Which Bible Translation Should I Choose?

Which Bible Translation Should I Choose?
Finding the right Bible translation can be a rather hard thing to do since there are so many translations out there. It is just too easy to feel lost in the variety we can choose from, especially for those who do not really know what to look for. However, finding the right Bible can greatly impact your joy of reading and meditating on the Word. Here I want to give some guidelines that might help you find the Bible translation that fits your needs.
Basically, all Bible translations can be divided into 3 groups according to their intention:
  1. Literal Translations - trying to translate the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text into English as literal as possible in order to give a very accurate translation
  2. Meaning Translations - trying to translate the meaning of the original text into English in a way that it would have a similar effect it had on the readers thousands of years ago
  3. Balanced Translations - a balance between both: trying to give an accurate expression of the original text while changing harder-to-understand expressions so that the modern reader will understand it

Literal Bible Translations

Literal Translations present the Word of God as close as possible to the original text by translating it word for word while keeping all expressions, idioms and even hard and to us very unusual combinations of words. The main intention is to faithfully deliver the original text changing as little as possible.

Pro: You get the Word of God in its pure form. It is very close to the original text, assuring that what you read is actually God's Word and not already an interpretation of it which gives you the opportunity to discover the text in all its fullness on your own.

Contra: It makes reading and understanding harder. It is not our way of expressing things. Idioms that are thousands of years old are kept in their original expression. It can take longer to really understand passages but will give you deeper insight since you give the Spirit time to breathe upon those passages as you meditate on them.

Primary Use: studying scriptures, meditating on specific scriptures

Less Useful For: reading of longer passages, fulfilling bible reading plans

  • NASB - New American Standard - the English translation closest to the original text, my personal favorite
  • ASV - American Standard Version - not recommended because of old English
  • NKJ - New King James Version - a good alternative to the NASB
  • KJV - King James Version - not recommended, because it uses old English and makes reading even harder just for the sake of the language. Apart from poetic preference, there is no reason not to switch to the New King James Version or NASB)
  • ESV - English Standard Version
  • Amplified Bible - very good for meditation since it gives further readings and helps understand the meaning of certain expressions

Meaning Bible Translations

Meaning translations translate the meaning of the text into a language that it is understandable for us today and therefore will have a similar effect on us like it had to the people who read it thousands of years ago

Pro: Meaning translations are easy to read and understand and will maintain your enjoyment while reading the Bible because you won't have to read the same sentences over and over again until you finally understand what they mean. Stories become more vivid to you as a modern language is used.

Contra: The problem is, the Bible can be interpreted in different ways. Meaning translations choose one specific interpretation and thus you won't see other possible ways and be able to decide for yourself. Therefore, meaning translations are already a human interpretation of the Word of God rather than the canonized Word of God itself.

Primary Use: reading of longer passages, Bible reading plans, getting basic overview over books or chapters, understanding main thrusts of stories, also for new-comers when you just started believing in God and the Bible is new to you

Less Useful For: in-depth bible study, meditation (you can use them as further inspirations though), finding Bible truth the way God said it - truth you can surely build your faith on

  • NLT - New Living Translation - probably the best choice of the meaning translations
  • CEV - Contemporary English Version
  • GNT - Good News Translation
  • The Message: makes reading very very easy, but is very interpretative (actually, it is no Bible translation but Bible paraphrase)

Balanced Bible Translations

Balanced translations provide a very good balance between accuracy and readability. In both accuracy and readability they lay between literal translations on the one side and meaning translations on the other side.

Pro: It is a good compromise for those who only want to have one Bible. They try to stay close to the text as long as that does not impact the readability too strongly and therefore provide a somewhat accurate translation while still making it easy to understand them.

Contra: Some verses are inaccurately translated. You never really know whether it is interpretation or really the original text.

Primary Use: If you only want to have one Bible, or don't want to decide for either accuracy or readability, or even a good choice as your first Bible

  • NIV - New International Version
  • TNIV - Today's New International Version
  • NRS - New Revised Standard
  • RSV - Revised Standard Version

My Suggestions

  • I recommend to have two Bibles, one to study and one to read. If you don't want to have two Bibles, use a Balanced Translation. The NIV, due to its often use, offers a good balance between readability and literality and should be your Bible of choice.
  • My recommendation for a literal translation is the Updated New American Standard Version. It's the most literal bible translation but still not too hard to understand - I say that as one whose native language is not English.
  • My recommendation for a Meaning Translation is the New Living Translation.
  • If you are young or a new believer and are just getting started with the Bible, use a meaning translation that is easy to understand and will make reading much easier and exciting for you.
  • If you really just want to have a great time reading a lot of the Bible, try the Message translation. I wouldn't directly call it translation because it's more a paraphrase, but very enjoyable to read. But never take the Message your only Bible. It's not accurate enough to substitute a "real" Bible.
  • Sometimes it is worthwhile reading several translations at the same time. It can help you understand verses better and can also let the text touch you anew (reading verses we know in a different way can highlight new ideas to us and can break our "I already know it"-numbness to the text).