Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Do Bible readers really know what they want in a translation?

The Bible is forever being translated. I am unsure how many English translations exist, but I am aware of at least ten. And there are more coming. The Common English Bible is now available for purchase and the 2011 New International Version has been available online for about a year. It seems that the desire to make the Bible more readable and accessible drives the need for new or better translations.

Readers of the Bible may not know why they like a particular translation. They may use their chosen translation because that it is what their pastor or church uses. Quite a few, I suspect, use whatever Bible translation was handed down to them.

An interesting survey by LifeWay Research indicates, however, that people may not know much about their chosen translation. According to the survey a whopping 61% prefer a word-for-word translation rather than a thought-for-thought. 75% prefer "total accuracy" in their translation.

But the stated preference of readers also stands in contrast to Bible sales figures. For instance, according to Christian Booksellers Association, the New International Version (NIV) is still the top seller not only in volume but also dollar sales. But the NIV is not a word-for-word translation, it is thought for thought. In second place is the King James Version, which is more word-for-word, followed by the New King James Version in third place. But in fourth place is the New Living Translation., which is even less word-for-word than the NIV. I suspect the second and third place showing of the KJV and NKJV has more to do with tradition than actual translation preference.

So what does this mean? That people know even less about how Bibles are translated than they do what their Bible says. I suspect most people buy a particular translation because they trust it, or were told by someone they trust that it was a good translation. But the survey suggests that their stated desires do not necessarily line up with their actions. It sounds like teachers and preachers have more work to do to help people understand how Bible's are translated. It also seems like another good reason for why church leaders should learn Hebrew and Greek.

I prefer to use Greek and Hebrew. But when I am using English I use New American Standared at home because it is more word-for-word, which I find helpful for when I translating. But I also use the New Revised Standard Version for teaching and publishing. Part of the choice has to do with convenience. The NAS is at home the NRSV at work.

What about you?

What kind or which translation do you use and why?

What do you make of the survey results?

Read here what Paul Franklyn, general editor for the CEB, has to say about word-for-word translations.


  1. Interesting survey. It seems that the respondents have a fairly high view of scripture. It is God's word, so it must be as authentic to the original as translators can make. On the other hand, these same people will need to have someone who can help to clarify the texts as meanings within the context of the writers is still foreign to moderns.

  2. Is it possible that the people who would respond to a survey like this are naturally the same who research Bible translations, not a perfect cross-section of Christianity? Most of the people I know use the NIV because their pastor and parents use it. Not a bad reason, it's just how it is. I do wonder, though, how many of them would take the time for a poll like the one referenced.

  3. Mandi, that is a good question and I wondered as well if those who answered are more apt to be aware of their translation.

  4. Having recently gotten back into translating, I find that I am less satisfied with the translations I have around me (NLT, NIV, NRSV)--I'm catching inconsistencies and find myself asking: how did they get that? I'm not at a point where I could not have an English translation close by. When I was in college and seminary I relied on NASB. I used NIV when I pastored because it was easier to use what most of the congregation had. In recent years I've gone back and forth between NLT and NRSV.