One of the first questions people have about the Bible is, "what translation or version should I get?" Let's discuss what's behind providing a good answer to this question.

The Bible books were originally written in the native languages of the people who originally received them. For the Old Testament, most of it is written in Hebrew, though some portions are in Aramaic. The New Testament books were written in what is known as Koine Greek. Koine just means "common." This would be in contrast to classical Greek.

These languages have some similarities and differences to English. Like English, they have parts of speech (nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.) and certain rules for usage. Unlike English, they often rely upon metaphors, ideas and context to convey meaning. English tends to convey meaning through subtle differences in meaning between words. Nevertheless, in many ways these languages are more precise than English. For example, Greek has 6 different verb tenses, compared to the 3 main verb tenses in English. Greek has a much more complex and sometimes more precise use of prepositions than English.

Fortunately, Bible translators address these complexities and present the Bible in English for us to understand. The objective of the Bible translator is to faithfully represent what is said to the English reader. There is no perfect translation or translation technique.

There are three main types of translations. Each has positives, each has negatives.

Formal Equivalent

The Formal Equivalent translation type seeks to faithfully translate what was said. This means that nouns are translated as nouns, verbs as verbs. It seeks to keep the same sentence structure. It often translates a word in the original language to the same English word, even if there are indications of shades of meaning present in the original.

These types of translations are the "most accurate" but this might not mean what you would think it means. Because they adhere to communication frameworks amd styles from other languages, they can be difficult to understand in English. They don't "flow" as well as the English you are used to reading and speaking, and this can detract from the reader understanding what was communicated. Further, at times they say what was said but not necessarily what was meant. The astute reader will have to appreciate the difference between these, and through additional study come to recognize cases where this happens.

Dynamic Equivalent

The Dynamic Equivalent translation type seeks to faithfully translate what was said, with special concern towards what was meant. Nouns and verbs may not be as they were in the original, and at times words may be added or removed to aid in the flow of the passage in English.

Dynamic equivalent translations are very readable and generally fairly accurate as well. There are some liberties taken, and again through additional study the reader will come to recognize places where these liberties may be misleading.

Free (or Paraphrase)

The Free (or paraphrase) translation type is a very loose translation, if it can be considered a translation at all. It seeks to say what was meant and often attempts to interpret what was said into a particular belief system or perspective. It also attempts to translate ideas into a modern context. It is not really a translation, but rather a loose re-telling of what was said in English.

Personally, I don't find these "translations" helpful at all. These are very open to the biases and opinions of the translators coming into play. They may be interesting to read, but if you are interested in what the Bible actually says and means, these type of "translations" are not be very helpful.

Sample Differences in Translations

A good way to get a feel for how these ideas play out is to examine a particular passage in various translations. Let's consider 2 Timothy 3:16.

Formal Equivalents (KJV, NASB, RSV)

Notice the simple and conservative use of terms, and somewhat wooden structure.

King James Version All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Revised Standard Version All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
New American Standard All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
Dynamic Equivalents (NIV, NAB, GNB, JB, NEB)

Notice the more creative or colorful terms-- e.g. reformation, manners, living, holy, God-breathed.

New English Bible Every inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living,
Jerusalem Bible All scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people's lives and teaching them to be holy.
New International Version All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
Paraphrase (LB, Phillips, TEV)

Notice the use of built-in interpretation, more words and the addition of many terms not found in the original-- e.g. Bible, true, realize, "straightens us out" (introducing a figure of speech not present in the original).

Living Bible The whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives; it straightens us out and helps us to do what is right.
Phillips Modern English All scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teaching the faith and correcting error, for resetting the direction of a man's life and training him in good living.
New Living Translation All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right.
Today's English Version All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instructions for right living,

What Kind of Bible to Read?

Young Christians ought to get a dynamic equivalent Bible. These are excellent for learning the message of the Bible, for memorization and study. I use the New International Version in this category.

More mature Christians should add a formal equivalent Bible translation to their collection once they become more familiar with the Bible and start becoming more interested in more precise studies. I use the New American Standard Version (NASB) in this category.

I don't recommend free translation Bibles.

For those interested in more advanced study, I would recommend enrolling in a course in original languages (Hebrew for Old Testament, Greek for New Testament) at a local seminary or Bible school. But be warned-- learning one of these languages is a demanding activity.

I also recommend the excellent Bible Gateway website. You can see numerous translations in an easy-to-navigate format. It's a great resource for when you don't have a hard copy of a Bible available, or want to copy and paste passages for reference.