January 11, 2007

Switching Translations

Yesterday Mark Driscoll announced that Mars Hill will be switching from the NIV translation to the ESV translation. He offers a very thought-out theological reflection for his decision here (or download the pdf here). I applaud a pastor who spends this much time and theological introspection and prayer into such a decision. Mark Driscoll hasn't always said the right things, and I find myself at odds with him on many theological issues. But I do appreciate someone who doesn't simply make a decision of this magnitude whimsically.

I do find it interesting that his commitment that "Scripture is the very words of God" leads him to another translation rather than the original language text. I am sure Mark uses the original languages in his preparation, but if the truth of the Bible is found (exclusively?) in the actual words (which are very important, and I do not mean to take the actual words lightly) would it not lead to using the original language rather than another translation? From my understanding, all translations fail to embody the full meaning and nuance of the original text, and no translation is free from the theological influence of its translators.

I do not mean for this to be another attack on Mark Driscoll. I appreciate his thoughtfulness. I am only using his decision as a means to ask the questions Why do you choose the translation you do? What is your criteria for choosing a translation?

Here are some things I think about as I choose or recommend translations:

1. What can people read and understand? I really believe that the best Bible translation is the one that people will actually read. While this may be an overstatement for effect, I do think that a translation that is hard to read and difficult to understand is more of a hindrance than a help. I also believe that God is faithful to those who are seeking Him and will reveal himself through the Bible; even if it is not the best possible translation.

2. Do they have a community and a spiritual leader that offers them insight and understanding of the passages they read? No one was meant to interpret the Bible in isolation (no, not even the pastor). God has always worked within the context of community under the leadership of his chosen leader. Wrestling with the meaning of a text as a community helps people understand the meaning of a text despite all the flaws inherent in translations.

3. Do they have access to multiple translations? Because no translation can adequately replace the original languages, multiple translations help the reader gain additional perspective.

4. What are the theological leanings of the translators? While various translations are useful, some are better than others. Mark points to the ESV as the one he considers best. I have the top translations that I use as many of you do as well.

After graduating from seminary, I was convinced that the NASB was the best translation. I used it in my preaching and teaching. Over time, however, I realized that people didn't have that translation in their home and they didn't understand it. The more I used it, the more people grew distanced from the Bible. Unchurched people who came to our service felt even more distanced from the text than the Christians. Shortly after that I switched to the NIV because of its readability and accessibility.

What are some of your criteria for choosing a translation?
What are the primary translations you use when studying?
How do you go about determining what translation to use?


  1. It depends on who I am talking to as to which version I use. Most people I use NIV... because it is standard anymore... but I personally don't like NIV... I prefer NASB and it is what I use daily myself and for most of my studies... if I am talking to new believers or the unchurched... I tend to use ESV... it just flows better. ;)

    I do tend to be a NASB snob tho...

  2. For study I tend to use the NASB, because of it's closeness to the original text. Sometimes I will study out of the NIV but it is a rarety.

    I've been reading through the NT in the HCSB a number of times to see how I like it as it is a new translation. I find that it is very similar to the NIV, but they appear to be trying to tout it as the new NAS, but I don't know if I'd go that far.

    I've never read the ESV myself, but perhaps I should pick it up to check it out. I think when dealing with people, particularly new Christians I would probably go the way of the NIV or the NLT>

  3. I have the Sword Project on my computer and there are a ton of translations... it is always interesting to read Darby or some odd translation (they even have a Klingon translation)... not kidding...

    I bought a few ESV's to hand out (I always keep a few bibles on hand if I can) and they were well recieved... Decent read... in fact Martin has laid down his NKJV for it and reads it almost exclusively now.

    I am still standing by my NASB though. ;)

    I just never DID like NIV... *shrugs*

    I am a bit of a translation geek though. I think I have over 20 translations now. LOL Not counting the e-versions. Oy.

    Yup, I am a geek.

  4. I have stuck primarily to NIV, NASB, NLT, and the original languages. For my primary reading I go with the NIV. I really like the readability of the NLT.

  5. You know that is one translation I don't have... NLT... my "desk" ones that I don't have to go across the house to get are NASB, NIV, KJV (for strongs lookup), and now... the Message has become a new favorite... its a paraphrase but I like it for a "read". Oh and Amplified. Hrm. I am finding the more studying I do, the fewer translations I use. I'd LOVE to learn how to read the greek and hebrew some day but for now I just use the e-translations...

    Do you think it would be worth learning hebrew? I mean I have a ton of studying ahead of me (think, just starting bible degree essentially)... It isn't a requirement that I know of but I'm wondering if it could be of use...

  6. I will say that even though I'm not a huge NIV fan, my favorite commentary set has got to be "The NIV Application Commentary" put out by Zondervan. Good stuff. If you haven't seen them, you may want to buy a volume just to check it out.

  7. Hey... new design. Shiny!

    I'm a bit of a translation buff, simply because I worked for company that owns the copyright to one of the translations you've mentioned. I not only learned about so many different kinds of translation, but I learned a lot of interesting things about the translation process and how the committees operate.

    For me, it really depends on what I'm doing. I grew up on the NIV and the my church uses it as their primary translation. The NIV simply has this poetic and roll-off-the-tongue ease that's really nice for public reading. But I switched to the NASB (for primary study) because I prefer the word-for-word vs the thought-for-thought approach to Bible translation. I have not tried the ESV, but now I'm dying to. But if I really need to dig deep, I'll consult several to make sure I'm looking at the passage from every angle I can, and to make sure I don't miss anything.

    I love the use The Message when speaking to non-believers and if I'm teaching Sunday School, I use it along with other translations because I think it brings new life to the scriptures we've all heard a thousand times.

  8. eric- I like the NIV Application Commentary. Of course, there are very few commentaries that I don't like to at least look at :) I like Word Biblical for in-depth stuff and New International Commentary of the Old and New Testament (NICOT or NICNT).

    Ronni- I always recommend people taking the original languages or at least getting the tools necessary to do some research and study in the language. For all the word-for-word/thought-for-thought discussion they all fall short in their ability to properly translate a passage because they are still being translated into the English language. For example: English has one word for love while Greek has four. Also our singular "you" looks exactly the same as our plural "you." Most biblical uses of the word "you" are actually plural but most people translate and apply it in the singular taking away a lot of the emphasis on community.

    Stephanie-One of my professors was on the NLT committee and several others were on the NIV committee. I too like to collect various translations-unless they go too far in the paraphrase direction. I haven't gotten into the Message so much (only occasionally) because it has a strong Calvinistic leaning of Peterson.

    We all seem to use different translations for different purposes. It seems, though, that if we use a couple of solid translations we get more and different angles on the passage. This seems to be a good thing; especially if we are not working in the original languages.

    How do you guys work this out pastorally? By that I mean...you have people in your church at various levels of spiritual and (probably more importantly) reading ability. They need to understand the Scripture they are reading, but you want it to be a sound translation (Have you heard of the Street Language Translation?). During the worship service you need a primary translation that takes into account the readability, but also recognizing that people will often drift toward the translation most used in the service. How do you guys work that out for yourself?

  9. wow. That makes a lot of sense. Well when I get the chance I'll have to take a few classes! :) Thanks. :)