it is “marpe’” (מַרְפֵּ֣א), which one lexicon says means “curative, i.e. literally (concretely) a medicine, or (abstractly) a cure; figuratively (concretely) deliverance, or (abstractly) placidity.” Strong’s Lexicon glosses the root of this word as “1) health, healing, cure 1a) healing, cure 1b) health, profit, sound (of mind) 1c) healing 1c1) incurable (with negative).”

So the GNT’s rendering of “kind,” while in the right ballpark and “gentle” suggests a sort of kind care, neither suggests the healing ministrations of something that “soothes” an (unhealthily) irritated friend. Perhaps “healing words” would suggest the original thought most plainly.

By the way, we might encounter a problem with the King James Version, namely, that it renders Hebrew and Greek (very precisely, yes) into common English words as they were used in the 17th century. Hence the KJV has the phrase in question as “wholesome tongue.” We think of “wholesome” as meaning supportive of good morals, but that is not quite what the Hebrew text meant, so the KJV rendition is actually misleading unless you also know that “wholesome” also can mean “healthy” (as in “wholesome food”). So, basically, stay away from the KJV unless you have read a lot of early modern texts (like Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, and Locke) and such different shades of meaning are familiar to you. I have read quite a few of such texts and am often on the lookout for shades of meaning, so I rather like it.

Also by the way, you might have wanted me to explain the verse in question, so here goes. Proper comprehension of a text always requires context, so here are the first six verses of Proverbs 15 (KJV translation):

1 A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.

2 The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.

3 The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.

4 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.

5 A fool despiseth his father’s instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.

6 In the house of the righteous is much treasure: but in the revenues of the wicked is trouble.

So the proverb is placed among others that talk about, essentially, wise words, the understanding that they reflect, and the consequences of using them (or not). It immediately follows a verse that says that God sees both evil and good. Now, the Tree of Life was a symbol of wholesomeness (in both senses) within the Garden of Eden, and you will recall that there was another tree there, that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or as I like to put it, the knowledge of how to become evil.

So in this context I would explain the verse this way: He who speaks words that soothe or heal, not merely emotionally but, especially, morally or spiritually. That is, the words heal the soul, both the speaker’s and the listener’s, thereby acting in the same sort of life-giving way that the Tree of Life did in the Garden. By contrast, speech that is “perverse” (Strong’s says the word is סֶלֶף, which can mean twisted, crooked, and overthrown, a word used often in the Old Testament to describe things that are not functioning well, that are out of joint or indeed unhealthy) is a “breach” (שֶׁ֣בֶר: crushes, breaks) in the “spirit” (בְּרֽוּחַ׃: originally, wind, but meaning the potentially holy inner part of us). In other words, “crooked” words reflect a morally twisted soul. Perhaps we can even read an allusion to the impure, unhealthy Tree, eating of which certainly crushed the spirit of Adam and Eve. Only the KJV suggest this, of the translations considered so far. That exemplifies the sort of interesting analytical insights a good translation can foster.

A briefer but still accurate paraphrase: “He who speaks healing words gives life as the Tree of Life did; but crooked, sick words morally crush the spirit.”

“But,” you say, “isn’t it better just to paraphrase that as ‘Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit’? Isn’t that good enough?”

It might be good enough for some purposes. The problem is that you are getting a stripped-down, watered-down, blurry version of the original thoughts. You get a denatured version that is not integrated into the Bible’s original conceptual schemes; the version loses “intertextuality,” to use the scholarly jargon,2 the set of conceptual references that a text has to other things in the Bible. Naturally, such things become clearer and more fully accessible with the help of a literal translation and the use of commentaries (and other reference tools).

If the Bible really were the inspired word of God, that would mean getting the original meaning as precisely as possible is very important.

Of course, reading the text in the original languages would be best.

“But wait, Larry, what is your favorite translation?” I don’t have one yet, although I tend to switch between the KJV and the NKJV, which simply updates some of the confusing word choices of the KJV. When I want to read a passage quickly and I just want to get the gist, I read the “Amplified Bible.” But to pick a favorite for careful Bible study, I would have to answer many other questions, such as, “Which are the best source Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible?” and others. I have no time to dive into all that. My point above is relatively simple: the reason a literal translation is best, for purposes of serious Bible study is that it will greatly facilitate the difficult but important job of understanding the ideas behind the original text most fully and accurately.

  1. If it is not your first time through the Bible, you might benefit by reading a more difficult and precise translation because you already understand many concepts a neophyte would not.[]
  2. An excellent discussion of this is Abner Chou’s 2018 book The Hermeneutics of the Bible Writers. All about how understanding intertextuality clarifies the “hard texts” in which Bible writers seem not to understand the texts they are alluding to. As he says, it’s because we don’t understand the original texts, which themselves have a rich intertextual web of meaning that we might be ignorant of if we are not marinaded in the Bible, as its writers were.[]




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Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

5 responses to “How to Choose a (Bible) Translation”

  1. You might find this useful to you:

    When you search for a verse, you can then hover over words and it gives you a tooltip of information. You can also see where the original word came from, what the Strong’s definition is, even how it was pronounced (as best as we can know).

    1. Actually, I have that and many other Bible apps installed. I’m also talking to Bible app developers will probably do some consulting with them to improve this functionality!

  2. I am working on a Bible app. It is a simple, cross-platform, free as in freedom app called Heb12.

    If you (or anyone else seeing this) would like to contact me my website and email are included here.

    1. Cool! Let me know when it’s available on iOS.

  3. Russell Haley

    I once tried to compare psalms between my Duay-Rheims and my wifes Good News Bible. The juxtaposition you note could not be more stark. But we tried the alternative to many translations. The consensus: Latin is hard and modernity has found the priestly orders lacking.

    I joined the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (Anglicans turned Catholic) because the Anglican patrimony preserved what Vatican II has abolished. Divine Worship is an updated Serum Use, which preserves the “Authors intent” of the mass while providing common English that has been gradually updated over the centuries.

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