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Why Are There So Many English Translations of the Bible?

Because the translation process has a certain amount of subjectivity, it is helpful to be able to compare different translations in order to get the best feel for what the original languages expressed as newer English translations are able to reflect our ever-changing language.

Contributing Writer
Updated Jan 04, 2021
Why Are There So Many English Translations of the Bible?

According to Wikipedia, there are over 450 English translations of at least some portion of the Bible. While many of them are old and no longer in print, there are still at least 20 major English translations available.

In addition, there are multiple editions of each modern translation that are focused on different audiences. So, a natural question to ask is why. Why do we have such a vast array of English translations?

Some Goals in Translation

The Bible was not originally written in English. Rather it was written in ancient forms of Hebrew and Greek. Since few people speak those languages today, translation into modern languages is necessary for most of us to be able to read or understand the Bible. There are several goals that translators strive for when producing translations into English or any other language.

  • Accuracy. The translation should reflect the original languages as closely as possible. 
  • Clarity. The translation that is produced should be readable and understandable. 
  • Be natural. The translation should read in the way that we most naturally speak. 
  • Appropriate for its intended audience. The language used will be different if the translation is for a child versus an adult. 

How the translator chooses to meet these goals will have an impact on the translation produced. And each translator, or translation team, will have different thoughts as to the best way to accomplish these goals.

Translation Philosophies

There are three primary philosophies for translating Scripture. A formal equivalence translation attempts, as much as possible, to provide a literal, or word-for-word, translation. It is not possible to produce a readable text that strictly adheres to this philosophy, but the intent is to be as close as possible. The NASB and ESV are examples of this type of translation.

A second translation philosophy is called a paraphrase, or functional equivalence. These translations are more concerned with readability, often sacrificing a more literal reading for one that is culturally equivalent. The Living Bible and The Message are examples of this type of translation.

A third philosophy is sometimes identified as mediating. This type of translation will try and strike a balance between the formal and functional approaches. The NIV and CSB are two popular translations that use this approach.

Some Challenges in Translation

One reason we have so many English translations is due to some of the challenges and problems in translation. How these challenges are met is reflected in the translation that is produced.

Often there is no direct translation from one word, or expression, in Hebrew or Greek into English. In those cases, the translator must determine an appropriate word, or expression, in English that conveys the thought from the original language.

Figures of speech, idioms, and poetry also present challenges to the translator. Do you attempt to translate them literally, in which case they may lose their impact? Or do you look for alternatives that preserve the authors' intent while being less faithful to the original wording?

There are other issues as well that the translator must work through when translating from one language to another. And each translator, or group of translators, will approach this in different, and often equally valid, ways.

Language Evolution

Another reason for the proliferation of English translations is the evolution of the English language. While it is not always readily obvious to us on a day-to-day basis, the change is clear when you read something from previous centuries. Nowhere is this more obvious than when looking at the King James Version of the Bible.

In Philippians 1:27, the KJV says, “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” Today’s reader will see the word “conversation” as dealing with the things we say. But that word has changed in meaning over the centuries.

When the KJV was translated, it dealt with the conduct of one’s life and lifestyle. A modern translation, like the NIV, translates this passage as “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This more adequately reflects the original intent of the passage.

While the change in language over a 400-year period is obvious, it is also true for a much shorter timeframe. Today, the English language is rapidly changing. Words are given new meanings. New words and expressions are added, and others fall out of use. So newer English translations are able to reflect our ever-changing language.

Manuscript Discoveries 

Another contributing factor to the proliferation of English translations is the ongoing work in discovering older manuscripts and in textual criticism. This work has brought us ever closer to the text of the original manuscripts.

There are many who resist this work and reject the findings of modern biblical scholarship. This seems primarily because of how deeply entrenched the KJV is. There have been many older manuscripts discovered since the KJV was produced. And some of the time those manuscripts do not include passages that are familiar to readers of the KJV.

And these “missing” passages are generally not included in the newer translations that seek to be more faithful to the originals. Not because the translators are removing unwanted passages from the Bible, but because of a desire to be faithful to the Bible as originally written.

Cultural Differences

While English is spoken throughout much of the world, the English I speak is not identical to the English spoken in the U.K. We use words in different ways, sometimes having different words for the same object or action.

A simple example might be the word “dinner.” It is a meal that we eat during the day, but which meal? Where I come from, it is the evening meal. In other places, within the U.S., it is the noon meal. And there are countless examples like this. And all of them affect the way we provide translations.

While a translation like the NIV tries to be culturally neutral, there are other translations that target specific cultures. The NASB, for instance, is a translation that was written specifically for English speakers in the United States. Other English translations have been written for different parts of the world.

Why Are There So Many English Translations?

It might be tempting to see the large number of English translations as undesirable. Whenever a group gathers and reads from Scripture, it can sometimes be difficult to follow one who is reading from a different translation. And arguments can easily develop as to which translation is the best.

But I believe that we are blessed to have such a wide variety of English translations. Because the translation process has a certain amount of subjectivity, it is helpful to be able to compare different translations in order to get the best feel for what the original languages expressed.

I believe we should embrace the variety of translations we have available and use several different ones in our reading and study rather than just lock into one to the exclusion of any others.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Natalie_

Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.

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