Tools of the Devil? or, What’s the Best Bible Translation?

by Craig A. Smith, Ph.D.

I remember a campus minister friend of mine who once had a family offer to support his ministry entirely, meaning that he could forget the time-consuming task of raising support and keeping in regular touch with supporters from all over the country.  The only catch was, he had to agree to only use the King James Version of the Bible in everything he did.  Why?  Well, because, according to a book that was given to my friend by this potential benefactor, every other version of the Bible is a tool of the devil!

In case you’re wondering, he didn’t accept the offer because he just couldn’t accept the stipulation…or the belief on which the stipulation was founded.  But it does raise an interesting question, doesn’t it?  Why are there so many English versions of the Bible and why are people sometimes so vehement in their opinions of the differing versions?

 I’m always a little surprised by how often I’m asked which English translation of the Bible is “best”.  I suppose the question emerges from two competing concerns:  on the one hand, people want to be able to understand the Bible and apply it to their everyday lives.  On the other hand, people have heard attacks leveled against different versions of the Bible for “watering down the truth” or “injecting too much interpretation into the Bible” or even being propaganda from Satan!

But is this really what’s happening?  Are the men and women responsible for various Bible translations really just wolves in sheep’s clothing, looking to mislead God’s people into serious doctrinal error and sin?  Probably not.

Functional vs Formal Equivalence Translation Theories

There are two major theories of translation that shape the various versions of the Bible we’re familiar with: the theory of functional equivalence and the theory of formal equivalence.  The major differences between the two theories are easy to understand. 

Functional equivalence translations, sometimes also called dynamic equivalence translations, attempt to convey the thought/concept/idea from the original text into the new language without being overly concerned about reproducing the exact word-order, grammatical structures, etc of the original.

Formal equivalence translations attempt to translate each word from the original into an equivalent word in the new language, retaining the word-order, grammatical structures, etc. intact as much as possible.

Functional equivalence is sometimes described as being thought-for-thought or idea-for-idea translation while formal equivalence is sometimes called word for word or literal translation.  Unfortunately, these descriptions are inaccurate and ultimately misleading.  All translations are really thought-for-thought, whether you’re trying to keep the word-count, word-order and grammatical structures intact or not.  The reality is that some languages do not have single words for concepts that can be encapsulated by a single term in another language.  In such a case, either a whole bunch of words can and must be condensed into a single word in the translation or a single word must be translated using a whole bunch of words to get the same idea across.  So, even the most strict formal equivalence translations must sometimes deviate from their policy of “literal” translation.  In circumstances where a “literal” translation is not possible because the target language doesn’t have the right individual terms, it is the original thought or idea that ultimately determines how the translation will read.  In this sense, it must be recognized that thought-for-thought is a foundational concern for all translations.

Conversely, most versions which follow a functional equivalence theory actually reproduce much, if not most, of the original words, word-order and structures in their translations.  For instance, Acts 2:38 in the original Greek would read something like this, following the strict word-order and attempting to find a counterpart English term for each Greek term:

Peter but towards them:  repent and be-baptized each of-you upon the name of-Jesus of-Christ unto remission of-the of-sins of-you…

Not terribly readable, is it?  This is why all translations do things to make the idea more comprehensible.  Here’s the NIV (New International Version) and the NAS (New American Standard Bible) versions of the same verse:

NIV:  Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…

NAS:  Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…

Now, on the surface, these are relatively similar, and both are certainly understandable to the average English-speaking reader.  The only real difference[1] is the word order of “repent and be baptized every one of you” (NIV) and “repent and each of you be baptized” (NAS).  Notice that the NIV more closely reproduces the word order of the original Greek.  The interesting thing here is that the NIV is generally considered more a functional equivalence translation and the NAS is generally considered to be more of a formal equivalence translation.  But in this instance, the functional equivalent translation is actually more word-for-word than the formal equivalent translation.  There are many other examples that could be pointed to of this same thing throughout the different translations.

This does not mean that all translations are really following the functional equivalence model.  It simply means that the two theories are best understood as extremes of a spectrum, with no translation falling entirely at either end.  In effect, functional equivalence theory is more open to the possibility of altering word order or translating the core idea rather than a particular term and formal equivalent theory is less open to doing this.  The practical result is that functional equivalence translations are often more readable and formal equivalence translations are often more precise. 

So which is better?  That depends on a great many factors.  One might think that “precise” would be the goal, but it’s not quite that simple. If the most “precise” word available in English for a Greek or Hebrew term happens to be a word that most English speakers are unfamiliar with, what happens?  What happens is that precision of terms leads to imprecision of comprehension.  Consider:

KJV:  But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. (Rom 7:8)

Say what?  What in the world is concupiscence?  According to Mr. Webster, it is a “strong desire”, often with a connotation of sinful desire.  But how many people today, even those raised in a Christian home, would understand this from reading the KJV?  Not many, which is why the NIV says:

NIV:  But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.

Now, some of you are probably thinking “that’s better…but not by much”.  How many people today even know what “coveting” is?  Isn’t this word nearly as unfamiliar as “concupiscence”?  Many translators think so, which is why some translations, like the Contemporary English Version which relies heavily on the functional equivalence theory, do things like this:

CEV:  It was sin that used this command as a way of making me have all kinds of desires.  But without the Law, sin is dead. 

Arguably, “all manner of concupiscence” is the most precise translation of the Greek pasan epithumian,[2] but since virtually no one know what concupiscence, is, does this even qualify as a translation any more?  If the goal of translation is comprehension, then the case could be made that this verse in the KJV doesn’t even qualify as a valid modern English translation.  Actually, even the NIV might have some problems qualifying.  So you can see that there’s precision of concept and then there’s precision of comprehension.  Which is more important?  It seems to me that translation is really a specialized act of communication and, as such, must always be driven by a concern for producing comprehension in the audience.

This does not, however, mean that formal equivalence in any way an inferior translation theory.  There are two reasons for saying this.  First, translators may misunderstand the original intent of a text so that when they figure out how best to communicate that concept in the target language, they are actually communicating a false concept.  While all translation is interpretive to some degree, functional equivalence theory depends more heavily on interpretation than does formal equivalence. Since the interpreters/translators are fallible human beings, this means that functional equivalence has a greater chance of misrepresenting the original text.  Obviously this is not something that we want to do in any translation, let alone in a translation of God’s Word.  Second, it is often the case that the form of a text is actually an important part of its ability to communicate clearly.  There’s a huge difference in meaning between “John, are you going to clean your room” and “John you are going to clean your room”, isn’t there?  Without getting bogged down in details, suffice it to say that there are many other ways in which the form of a message directly impacts the meaning of that message.  Consequently, ignoring the form of a source text runs the very real risk of obscuring its meaning (not that functional equivalence translations actually ignore the forms of the source text…this is just not their first priority).

Formal equivalence, because it seeks to be less interpretive and to reproduce as closely as possible the original word-order and forms can tend to produce translations that are less likely to misconstrue the original author’s intention.

On the other hand, formal equivalence can sometimes obscure that same meaning it is working so hard to preserve simply by giving insufficient attention to whether or not its target audience will be able to comprehend the meaning.  This is a very real problem for formal equivalence, not only with versions originally intended for earlier generations (as with the KJV) but also with versions produced recently (as with the NAS or NKJV).

The Best Translation

If it seems like I’m vacillating on the question of which translation/translation theory is best, it’s because I am.  And I’m vacillating because the real answer to that question is “none of them.”  

This doesn’t mean that you have to go out and learn Greek and Hebrew (although that certainly wouldn’t hurt).  What it means is that slavish dependence on one translation or anther is probably a mistake.[3]  Let me say this as clearly as possible:  there is no ideal translation of the Bible.

There never will be an ideal translation of the Bible. Translations are useful so long as they do two things:  1) preserve the original meaning and 2) make that meaning comprehensible to a new audience.  These are the two primary concerns of every translation. Unfortunately, it is often the case that when a translation excels at the former, it falls short on the latter.  And when a translation excels at the latter, it sometimes falls short on the former.  More to the point, the strengths and weaknesses of a particular translation often change from passage to passage so that the KJV or the NIV or the NAS or the Message,[4] etc. may do a great job with both concerns on one passage and not as good a job with one or both of the concerns on another passage.  The same holds true for every translation I’ve ever seen.

So my advice?  Easy: 

1.  Regularly read a good middle-of-the road translation (like the New International Version, the New American Bible or the New English Translation, all of which make moderate use of functional equivalence).

2. Consult a more heavily formal equivalence version and a more heavily functional equivalence version whenever you have questions about a particular passage. Popular versions which rely more heavily on the functional equivalence model of translation include:  the New Living Translation, the Message and the Contemporary English Version. Popular versions which rely more heavily on the formal equivalence model of translation include:  the King James Version (or the New King James Version), the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version.        

[1] Of course, the NAS also uses “each of you” instead of the NIV’s “every one of you”, but this is an insignificant difference.

[2] Some reader may be interested to note that the literal translation of this would be something like “every desire”, which means that every English translation is adding words like “all manner of” or “every kind of”.  Certainly no translation here can claim to be “word-for-word”.

[3] And calling other translations tools of the devil is probably a rather ignorant and un-Christian thing to do.

[4] I am often asked if the Message Bible isn’t just a paraphrase of another English translation.  It’s not.  The Message is a translation from the original-language texts, but it relies very heavily on the functional equivalence theory of translation, which is why it reads very differently than most other translations.  I wouldn’t recommend the Message version for study, but it works very well for devotional reading.