Choosing the most accurate translation is difficult because it is somewhat like asking, “What is the best brand of truck?” It depends on what you plan to do with it and what criteria you are using to evaluate it. Each translation of the Bible follows certain translation principles that will affect the final work. Some translations try to be “literal,” aiming for an exact, word-for-word correspondence as much as possible. Others try to be “dynamic,” or “thought-for-thought,” providing the overall meaning of the text in modern language, not necessarily providing word-for-word correspondence. One translation might be better for study, and another might be better for public reading. Someone reading on a fifth-grade level might prefer a translation different from what a college student is reading.
Translation is not an exact science. There is often no perfect one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages. Additionally, every language has idioms and figures of speech—notoriously hard to translate—as well as historical and cultural factors that may affect the connotation of words in ways that cannot be translated.
An example in English will help illustrate. If you have a friend who is involved in a live theatre production, and you want to wish her well, you might say, “Break a leg,” an idiom that, in the theater world, replaces saying, “Good luck” (which is considered bad luck to say). If you translate the idiom literally, the readers may get the wrong impression if they do not understand the cultural hijinks behind the phrase. In this case, translating break a leg as “good luck” might be better. A third option might be to leave the expression intact but include an explanatory footnote about what is actually meant.
As our example shows, the most literal translation may not be the most accurate. The more a translation tries to express the original meaning in contemporary language, the more subjective interpretation is introduced. Further, readability can become an issue. A very accurate “literal” translation would be very unreadable. An Interlinear New Testament gives the Greek text on one line and, under it, the approximate English word for each Greek word. If you simply read the English words, you are left, in most cases, with a confusing jumble of words. It is very literal but practically meaningless. As the translation becomes more readable in English, it will become less literal.
Most translations are on a continuum between being “literal” (staying as close to the original words and literary structure as possible) and “dynamic” (communicating the meaning of the passage in a way that the modern reader will understand, even if extra words are introduced that are not in the original text). There are dozens of English translations to choose from. The best ones are done by teams of competent evangelical scholars and reviewed by others. No single individual has all the skills necessary today to produce a good translation. Below are some of the most prominent and best translations:
The King James Version is the most important book in the English language, having shaped the way English was spoken for hundreds of years. Many people grew up with the King James Version and still love the style and beauty of the translation. Someone once quipped, “The King James Version is as beautiful as Shakespeare and just as simple.” For some people, the Elizabethan English might be a challenge, but there is nothing wrong with accepting a challenge. The New King James Version is a more readable version of the King James, removing many of the archaic terms and modernizing the syntax. Both the KJV and the NKJV are “literal” translations.
The New American Standard Bible stays as close as possible to the literal reading of the original text, preserving the literary structure, while still being readable in English. The NASB was very popular with serious Bible students for 20–30 years, from the 1980s to the early 2000s. However, some felt that it was difficult to read, especially for more casual or beginning readers who were not interested in “studying” the Bible. The English Standard Version has since filled the place of the NASB as a “literal” but readable translation. It seems to have replaced the NASB for many who prefer a translation on the “literal” end of the continuum.
The New International Version is a “dynamic” translation. The translators’ concern was communicating the meaning in a way that is easily readable in English, even if it meant a departure from the original wording. The NIV has been very successful and is currently the most popular modern English version. The New Living Translation is by far the most “dynamic” of the most popular modern translations. When first released, the NLT sold very well, and for a time it looked as though it might overtake the NIV as the most popular dynamic translation. In recent years the NLT has faded while the NIV’s sales remain strong.
The New English Translation or NET Bible is an internet-based version, although it is also available in book form. The NET contains extensive notes on the translation. While other modern versions may undergo a major revision every decade or so, the NET Bible is continually updated and revised as needed.
For rapid reading of the text, a more dynamic translation such as the NLT or the NIV might be helpful. For more precise study, a more literal version such as the NASB, ESV, or NET would be preferable. When studying a passage, a good practice is to read it in several versions, both literal and dynamic. If there are places where the various translations seem to go in different directions, then more study is necessary to determine what issues of translation and interpretation are in play. Of course, consulting the original languages would be advantageous at that point, but for those who are not able to do so, the NET Bible and critical commentaries are a good option. Good commentaries will not simply tell the reader what the text means but explain the evidence for the various options and why the one chosen by the commentator is best. One should avoid interpretations or points of doctrine that are based on a single translation of a single word or phrase. One must also resist the tendency to “shop” for a translation that supports his preferred interpretation of a passage.
The Message by Eugene Peterson and The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor are rather free renderings of the original text as the authors understood it. The MSG and the TLB are the works of individuals, not committees, so there is far more room for error and personal bias. They are closer to personal paraphrases than to translations. Anyone who is reading either one of these would do well to keep in mind that the words express what a single man understood the text to mean. We recommend choosing one of the other translations, above, for one’s primary Bible.
The New Revised Standard Version is the most popular version among non-evangelical Bible scholars. Evangelicals tend to stay away from this translation, as the translation team included many who were not committed to the authority of the biblical text. However, they were competent scholars in the biblical languages.
In the final analysis, the choice of the “most accurate” translation will be a subjective decision. For study, we recommend the NASB, ESV, and NET, and we also recommend comparison with the NIV or NLT. We also have no problem recommending the KJV or NKJV, but comparing it with other versions helps identify points of tension in need of further research. For variety, one might choose a different translation each year to read through, noting anything that sounds different or seems to give a different meaning to a text.
Every translation done in good faith by competent scholars can be considered accurate and authoritative. At the same time, human scholarship is imperfect; also, translations need to be updated over time as the English language changes.