Why are there so many different Bible translations?

When you read the Bible, unless you can navigate pages in an ancient form of Hebrew and Koine Greek, you're not reading the original words. You're reading a translation. And, even if you could read the Koine Greek of the New Testament, you wouldn't be reading the actual, untranslated words of Jesus because he spoke the Aramaic language. The written records of his words—even in their earliest known, original forms—were themselves translations.

It has been said that the Bible is the world's most widely translated book, but people often don't pay close attention to the challenges faced by translators or the decisions translators must make. The target language, such as English, Spanish, or Japanese, is one obvious translational decision, and the Bible has been translated into the languages spoken by nearly everyone on earth. According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Bible (or at least portions of it) exists in more than 2,000 languages. Of the world's seven billion people, there remain only about 200 million people who do not have access to the scriptures in their own native tongues. Wycliffe estimates that its organization is on track to complete the translation into the remaining languages by the year 2025.

Beyond the target language, however, a myriad of choices govern the ways text is converted from one tongue to another. Contemporary English speakers can actually choose from among dozens of modern Bible translations, and this great diversity can leave people feeling confused about the nature and scope of the differences. The distinctions involve the choice and evaluation of source documents and the principles that govern the ways translators go about their tasks.

First, there is no single, original copy of the Biblical text that survives. Before a translator—or translation committee—can begin working, the translator must make choices about which "original" texts are considered authoritative. Each of the different streams of Christianity identifies its own chosen roster of books. After the specific books have been identified, there can be different opinions as to which manuscript or manuscripts of those books should be given preeminence. For example, some people believe that the version of the Greek New Testament text that was first received in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries contained the exact words that were favored and preserved by God. This "received text" is called Textus Receptus. Others believe that the oldest existing manuscripts are more likely to be closer to the actual content of the original texts.

Once manuscripts have been identified, translators face other challenges. Because of differences between languages (including sentence structure, verb tenses, semantic connotations, and cultural differences), it is never possible to simply take a text in one language and merely substitute the vocabulary of another. Furthermore, languages employ idiomatic expressions, where the literal words do not convey the meaning intended. For example, when people use the common English admonition, “Hold your horses!” native speakers of the language understand its meaning, “Wait, be patient.” The literal meanings of the words hold and horses provide clues about the phrase’s origins, but when the expression is used idiomatically, its literal meaning is unrelated to the speaker’s thoughts. On the other hand, the words that do represent the intended meaning (wait, be patient) lack the connotations and cultural depth of the idiomatic phrase.

By linguistic necessity, translators must make compromises between a literal, word-for-word correspondence with the original text and the accurate representation of thoughts. A translation that is too literal can be hard to read, and it risks misrepresenting meaning. On the other hand, although a translation that is less literal can be easier to read, it risks interjecting the opinions and biases of the translator. Modern Bible translations can be arranged along a line representing a continuum with editions that strive to be as literal as is possible on one end and editions that seek the clear communication of ideas on the other.

Translators also face challenges related to dissimilar cultural expectations. For example, some people believe that the practice of maintaining gender-based terms in Bible translation is more accurate because the original texts use gender-based terms. Others think the use of gender-based terms reflects cultural patterns than no longer predominate. They believe readers will be confused, and possibly even offended, by a perceived male-based bias.

Other types of translational challenges include the way God's name is shown, the use or avoidance of specialized ecclesiastical vocabulary, the ways in which measurements and currency are expressed, and the anticipated reading level of an audience. In addition, many Bibles include notes and other study aids.

Which Good Book? An Impartial Guide to Choosing a Bible Translation, by Karen A. Bellenir is one tool that can help you navigate among the many currently available Bible translations and choose the one that best suits your needs. Unlike other guides that lead readers to a predetermined outcome, Which Good Book? offers impartial information and a broad spectrum of choices. Questions and interactive links allow readers to take their own path through its text by focusing on the issues they feel are most important.  Their choices lead to specific suggestions drawn from a list of thirty-one of the most commonly available Bible translations in English. In addition, facts are included about twenty other historically important and specialty Bibles. A concluding section of references and resources provides a starting point for people who want to dig more deeply into the history of Bible translation.

Ultimately, the best Bible translation is the one someone actually uses. Which Good Book? is designed to help match readers with the translations they are most likely to read and appreciate.

—by Karen A. Bellenir. Parts of this article are excerpted and adapted from Which Good Book? An Impartial Guide to Choosing a Bible Translation. The complete text is available online at WhichGoodBook.com. You can also obtain a free copy of an interactive PDF format through the Pier Press bookstore. For permission to reprint this article, please contact Pier Press.