Some people mistakenly think the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), with its eloquent thee’s and thou’s, is the original version. But the Bible was not written in seventeenth-century Old English. More than 1,500 years earlier, the New Testament was written in ancient Greek; and long before that the Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew, along with some Aramaic and Greek (the Old Testament was later translated into the Greek Septuagint).
As time went on, all these texts were translated into Latin, which is the official language of the Church, as well as popular languages like German, French, and English. Today, the entire Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages, and most languages offer several different translations.
It’s important to remember that there is only one version of the Bible, but there are many different translations of it. How can this be? The art of translation is not as simple as taking a word in one language and then using a dictionary to find the equivalent word in another language. Translators have differing opinions about how words and phrases in a text should be reproduced into another language that has different vocabulary, different rules of grammar, and embodies different cultural attitudes than the language of the text they’re translating.
Formal equivalence translations
One approach they use is called formal equivalence, and it strives to communicate the original words the author used. The most formally equivalent translations of Scripture would be interlinear Bibles that replace the original words in the biblical text with their modern counterparts. Using an interlinear translation, John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in Scripture, sounds like this: “Thus indeed loved God the world that the Son the only begotten he gave that everyone believing in him not should perish but might have life.”
As you can see, interlinear translations sound stilted and can be confusing, because they take words that made sense in one language and transfer them into another language without considering that language’s grammar. Most formally equivalent translations change the order and kinds of words that are used in order to help modern audiences understand the author’s original meaning. The Catholic Revised Standard Version (RSV), which tends to be formally equivalent in its translation, renders the passage in this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Dynamic equivalence translations
Another approach to translation is dynamic equivalence, which strives to communicate the original idea the author intended to convey, even if it does not use his original words. Some translators prefer this approach, because the author’s original words may not have the same meaning or not be as recognizable today and so newer words are used to better communicate his original idea. This can be seen in translations that render the Greek word dikaiosis “considered righteous” instead of the traditional term “justified,” as in James 2:24: “a man is justified [or in other translations, ‘considered righteous’] by works and not by faith alone.”
The Message is another example of this approach, especially since it is not technically a translation of the Bible. It is more of a paraphrase that summarizes what the translator, in this case Eugene H. Peterson, thinks the Bible means or what he thinks Jesus would say to people today. In his translation, John 3:16 reads: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” Matthew 6:11 is another striking example. The RSV renders it, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but The Message renders it, “Keep us alive with three square meals.”
Dynamically equivalent and paraphrased translations may be easier for a modern person to understand, but there is a danger that the reader will encounter only the interpretations of the translator and not the words of the sacred author. This can lead to faulty interpretations of the text due to the translation’s misleading language. For example, in John 3:16, the Greek phrase zoen aionion literally means “life eternal” or “eternal life.” The Message’s translation “whole and lasting life” could cause readers to think faith in God’s son will make them live for a long time but not forever.
Not even equivalent translations!
Sometimes a translator’s theology will cause him to mistranslate a text in order to justify his beliefs. This is evident in the New World Translation of the Bible that Jehovah’s Witnesses use. The first verse of John’s Gospel does not say, as it does in the RSV, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Instead it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” That’s because Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the deity of Christ and think he is just “a god” or a glorious creation of the one almighty God Jehovah. (For more on how to answer their arguments, see my booklet 20 Answers: Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Although Catholics should be wary of non-Catholic translations of Scripture (especially since they usually lack the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament), there is no single translation of the Bible that all Christians must accept to the exclusion of others. An audience of people at Mass may appreciate a more dynamically equivalent translation of Scripture, such as the New American Bible, that refrains from using complex or outdated words that could obscure the author’s meaning. Someone studying Scripture, on the other hand, may appreciate a formally equivalent translation such as the RSV that use uses words that best reproduce what the sacred author was trying to say in his own language.
Perhaps the most on-point answer to the question “Which translation of the Bible is the best?” comes from the founder of Catholic Answers, Karl Keating: “The one you will read.”
 Consider, for example, this excerpt from David Mills’s defense of atheism: “in the newer, modern-language translations of the Bible, these ridiculous passages of Scripture have been dishonestly excised, rewritten or edited beyond recognition from their original translation in the King James” (David Mills, Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism, Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2006), 150.