Bible Q&A: What’s the most accurate Bible translation?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question: What’s the most accurate Bible translation?

Answer:

Occasionally, Bible translators struggle to accurately translate a word, phrase or sentence. As a reader you may try reading more than one English translation, side by side, to appreciate the range of meanings a word or phrase can have. If you know another modern language, try comparing the English with a translation in that language.  

There are also interlinear Bibles, which help to demonstrate the meaning, or range of meanings, of a word in the original, as well as how words were arranged into sentences. So, for example, in an interlinear Bible the word-for-word rendering of the original Greek in John 2.3 reads:  

And having been deficient of wine says the mother of Jesus to him, Wine not they have. 

Strictly speaking, an ‘accurate’ translation of that sentence would have to read exactly like the original. But I bet, unless they’re Yoda, the reader would soon have a headache and put that translation of John’s Gospel down for good. Therefore, the creators of, say, the King James Bible decided to use English, rather than Greek, syntax, translating: 

And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. 

And the translation team of a contemporary translation, the New International Version, went for: 

When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’ 

Now this is a fairly harmless example. And I think we can all agree that both the King James and the NIV offer an ‘accurate’ rendering of the Greek original, even though they make some slight changes. But at other times, things can get a little more complicated, for example, when we drop down from John 2.3 to John 2.4. Here’s the exact equivalent of the original Greek: 

And says to her Jesus, What to me and to you, woman? 

Now, how on earth do you translate Jesus’ question ‘accurately’? Let’s see how different translators have gone about this: 

King James Bible: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ 
New Revised Standard Version: ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ 
English Standard Version: ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me?’ 
New International Version: ‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ 
Good News Bible: ‘You must not tell me what to do.’ 
The Message: ‘Is that any of our business, Mother?’ 

Strictly speaking, none of these translations are ‘accurate’, in terms of being 100 per cent faithful to the original literal wording. But they all aim to convey the accurate meaning. 

We may argue that the wording in the King James is much closer to the original than The Message. But does that necessarily mean it makes matters clearer? Take another example – 1 Peter 3.7:  

‘Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life …’ (King James) 

The metaphor of the vessel in the original Greek evidently made sense to Peter’s readers, but does it now? The King James Bible may be accurate in terms of being literal, but what’s the point when the modern reader will struggle to grasp the meaning? The modern NIV does not translate the word literally; by replacing ‘vessel’ with ‘partner’, it breaks the semantic deadlock: 

‘Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life…’  

Last but by no means least, translators regularly have to face up to the reality that one word can stand for different things. Take, say, the word anthropos in Romans 3.28, which can mean both ‘man’ and ‘human being’. 

The King James reads ‘we conclude that a man is justified by faith’, whereas the modern Good News Bible translates: ‘We conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith.’ Even the slightest knowledge of Paul’s theology will tell us that, at least for contemporary readers, the GNB has got it right. Paul never suggested that women don’t need God’s grace. In 1611, when the King James Bible was published, the world was a more patriarchal place and readers would have read ‘a man’ as ‘humanity’. But nowadays, that wording can be confusing and, by opting for the second meaning of anthropos, the GNB is much more helpful here.  

So let’s recap ...  

Every Bible translation seeks to capture the accurate meaning of the biblical text, but in doing so, some translators choose to stay closer to the literal words of the original, whereas others pay more attention to conveying the meaning through words that make sense to their readers.  

Even ‘literal’ translations, that follow the original wording closely, make changes to the original, to ensure the text still makes sense in the language into which they are translating (see John 2.3.–4 above). 

Sometimes translators have to choose from a variety of meanings contained in the a single word, such as anthropos, which can mean ‘man’ as well as ‘men and women’. 

So when is a Bible version more accurate than another? It depends on how you define ‘accurate’. It’s definitely worth comparing different translations in order to come closer to the original meaning. Yet even those who are in the fortunate position of being able to read the original will tell you that occasionally the meaning is not clear enough to warrant an accurate translation. Putting it differently, we’ll never stop learning as we study the Bible together and on our own and we’ll never stop relying on God’s grace to understand his Word.  

Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!

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