Choosing a Bible translation to read is something any Christian who cannot read the biblical languages must do. And that means most of us. For some people groups, there may be only one translation of the Bible, so the “choice” is not so difficult. For English speaking Christians, the wealth of versions available may make the task confusing. Personally, I have been attracted to a few different translations over time, but as of recently, seem to be landing where I began—the New International Version—and this comes as somewhat of a surprise to myself. I have decided to write an overview of how I got here.
In middle school in the mid-nineties, I had a New International Version Bible my parents got for me. It was a paperback Bible that I took to church, with notes and anecdotes geared toward teenagers. Then, I didn’t think too much about one translation versus another. When I got into high school, I began to take my faith more seriously, and to study the Bible exegetically. Our pastor David Jeremiah preached from a New King James Version. I was looking for a more “serious” Bible version, which to me at the time, roughly meant more literal (or “formally equivalent”—formal equivalence means attempting to retain the form of the original language, including a more word-for-word approach to translation that often transfers over word order even if it sounds awkward in the target language). The NKJV is one of the more formally equivalent translations, and I began using one probably in around 1997 or 1998.
I attended a Christian college beginning in 2003. I was still using the NKJV, and had a compact version I took to chapel. This had been my daily Bible for years at this point. However, I began to learn more about manuscript transmission and traditions, and realized that the textual basis for the KJV and NKJV New Testament does not conform as much as to what was originally written as the textual basis used for most 20th-century English Bibles. I began to think about switching to something else. As a literalistic translation, the New American Standard Bible was one of the foremost competitors in my mind. But a new Bible translation was gaining popularity and endorsements from many of the Christian leaders I respected and being adopted in churches and by people I respected. This was the English Standard Version, whose translation committee was chaired by the venerable J. I. Packer. I began reading it and in time made the switch to the ESV.
While an essentially literal translation, the ESV sanded out some of the rough edges of the NASB, and certainly of the NKJV. I used the ESV as my primary Bible for ten years, from about 2005 to 2015. And I don’t regret it. The ESV is a quality translation of the Scriptures.
Still, the ESV can at times be stiff in its rendering. I am no linguist, but my college degree is in English literature, and I have a great appreciation for elegant prose and poetry. The ESV, while doing better in this area than the NASB or NKJV, can nonetheless sound stilted. (Mark Strauss, in a friendly manner, points out many amusing examples in an article on the ESV.) The more I wanted something that translated into natural English, the more I realized I might look to another version. Indeed, I was starting to be convinced that a literal rendering is not always the most precise way to translate, in terms of successfully carrying over the meaning of the original language—which is, lest we forget, the objective of translation.
And so, I began reading the less-known New English Translation. This was a less literal translation (more “dynamically equivalent” than formally equivalent), but I found it to be precise, and the translators’ notes that accompany it were illuminating. I poured over them for hours, and I will love having my NET full-notes Bible to refer to. I decided to give this translation a shot at becoming my primary Bible in place of the ESV. I read the NET as my main Bible for a full six months. As to the epistles of the New Testament and history sections of the Old Testament, I really enjoyed the NET. It used much more natural-sounding language than my trusty ESV, but did not sound informal. Where it tended to fall short was in poetic and prophetic passages, which make up a very large portion of Scripture. The Psalms sounded dryer—less beautiful somehow. Something about the cadence of more traditional translations was diminished. There were also a few very specific translation choices that disappointed me. Let me give a few examples.
- The NET translates “man of God” as “prophet” often in the Old Testament. Since the Hebrew word for prophet is also used in the Old Testament, it seems there may be some reason for calling a prophet a “man of God” on various occasions.
- The NET often translates “those who fear the Lord” as “the Lord’s faithful followers.” This example removes something, it seems to me, about the emphasis of the phrase. No doubt those who fear the Lord can be described as his faithful followers, but the fear of the Lord is a major theme that is not to be missed. If you thought that the translation might be misunderstood by an English-speaking reader today, you could always render it something like “those who revere the Lord,” which seems to me to clear up the meaning while retaining more of the original nuance.
- The NET also frequently translates “my soul” as “me” in the Psalms. Meaning for meaning, this is acceptable, but the poetic expression of saying, for example, “My soul also is greatly troubled” (ESV) rather than simply “I am absolutely terrified” (NET) has a great force to it that I am sad to lose.
- Finally, the NET translates “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes as “on earth,” an accurate but dry reduction of the original poetic line from the Teacher in that profound book.
It was these few complaints that made me turn to the New International Version to see how it handled the poetic and prophetic passages. I found that the familiar beauty of the traditional renderings was there in full force, but often with even greater clarity or elegance than in the more literal translations.
- For example, 1 Kings 12:2 in the NET says “But God told Shemiah the prophet ….” In the NIV we have, “But this word of God came to Shemiah the man of God ….” Here the NIV follows the form of the Hebrew a lot closer than the NET. The NIV does this as long as the original form sounds natural in English and will be understood.
- Psalm 6:3 in the NIV reads, “My soul is in deep anguish.”
- The NIV also retains “those who fear the Lord” in the many places it shows up in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 25:12 reads “Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose” in the NIV as opposed to “The Lord shows his faithful followers the way they should live” in the NET. This is because the NIV is in general more literal (and hence “traditional”) than the NET, but less literalistic than the ESV.
- And in Ecclesiastes, as we would expect, the Teacher muses and laments over the meaninglessness of life “under the sun.”
So, I began reading about the NIV translation philosophy and history, and its initial and current reception by conservative evangelicals. I watched Douglas Moo’s talk on Bible translation given on the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of the original NIV translation committee. What I found was very positive and gave me new appreciation for the work of the NIV translation team both in the 1960s and today. I had not considered the NIV for a long time because I thought I had “out grown” it in a way. I had come to imagine the NIV was for beginner Christians. I think now that I was wrong about that. By translating into natural contemporary English, the NIV is often more accurate than word-for-word translations, for indeed a too-literal translation is not a complete translation from the old language into the target language. It’s like a 90% translation, where all it has translated is the lexicon, but not the form and style, from one language to another. On the other hand, playing too loose with the original words will reduce the perception of the wordplay and word pictures God may have wanted us to see. The NIV (and I realize this is the very cliché that almost every new Bible translation claims about itself), but the NIV really does balance accuracy, rich expression, and readability very, very well. Rediscovering the NIV has been like running into an old friend you had almost forgotten about, and finding you could rekindle the friendship.