Bible Study 101: Translations

One of the most important decisions to make when it comes to studying the Bible is the selection of a translation, but with all the available choices in English it isn’t always easy, or clear, which one to choose. This decision however doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult if you know a few things about the translations.

First, recognize that no English translation is going to perfectly reflect the underlying Greek or Hebrew. Any time you translate from one language to another you lose something in the translation; it’s just going to happen regardless of how hard you try. Why? Mostly because every language works differently from other languages. There is different vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation, etc. Even between languages that are similar there is at least some difference. For example, in English the basic word order for a sentence is subject-verb-object [the student wrote a paper]. In Biblical Hebrew basic word order is verb-subject-object [wrote the student a paper]. In Biblical Greek the subject, verb, and object can be in any order they want.*

So if we did a word for word translation of say Jonah 1.16a it would come out like this in English: “Then they feared the men a great fear the LORD.” Not very understandable. So we have to change a few things in order for it to make sense in English. In the verse the subject is “the men” and “the LORD” is the object, so accounting for these we now end up with: “Then the men feared the LORD a great fear.” This is a little better than what we started out with originally since we now have a subject-verb-object word order, but it still isn’t very good because it doesn’t make sense of the phrase, “a great fear.” What “a great fear” is actually doing here is adding emphasis to the “fear” of the men. Hebrew does this by repeating the same root in the verb [“feared”] and the accusative noun [“fear”],** but in English we would use an adverb such as “exceedingly” or “greatly” in such a situation. If we take this into consideration then we end up with: “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly.” 

Second, recognize that each translation takes a different approach to translation. Some translations [e.g. New American Standard Bible] emphasize a word-for-word approach to translation [our translation above followed this approach]. While this approach helps preserve aspects of the original text that are useful for study purposes it also requires you to know [or learn] certain nuances of some terms because the English word may not have the same nuance as the underlying Greek or Hebrew. For example, if you ask someone, “Do you fear _______?” You’re usually wanting to know if they’re afraid of something. If this was all you knew of the term you likely would conclude that men were afraid or terrified of the LORD. You would then read the next part of the verse with this meaning in mind and would conclude that their motivation for offering a sacrifice to the LORD and making vows was their terror.

You conclusion however would be incorrect. True, in Biblical Hebrew [and Greek] “fear” could refer to being afraid or terrified of something, but it could also refer to having reverence for something [the same Hebrew verb is translated as “feared” in Jonah 1.16 and “honor” or “revere” in Leviticus 19.3]. Some people recognized that a word-for-word translation such as “feared the LORD” does not easily convey the sense of the underlying Hebrew, and so they prefer a thought-for-thought approach to translation. In this approach you lose certain aspects of the original text, but the meaning of the text is more readily apparent because you do not need to struggle with foreign expressions and awkward syntax.

A translation that emphasizes this approach is the New Living Translation [NLT] and it translates Jonah 1.16 as, “The sailors were awestruck by the LORD’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.” In this passage then we see that the main emotion of the men [sailors] was not terror! The sailors had tried everything they could in order to survive the storm they were in and were at their wits end. So when the sea calmed after they threw Jonah overboard they were amazed that the LORD had the power to stop the storm and calm the sea! They were not scared! They recognized that it was the LORD, the God of heaven, who saved them and that He was more powerful than their gods, and so they chose to serve Him.

Third, know your own intellectual abilities and be honest with yourself about them. These two different approaches to translation result in different reading levels. Translations that follow a word-for-word approach generally have a higher reading level than those which follow a thought-for-thought approach. The following chart estimates the reading levels of certain translations [source]:

KJV — 12
RSV — 12
NRSV — 11
NASB — 11
ESV — 10
HCSB — 7-8
NIV — 7-8
CEB — 7
NKJV — 7
NLT — 6
GW — 5
Message — 4-5
NCV — 3
NIrV — 3

So if you’re trying to read a certain translation, say the KJV or NASB, and are having difficulty understanding it, choose one that has a lower reading level, perhaps the NIV or NLT. You will find your Bible Study to be much more rewarding when you understand what is going on in the text, which in turn will motivate you to continue to study and read the Bible. A site like BibleGateway has many translations available for free online that you can use and read. So if you’re not sure of which translation to go with you can compare them there.

Hopefully this helps explains some of the reasons as to why there are so many English translations and is useful in selecting one.

* This is because Biblical Greek uses a noun case system in order to determine the function of a noun in a sentence. In this system the ending of the noun determines its function in the sentence. And if you know Biblical Greek you also know that technically there is a word order to it, but this is an article on English Bible translations, not New Testament Greek, and thus such a a topic is well beyond the scope of it. Here I am talking very generally.

** This is called a cognate accusative construction.


1 thought on “Bible Study 101: Translations

  1. Mark Cain

    Most people enter the Christian life under the direct influence of another individual as a sort of mentor. First Bibles are often suggested (or even given) by these mentors. When choosing a Bible translation, occasionally you will decide on one different than the mentor and that’s okay.

    Also, I would add that we need to be careful of a current problem in the church in North America – We own several translations and memorize none of them.


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