How to choose a good translation #2

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In the last post of this series, we explored one of the fundamental differences between Bible translations. Some are formal translations and some are functional translations. Some preserve the wording of the original text, while others strive to capture the meaning of the original.

In reality, all translations combine some elements of both. The NASB, for example, is certainly a formal translation, but you will find clear functional elements in it as well. Some translations aim to provide a balance between form and function, such as the NIV. Still others seek to focus on the aspect of function as is the case with the NLT for instance. The important part is to know where the Bible you commonly use is on that spectrum.

At times, it can come in handy to use either a formal or a functional translation, for each has certain benefits.

More formal translations …

  • Provide more verbal consistency in translation. One Greek or Hebrew word is often translated with the same English word and certain Greek or Hebrew phrases are translated the same way whenever they appear in the texts. This helps us see parallels and identify key themes more easily.
  • Provide more similarity in syntax. The order of words is closer to the original, thus helping us see certain emphases clearly.
  • Provide a reading that is closer to the original culture by preserving idiomatic expressions and situations word for word.

More functional translations …

  • Are more natural to the human ear of the receptor language, because they seek to not only provide the reader with an accurate translation but with good literature that is sensitive to the culture of the receptor language.
  • Are freer in their choice of words and can thus capture poetic themes, pictures, and emotion more powerfully at times.
  • Often rephrase complex portions of Scripture by focusing on the thought-for-thought analysis of the text rather than the word-for-word rendering.

These are but a few of the differences between formal and functional translations. Anyone who is serious about studying the Bible should use more than just one translation – that’s the bottom line.

Those who typically use formal versions such as the ESV or NKJV should not regard functional translations as less spiritual or exact. Likewise, those who are naturally drawn to functional versions such as the NLT should acknowledge the value that lies in preserving the form of the original in order to keep us close to the original wording.

Once we have picked a few Bible translations, we must learn how to read the content of the Bible. I suggest a good starting point is to learn to see the Bible as literature, which we will explore in the coming weeks.

Grace & Peace

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