The Problem of Choosing a Good Bible Translation

Posted in The Bible by Nathan Creitz on July 1, 2009

stats-mapI was reading through my blog subscriptions this morning and one post in particular really stood out and inspired this post. More about that later in the post. For now, I want to discuss the problem of choosing a good Bible translation.

Problem #1

How do you find a good Bible translation? Well, it depends on what language you speak. If you speak English, I recommend the Holman Christian Standard Bible. I’ve written about that here and here. It’s the best of the modern translations because it is accurate, it is readable, and it is not theologically biased like so many translations tend to be.

If you aren’t satisfied with my recommendation then I will happily point you to Douglas Stuart’s book entitled, How to Choose a Translation For All Its Worth.

The problem of choosing a translation in English is a minor problem. If you grab an NIV or an HCSB or an ESV or even the older KJV you will be reading the Truth (just don’t fall into the trap thinking that The Message is a translation!). There are nuances where a word choice could have been more precise or might have captured the original meaning more clearly, but it’s a minor problem.

There are bigger problems to worry about.

Problem #2

But what if you don’t speak English? Well, there are Bible translations in 4,516 languages. There are even some languages that also have numerous versions to select from, though I don’t know if it is to the extent of the selection in the English language.

However, there is a problem here. Some of these languages may only have the New Testament or the Gospels. Other languages may have translations from a translation. Only 438 languages have the entire Bible translated from the original languages. There is a great need for Greek and Hebrew scholars to translate from the original languages into many of these languages that may only have a translation from a translation or a partial copy of the Bible.

There’s lots of work to be done, but even that’s not the biggest problem. If a language only has the New Testament, they can still hear the gospel, but there are some people that don’t even have one verse translated into their heart language.

Problem #3

I like reading Kouya Chronicle which is a blog from Eddie and Sue Arthur. They are Wycliffe Bible Translators and it was his post this morning that encouraged me to write this one. He reminds us that there are 2,393 languages with NO Bible translation. That’s about 200 million people who have no access to the Bible.

This is unacceptable. The English language has plenty of translations to choose from. There shouldn’t be the thought of another translation project in our language until we cut the number of languages with no Bibles in half! And even then it probably wouldn’t be necessary to start another English language translation project. It’s amazing that the KJV has lasted so long with its thees and thous. People still use the KJV as their translation of choice. If the KJV could last so long, couldn’t our modern translations like the NIV or the HCSB tide us over for a while so that we can get as many resources over to these other countries that have nothing?

How do you choose a good Bible translation when there is no translation to choose from? The problem of choosing a good Bible translation is that millions of people don’t have a choice!


So what can we do? Not everyone is called to be a Bible translator. Not everyone knows Greek and Hebrew. We are blessed to have so many options in our country but we have grown fat and lazy when it comes to other people around the world. They are our neighbors though they are thousands of miles away.

Here are some things WE can do even if we never become Bible translators ourselves:

1. Pray for the unreached people groups of the world.

2. Adopt a language or an unreached people group or sponsor a verse for $26.

3. Support a Bible translator financially. I recommend my friends Eddie and Sue Arthur.

4. Educate your church or small group. Send them to this blog post and encourage them to watch the following videos:    Video 1Video 2Video 3

Finally, do something now! Our desire to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless means nothing if we don’t give them the gospel. Making this life more comfortable for a few won’t make the next life any more comfortable. We need to feed and clothe and shelter people and show our love for them in that way, but for every dollar spent meeting a physical need, why not spend two dollars for spiritual needs? In fact, if we put first things first, many times the other needs are met. Give someone the gift of a Bible in their own language and many will learn to read for the first time. The gospel is spiritually AND socially transformative, so by all means, give someone fresh water, but don’t forget about the living water that will quench their thirst forever!


14 Responses

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  1. Paul said, on July 1, 2009 at 10.52 am

    In Nepal where I have been studying, there are over 100 languages and recognized dialects (in a country slightly larger than Ohio). Not many of them have the Bible translated into their language or only have the NT. The Bible has been translated into Nepali, which most people can at least speak, but most are also illiterate, so it becomes useless to them. And some languages don’t even have a written language. Major hurdles still exist in translating the Bible, but I know they can be overcome.
    And this same principle goes for the number of Bibles in an American household. I have seen statistics that say there are enough Bibles in the world for each person in the world, but a major percentage of those are in the US. Each American household has an average of four Bibles. Don’t want to sound cynical, but it seems that the Bible has been “marketed” to American Christians instead of having been presented to the rest of the world…

  2. Helen Fuller said, on July 1, 2009 at 10.58 am

    What about all those languages for which there is no written form? The BSL Bible Project is working to produce a translation of the Bible in British Sign Language so that Deaf people can access the Bible in their heart language. There are large numbers of Deaf people around the world who have no access to the Gospel at all because they are a hidden people group. Missionaries focus on the hearing people with whom it is easier to communicate and may never even meet representatives of the Deaf community let alone reach out to them with the good news.

  3. General Kafka said, on July 1, 2009 at 11.25 am

    Awesome post – thank you!

    I wonder if translation from the Hebrew/Greek is that important when darkness is so dense for 200 million people.
    Is the bottleneck on the number of Hebrew/Greek scholars or more that there are so few people able to speak the 2200 remaining languages and have the capability of writing the Bible down ?
    What if we had just a few books translated from the Hebreew/Greek and most of the other books would be “re-translations” from a couple of other translations (eg an indonesian reader using and an English and an Arabic translation to come-up with a ‘re-translation’ into some indonesian dialect…

    • Helen Fuller said, on July 2, 2009 at 1.39 pm

      Sign Languages are ‘regular languages’; the only difference is that they are visual rather than spoken. Literacy rates amongst Deaf people tends to be lower than amongst the hearing population (a sweeping generalisation, I know!) so I would argue that the visual language is their heart language. Certainly my Deaf friends would claim that BSL is their first language and say that English is their second language. In some countries it is difficult for Deaf children (and adults) to get access to even the most basic education and it is highly likely that the only access to language that they will have is a sign language developed in the home with their largely hearing families. This truly is a hidden people group.

  4. Sharon said, on July 1, 2009 at 1.17 pm

    I am currently praying for several families who are working on Bible translations in countries and situations which make it dangerous for me to mention their names. Please pray for these and other unnamed servants who are doing this vital work for the Lord’s Kingdom!!!

  5. Melodie said, on July 1, 2009 at 4.20 pm

    Amen Nathan!

  6. Nick Norelli said, on July 1, 2009 at 5.30 pm

    I just wanted to correct one thing: How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth was written by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, not Douglas Stuart (him and Fee co-authored How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book).

    As far as translations of the Bible into other languages goes, it’s a great idea, and we should certainly be working towards that end (in fact many wonderful people are), but hearing the Gospel is not contingent upon having a written document in your language. We send missionaries into foreign lands to preach the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. One need only hear the message, not necessarily read it.

    I think it’s also worth mentioning that in ancient times the majority of the world’s people were illiterate and not much has changed since then. That didn’t stop the Gospel from spreading through word and art (look at churches with stained glass windows and you’ll notice that the images depict major portions of Scripture).

  7. Eddie said, on July 1, 2009 at 5.55 pm

    Thanks for the link and the encouraging comments, Nathan. This is a great post (and not just because you are responding to me!).

    Nick makes some good points and I more or less agree with him. Yes, we are called to ‘preach the Gospel’ but we are also called to ‘make disciples of all nations’. In the long term disciples need to be able to immerse themselves in God’s word. It is true that this does not always mean reading – and Nick is right that the for most of history, very few people were literate. However, we have also moved on from the days when the best technology we had to illustrate the Gospel was stained glass. Wycliffe and partner organisations are doing a great deal to promote the use of oral Scriptures. Solar powered and wind up MP3 players are used to distribute readings of the Scriptures in vernacular languages. But alongside this, it is worth remembering that the original drive to push education in the Western world came from the Church. The combination of Scripture Translation and literacy work that Wycliffe practices brings a vast range of benefits beyond access to the Bible itself.

  8. Helen Fuller said, on July 2, 2009 at 1.43 pm

    Thanks Paul for the link to the Wycliffe article. I believe they are also involved in the BSL Bible Project in some way. This is a live video version rather than an animation. Work is progressing slowly as clips are produced and demonstrated to the Deaf community to gain their feedback. For more information please see:

  9. Chuck said, on August 13, 2009 at 2.33 pm

    You are the only person I’ve ever heard who likes the HCSB! Because that’s remarkable and I like your tweets, I decided to leave a comment. I’m not saying that’s wrong but I never heard anyone say it before.

  10. Will said, on September 19, 2009 at 8.26 pm

    Sorry I’m late to the discussion, but Chuck, if this is the first time you’ve ever heard someone say they like the HCSB, you need to get out more! 🙂

    The HCSB is by far one of the best English translations available. It suffers from a marketing deficit to be sure, but hopefully that’s all changing now.

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