Bible Translations – Why all the fuss? - By Ben Bonython

When you hear someone say football in Australia, most think AFL and some think soccer while a few think NRL.  When you think about AFL, we all know someone who watches their team’s religiously and knows the game in detail.  Others perhaps are involved in tipping but some only endure football.

When you hear someone say Bible, what comes to mind?  Word of God perhaps or maybe a sense of guilt for not reading it.  Many know the Bible is thick with small print, some have red print for Jesus and most own a copy on their iPhone. For others, the word of translation comes to mind evoking emotions that are akin to football team supporters.

Two questions I want to explore in this brief are:

1.    What is Bible translation all about?

2.    Is there a better question?

So what is Bible translation all about? We have heard about different Bibles: NIV, KJV, ESV, NLT, RSV and The Message are terms we know about, and see on our projector screens each Sunday. What are the three letters after each verse trying to convey?  Does it matter?

The original scripture that forms today’s Bible was not written in English, and in fact, some original scripture was a verbal record kept from generation to generation.  The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew while the New Testament was written in Greek.  This presents a unique challenge for bible translators who weren’t around 4000 years ago with an ancient understanding of culture, colloquial or local knowledge and meanings. 

Perhaps take a moment to turn to your bible.  Look at the front contents page or first few pages in and you will find information about your translation.  I use the New Living Translation (NLT) as my daily reading Bible and my bible has three pages of people in community who worked to translate my NLT bible version.

The first assurance I want to offer is that all the major published translations are excellent translations for reading scripture.  It is important to explore scripture in community and individually.  All major translations of the Bible have all been translated in community.  Proverbs 15:22 speaks about the wisdom of being in the counsel of many, so it is good and necessary for a community of people to consider the original Hebrew and Greek and what that means in English. 

Mention the ‘Crows’ to a Norwegian but don’t expect an AFL response. Ask an African Maasai tribesman to understand snow and then explain Ps 51:7 about the blood of Jesus washes you white as snow.  The Apostle Paul in Paul in Acts 17 used a greek idol in Athens to an unknown god to talk about Jesus rather than the Hebrew bible.  Have you ever experienced someone translate (say Italian) for you but express the words, phrase or intended meaning rather than a direct translation because it is hard to find the right words?  For bible translators these issues, and much more, require scholars to determine how they will translate.

Perhaps to answer the question is to consider bible translation into two equivalence categories, Dynamic (functional or thought for thought) and Formal (literal or word for word).

Word for Word (formal) equivalence and Thought for Thought (dynamic) equivalence are two approaches to translation. The dynamic attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text (if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text's grammatical voice, etc.).  Formal equivalence attempts to translate the text word-for-word (if necessary, at the expense of natural expression in the target language). The two approaches represent an emphasis on the readability and on literal faithfulness to the source text.

so when you hear KJV or NIV promoted as the best or closest translations, I want to suggest it is like someone saying Collingwood is the best AFL team!  Can I suggest that all the AFL teams are legitimate teams of AFL playing in the spirit of the Game.  Likewise, I want to commend that all the major bible translations are legitimate translations of the Word of God in the spirit of the Word of God.  This then has application for us as users and doers of the Bible.  We are to be careful how we present the Bible. The Bible first and foremost is something to be read rather than checked to see if we have the best translation.

Bible Scholars and Theologians have the space to debate and explore the ideas of translations but perhaps onto our second question.  I want to suggest that a better question is do you read your Bible?

The Bible is life giving beyond which translation you use.  The Bible is good for teaching, encouraging and faith building irrespective of translation.  But what use is a translation when only 42% of Women and 32% of men have read the Bible in the past week?

Let us be a community of the Word that respects translation but doesn’t allow the spotlight of our pride to only see three letters like NLT or NIV or ESV, but may we be a community of faith who sees that the Bible is the story of God who loved us so much that He died for us. 

Let us be a community of doers that like the Apostle Paul, who uses whatever it takes including greek god equivalents, and point others to the Bible of a living God who gave His life for us.  Let us be a community of faith who proclaims the very words of God in every situation, complication and salutation.

The focus on translation is important, but it can take the beauty and mystery away from the Word.  We are his Church, beautiful and mysterious according to every Bible translation


Fast Facts (Barna Research)

  • Among households which own a Bible, the typical count is three Bibles per household. (1993)

  • Women (42%) are more likely than are men (32%) to have read the Bible in the past week. (2001)

  • Bible reading during a typical week drops as age drops: 59% of Seniors; 43% of Builders; 39% of Boomers; and 29% of Busters read the Bible in a typical week. (2001)

  • An estimated 75 million adults (42%) said that reading the Bible is very important to them. (1997)

  • Among Bible readers, the average amount of time spent reading the Bible during an entire week is 52 minutes. (1997)


  • International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, revised edition (1979)

  • A Simple Layman's Guide to Bible Translations (Tate)

  • Bible Society (

  • Wikipedia (List_of_English_Bible_translations)

  • Nelsons Bible Dictionary