Why Are There So Many English Translations of the Bible

According to Wikipedia there are over 450 English translations of at least some portion of the Bible. While many of them are old and no longer in print there still at least 20 major English translations available. In addition, there are multiple editions of each of the modern translations focused on different audiences. A natural question to ask is why. Why do we have such a vast array of English translations? This article will explore at least some of the reasons.

Some Goals in Translation

The Bible was not originally written in English. Rather it was written in ancient forms of Hebrew and Greek. Since few people speak those languages today, translation into modern languages is necessary for most of us to be able to read or understand the Bible. There are several goals that translators strive for when producing English translations of the Bible, or any other language.

  • Accuracy. The translation should reflect the original languages as closely as possible.
  • Clarity. The translation that is produced should be readable and understandable.
  • Be natural. The translation should read in the way that we most naturally speak.
  • Appropriate for its intended audience. The language used will be different if the translation is for a child verses an adult. Or highly educated verses poorly educated.

How the translator chooses to meet these goals will have an impact on the translation produced. And each translator, or translation team, will have different thoughts as to the best way to accomplish these goals.

Translation Philosophies

There are three primary philosophies for translating the Scripture. A formal equivalence translation attempts, as much as possible, to provide a literal, or word for word, translation. It is not possible to produce a readable text that strictly adheres to this philosophy, but the intent is to be as close as possible. The NASB and ESV are examples of this type of translation.

A second translation philosophy is called a paraphrase, or functional equivalence. These translations are more concerned with readability, often sacrificing a more literal reading for one that is culturally equivalent. The Living Bible and the Message are examples of this type of translation.

A third philosophy is sometimes identified as mediating. This type of translation will try and strike a balance between the formal and functional approaches. The NIV and CSB are two popular translations that use this approach.

Some Challenges in Translation

One reason we have so many English translations of the Bible is due to some of the challenges and problems in translation. How these challenges are met is reflected in the translation that is produced.

Often there is no direct translation from one word, or expression, in Hebrew or Greek into English. In those cases, the translator must determine an appropriate word, or expression, in English that conveys the thought from the original language.

Figures of speech, idioms, and poetry also present challenges to the translator. Do you attempt to translate them literally, in which case they may lose their impact? Or do you look for alternatives that preserve the authors intent while being less faithful to the original wording?

There are other issues as well that the translator must work through when translating from one language to another. And each translator, or group of translators, will approach this in different, and often equally valid, ways.

Language Evolution

Another reasons for the proliferation of English translations of the Bible is the evolution of the English language. While it is not always readily obvious to us on a day to day basis, the change is clear when you read something from previous centuries. Nowhere is this more obvious than when looking at the King James Version of the Bible.

In Philippians 1:27 the KJV says “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” Today’s reader will see the word ‘conversation’ as dealing with the things we say. But that word has changed in meaning over the centuries. When the KJV was translated it dealt with the conduct of your life, your lifestyle. A modern translation, like the NIV, translates this passage as “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This more adequately reflects the original intent of the passage.

While the change in language over a 400-year period is obvious, it is also true on a much shorter timeframe. Today, the English language is rapidly changing. Words are given new meanings. New words and expressions are added, and others fall out of use. So newer English translations are able to reflect our ever-changing language.

Manuscript Discoveries

Two additional contributing factors to the proliferation of English translations are the ongoing work in discovering older manuscripts and the work of textual criticism. This work has brought us ever closer to the text of the original manuscripts.

There are many who resist this work and reject the findings of modern biblical scholarship. This seems primarily because of how deeply entrenched the KJV is. There have been many older manuscripts discovered since the KJV was produced. And some of the time those manuscripts do not include passages that are familiar to readers of the KJV. And these ‘missing’ passages are generally not included in the newer translations that seek to be more faithful to the originals. Not because the translators are removing unwanted passages from the Bible. But because of a desire to be faithful to the Bible as originally written.

Cultural Differences

While English is spoken throughout much of the world, the English I speak is not identical to the English spoken in Great Britain. We use words in different ways, sometimes having different words for the same object or action. A simple example might be the word ‘dinner’. It is a meal that we eat during the day, but which meal? Where I come from it is the evening meal. In other places within the U.S. it is the noon meal. And there are countless examples like this. And all of them affect the way we provide translations.

While a translation like the NIV tries to be culturally neutral, there are other translations that target specific cultures. The NASB, for instance, is a translation that was written specifically for English speakers in the United States. Other English translations have been written for different parts of the world.

Why Are There So Many English Translation?

It might be tempting to see the large number of English translations as undesirable. Whenever a group gathers and reads from the Scripture, it can sometimes be difficult to follow one who is reading from a different translation. And arguments can easily develop as to which translation is the best.

But I believe that we are blessed to have such a wide variety of English translations. Because the translation process has a certain amount of subjectivity, it is helpful to be able to compare different translations in order to get the best feel for what the original languages expressed. I believe we should embrace the variety of translations we have available and use several different ones in our reading and study rather than just lock into one to the exclusion of any others.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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2 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many English Translations of the Bible”

  1. Those who give the KJV (the Authorised Version) pride of place miss something very important. Firstly it is a translation that was Authorised by the king: the government! It said what the government wanted, and didn’t say what the government didn’t want it to say. King James was concerned that Coverdale’s translation would be sidelined by his version. One example is that Coverdale translated ‘congregation’ where James’s team were required to translate it ‘church’. Church being the established ‘church’ (of England) that James considered himself the head of.
    To some extent the Authorised version is a political tract to bolster James’ power. That’s why he authorised it.

    And I thought Americans were none too keen on kings!

    Reply
    • I use the KJV very little anymore, although it is what I grew up with and I am comfortable reading it. While there are some issues with this translation, I do not believe that it is a bad one. The biggest problems I see with it is the archaic language that it uses. And the fanaticism of some that believe there is no other valid translation.

      Reply

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