What Translation of the Bible Should You Use?

by Steve Ray on May 25, 2016

No translation is perfect. Translating ancient and foreign languages into English is not as easy as it would seem. There are ambiguities and linguistic hurtles. 

Picture a sliding scale from left to right. Every translation fits somewhere along that scale. At one end of the scale literal  translations and on the other extreme are dynamic translations. 

Literal translations relay the actual words used in the original language without being overly concerned with ease of reading or conveying the authors’ meaning. Emphasis: what did the original author say word-for-word verbatim. 

Dynamic translations try to relay the authors’ meaning without being overly literal—they express what the author means, not what he said. Emphasis: what does the author mean without concern for using their actual words.

Here is a good example. A man speaking English says, “I shot myself in the foot.” What did he mean? For those sho understand English “figures of speech” will know he was saying he made fool of himself or did something stupid. For a non-English speaker, they will look down at your foot and ask, “Is your foot OK?”

If you are translated the English into Russian literally you will render it “I shot myself in the foot.” But if you do, the Russian gets the completely wrong message They think we are talking about a medical condition. 

But if you want the Russian to understand the meaning of the author’s text you will not use the literal words but translate it to something like, “I did something stupid and made a fool of myself.” 

With our example, the first is literal and the second is dynamic. The first emphasizes what the author says, the second what the author means. All translations fit somewhere in between.

So what Translations should we use? For Catholics I recommend reading the Revised Standard Bible – Catholic Edition (RSV) for the literal and the New American Bible (NAB) for the dynamic translation. it is best to read several translations side-by-side to get a much broader spectrum of the biblical passage. 

Want the best? Check out the Didache Bible published by Ignatius Press. I have purchased many of them to give to friends and priests. You can learn about it here. It is on the literal side of the sliding scale but becomes a dynamic translation as well by providing a plethora of footnotes and Catechism quotes.

Many suggested I include the Douay-Rheims translation. I don’t use this much myself because it a translation of a translation and using old manuscripts and language. It is like translating Russian into Spanish and then Spanish into English — a hundred years ago. I use it sometimes for its strong Catholic emphasis in certain passages.

Again, as I said, it is best to read many translations side-by-side and for a strong Catholic emphasis, the Douay-Rheims is a good version to have in your stack. Another might be the English translation of the Greek Septuagint which was the Bible of the early Church.

The chart shows many translations, most of which are Protestant translations – but gives you the idea. The RSV is on the left end of the chart whereas the NAB is under the “thought-for-thought category. A  paraphrase is not really a translation but the far extreme of the dynamic where the translator puts things in his own words often with biases and personal opinions.

If you want the best-of-the-best check out the Verbum Catholic Bible Software that allows you to compare many translations side-by-side and to instantly access the original languages with English explanations. Nothing else like it.

Visit www.Verbum.com/steveray. Use Promo Code STEVERAY10  and get 10% off.

Another helpful article on the science of translation and which are preferred.

 

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Kwasniewski May 25, 2016 at 1:20 PM

It is strange that you do not also recommend the classic Catholic translation, the Douay-Rheims. This version has many advantages that compensate for some of its literary weaknesses. First, it is based directly on the Vulgate, which was the approved translation of the Catholic Church for 1,500 years, and the version quoted by countless saints, doctors, teachers, scholars. If one wishes to be conversant with the Latin Christian tradition, one simply cannot bypass the Vulgate (and therefore the Douay for English). Second, there are possible meanings of Scripture that Church tradition used to call upon that have been more or less systematically excluded from more recent translations, partly due to questionable assumptions about which Hebrew and Greek base texts to use. Having the Vulgate/Douay on hand is a good counterbalance.

STEVE RAY HERE: Peter, good point. I agree with you and concur completely and will revise the blog to reflect that. I don’t use it much myself but use it when looking at a passage where I want various emphasis. It is a translation of a translation. It is like translating Russian into Spanish and then from Spanish into English. What is great about it is the Catholic emphasis of many passages. Others consider it biased, but it is helpful for Catholics.

PaulbWhitlow Jr May 25, 2016 at 1:51 PM

Where’s the Douay-Reims?

Christopher Snaith May 25, 2016 at 6:55 PM

Paulb Whitlow Jr, that was also my question.

McKellar May 25, 2016 at 8:29 PM

This great information but there is another layer of complexity to the question. This is all about the translation strategy, but someone might assume whatever the strategy all these translations are based on the same original manuscripts–but this is not so. Compare Douay-Reims, RSVCE and NABRE in Ben Sirach and you will quickly discover that modern translations are based on more recent manuscript finds. This is super important for the dead sea scroll materials of the OT which are 1000 younger than the previous manuscripts. This also effects the KJV.

I would also quibble with the comment, “With our example, the first is literal and the second is dynamic. The first emphasizes what the author says, the second what the author means.” The literal is only “what the author says” in the original language. Any translation literal or dynamic is an equivalent in a second language. The question is which is a better or more accurate equivalence in the secondary language? Intuitively many people assume that the literal is better but as your foot shooting example points out this is not so. The literal is great as a cheat to read along with the original but otherwise is can be very misleading. Often the grammar suggests something quite different for a wooden literal meaning.

STEVE RAY HERE: You are absolutely correct. I could have written a ten page blog with a lot of classifications and qualifications but then no one would read it. I tried to keep it simple and concise. But you are correct and I am glad you posted this comment for those who want to dig deeper.

It is also why I suggest not just one translation but a “literal” and a “dynamic” and others as well to better get the whole story. Thanks!!

Lorie R May 25, 2016 at 8:31 PM

You can find that translation on CatholicCompany.com I’m sure it’s elsewhere as well.

Sister Mary Margaret May 26, 2016 at 1:23 AM

Spell check: Greek Sepuagint?
Otherwise, good info. We use the Didache at our Catholic School. Daily Mass, classical education.

Diane Brenner May 26, 2016 at 5:34 PM

I was delighted to see the references to various Catholic Bibles. My bible is the Douay-Rheims. However, I have several other bibles that I refer to from time to time. My question is this; IF the compilation of the original manuscripts, written and based on the writings and teachings of the earliest Christians, was Catholic, I do not know when the first complete Bible was actually compiled, but my understanding is that Christianity and Catholic were basically synonymous I can understand the tiny differences in translating from the Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, but weren’t all these compilations and translations done be followers of the Catholic religion?
Upon my first reading a KJV, authorized by an egotistical King almost 1500 years later, I found a few radical differences I have never been able to reconcile with my 12 years of Catholic Education and further studies on my own through my adult life.
How can any off shoot from the Catholic religion justify the differences, or changes? They do not honor Mary as she surely deserves to be honored, and stating that Mary and Joseph had other children following the birth of Jesus.
Can you help me to understand this? Thank you.

STEVE RAY HERE: Actually it is very easy to explain. The word Protestant comes from the word “protest” and that is what they do. They do not hesitate to add their bias into the translation. You are very perceptive.

Bill Strom May 27, 2016 at 6:18 AM

I think you are missing a few points. The footnotes are just as important as the Bible you use. There is no better than the Haydock Bible. As for the Douay Rheims, it is taken from a translation is true, but the Vulgate was translated by St. Jerome who had access to more documents lost to us now, and lived in Israel at the time when Jewish scholars could help him to more accurately convey the understanding (Aramaic still a spoken language in his day). The Haydock Bible can be found here : http://haydock1859.tripod.com/

arfonolfodofo July 12, 2016 at 12:53 PM

DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME LOOKING FOR MODERN BIBLES AND MODERN COMMENTARIES, THE BIBLE OF THE bibles OF ALL TIME IS ”THE ORIGINAL DOUAY RHEIMS BIBLE” 1582,1609-10 TRANSLATED FAITHFULLY INTO ENGLISH, NOW FOUND INTO MODERN ENGLISH AT LULU.COM , AND THE NUMBER ONE BIBLE IS THE HAYDOCK BIBLE OR DOUAY RHEIMS VERSION,AND ONE OF THE BEST COMMENTARIES IS THE CORNELIUS LAPIDE

STEVE RAY HERE: Love the Douay Rheims and Lapide, but one has to realize that this translation is based on older documents and old English. It is good to read alongside more modern translations that are still faithful to the original text and the tradition. It is as I said in the article.

arfonolfodofo July 12, 2016 at 1:19 PM

not all the translations are still faithful the majority changes a lot of the words of God for example when we go to the Latin mass we pray the holy Mary and say full of grace but in some new modern translations say “favorite one” including “the new American bible” that’s protestant others have changed charity for the word “love” and many others that will take to much time to write. The only one that I would buy other than the “Douay Rheims bible” is the revised standard version Catholic second edition.

STEVE RAY HERE: Did you read my article? I recommend the RSV-CE and the Douay. I do not think it is a good idea to read only one translation since translations are fraught with danger as I explained in my article. Yes, read the Douay and the RSV-CE. Be smart and read others side-by-side to get the full spectrum. The NAB is very good in many ways. It is the only translation that makes it apparent that Jesus uses the Divine Name when he says, “I AM!”

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