Why so many versions?

Some often asked questions about the Bible include: why are there so many versions? Which is the best version? Which version should I read? Although these are valid questions, most people don’t seem to have answers for them. The intention here is simply to give people the information they need to make their own decision.

The question as to which version is the best is a value judgement I’m not willing make for someone else. Some will tell you the King James (KJV) is the best, usually based on the use of the received text, but there are other reasons. Some will say that the KJV is the worst, based on translational issues, and/or the difficulty for modern readers in understanding the sixteenth century language. I’ve heard people criticise the New International Version (NIV); New Living Translation (NLT) and Contemporary English Version (CEV) for what they call bad translation, yet the NIV has the bulk of the market share, and is a very readable version. So why do people prefer one over the other? And how did they come to be so different?

Pastor Brett Maragni has a post on modern bible translation philosophies, which explains the basic ideas used in the translation of different versions. In his post you can find the information you’ll need to understand what I am going to present here, so read it, I’ll be here when you get back.

Pastor Brett’s four divisions, although standard theory, seem to simplify what actually happens. The word-for-word formal equivalence method, is seldom used in a pure form in ordinary Bibles. It is normally only found in literal versions, for example, Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), and interlinear translations. The paraphrase seems to simply be an extreme form of the thought-for-thought functional/dynamic equivalence. So, as far I can tell, the so called “optimal equivalence” has always been used, with some versions leaning more towards functional, and others more towards formal equivalence. The other thing that bothers me is in none of the posts in his series on Bible translation does he mention analytic translations, for example, the Amplified Bible (Amp) and the Analytic-Literal Translation (ALT). The Analytic versions bracket alternative translations for words that carry a different weight from the English word, as well as providing some functional equivalence renderings for improved understanding. I find this type of Bible indispensable in getting past difficult issues in the Bible. The ALT can be downloaded for free as an add on to the free downloadable Bible program, e-sword. The Amp is available for online viewing at You Version.

As humans, we tend to like labelling things and putting them into boxes, and this seems to be what has happened with the Bible translation methods, the KJV; New King James Version (NKJV); New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV) all have aspects that can be said to be functional equivalence, yet they are formal equivalence translations. While the NIV; CEV and NLT all have aspects of formal equivalence, yet are functional equivalence translations. So it would seem that the combined optimal equivalence method is the one which has been used all along, we simply need to acknowledge that, and not consider it a “new” method that presents more challenges. It is the variation in the amount of functional and formal equivalence used in different translations, that leads to the variety in all the translations available today.

In my next post on this theme, I’ll examine why people prefer the different methods, and why “word for word” formal equivalence is not always the best method.


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