Many of us were raised on the King James Authorized Version (KJV) of the Bible or maybe even using the Revised Standard Version (RSV). We’ve probably all seen presentations trying to convince us which of these and others is the best translation to use. We’ve probably also all heard from some quarters that the KJV of the Bible is practically equal to the original Greek Texts and is somehow the only English translation that was inspired by the Holy spirit and endorsed by God the Father. Unfortunately, this is not true. It is also not true that there is a literal translation out there, contrary to what some may say.
To say that any given translation is a literal translation is to re-label, what we call, in the world of Bible Translation, a “word for word translation” and call it literal. The KJV–and some other translations–translates one word in the original Biblical language of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramic with one word in the English. However, for us to understand these word for word translations, they must re-arrange the word order in the English to make the sentences understandable as illustrated below in a rendition of John 3:16;
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς
Thus for loved – God the world that the son the only-begotten He gave so that everyone
ὁ Πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
-believing in Him not should-perish but should have life eternal.
English translations also lose some of the meaning of individual words because, often, one word in the English does not accurately reflect the full or precise meaning of a one word from the original Biblical Languages. The classic example is of course the three Greek words for love—Agape (all-suffering), Philos (brotherly), Eros (Erotic)—which are translated with the one English word “Love.” Because of these differences in word order, and differences in the individual meanings of words, between the Biblical languages and English, we can assert that there is no such thing as a literal translation of the Bible into English. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the Father of the Protestant Reformation, from the 1500’s, Dr. Martin Luther, didn’t do Word for Word translations but did what today is called meaning based (thought-for-thought) translations. Author of Luther and His Times, E.G. Scheibert, quotes Luther as saying;
…and if it (the Bible) were translated everywhere word for word… and not for the most part, according to the sense, no one would understand it….
Schweibert then says;
It is clear then that Luther always attempted to grasp the meaning of the original and then to recast it into the clearest possible German expressions…. The word-for-word searching for an attempt at a literal translation of the Greek and Hebrew Texts had been replaced by a spirit of Freedom, an attempt to render the exact meaning of the original in the idiom of 16th-century German.
Therefore, when picking a Bible for devotional use, look for a good meaning based translation. Some that come to mind are the NIV and the ESV. For Bible study purposes a good parallel Bible is useful which has a meaning based translation, and next to it a word for word translation–such as the NKJV, NASB–is a good choice. Bibles I do not recommend are the Living Bible, the RSV and the NRSV. The Living Bible goes beyond word-for-word and meaning based translations, and falls into a category we refer to as a Free Translation. The RSV and NRSV are known for their sometimes liberal oriented interpretations. I’ll save my further comments on these two translations for another day. There are other issues to consider not mentioned in this article. Another Bible worth looking at is the An American Translation (formerly the Beck Bible).
I give my advice not only as a Pastor with a Master’s of Divinity but also as a former Bible Translator in Sierra Leone, West Africa, who studied at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) for three semesters. SIL is now called the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (GIAL) and is located in Duncanville, Texas.