What you need to know to choose between Bible translations

Bible Translations

There are many different translations of the Bible available, and it can be overwhelming trying to choose between them. This post will discuss the four main types of Bible translation: word for word (literal), thought for thought (dynamic equivalence), a blend of word for word and thought for thought, and paraphrase.

Word for word

This is when each word in the original language is translated to mean what it would literally mean in English. The only words added are those which would make the English grammatically correct and these sometimes appear in italics. Some examples are:

  • King James or Authorised Version (KJV or AV)
  • Revised Version (RV)
  • American Standard Version (ASV)
  • Revised Standard Version (RSV)
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)
  • New King James Version (NKJV)
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • Amplified (AMP)

Psalm 23:1-4 in the KJV:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thought for thought

This is when instead of translating each word literally, it is translated phrase by phrase. It attempts to correct the problems with the word for word translations when up against idioms or other ways of saying things that don’t make sense in English. The translators attempt to interpret what the author was trying to say. Some examples are:

  • Contemporary English Version (CEV)
  • Good News Bible/Today’s English Version (GNB/TEV)
  • The New English Bible (NEB)
  • New Living Translation (NLT)

Psalm 23:1-4 from the CEV:

You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need. You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths. I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.

Word for word and thought for thought blends

These are obviously a combination of the previous two and the translators decide when to use which method. Some examples are:

  • The New International Version (NIV)
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
  • The Jerusalem Bible (JB)
  • The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
  • The Revised English Bible (REB)

Psalm 23:1-4 in the NIV:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.


This method does not necessarily pay any attention to the original language and often is from one English translation to another. The translator becomes the interpreter. Some examples are:

  • J.B. Phillips
  • The Living Bible (TLB)
  • The Message (MSG)
  • Good News Translation (GNT)

Psalm 23:1-4 in the Living Bible:

Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need! He lets me rest in the meadow grass and leads me beside the quiet streams. He gives me new strength. He helps me do what honors him the most. Even when walking through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way.

Other Types of Bibles

You will also find Bibles that come in different formats. Study Bibles usually have lots of footnotes and explanatory details alongside the text. A Chronological Bible has changed the order of the text so that it flows into one continuous story. A Parallel Bible has more than one version of the Bible side by side.

General Suggestions and Guidelines

  • The literal (word-for-word) versions are the most accurate renditions of God’s Word and include the least amount of translational bias.
  • Since the literal versions are the most accurate, they are usually the best for Bible study.
  • The King James Version is linked to more study aids (such as Strong’s and Young’s Concordances) than any other English version although this is less important with online Bible study aids.
  • Because of their modern literary style, many of the less literal versions can be easier to read and understand. However, because these versions do not always follow the original text, some times what is easier to understand is only what the translator thought a passage meant.
  • Study Bibles do not encourage personal study, since the ‘study’ has already been done by someone else. They are best used as bookshelf references.
  • It is helpful to include both literal and less literal translations on your bookshelf.
  • It is best to stay with a single version for most of your reading and study (this aids in memorization).

When choosing your main Bible, look for:

  • durable binding
  • cross-references
  • room to write your personal notes

Want to know more?

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