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Contemporary translations of the Bible into English

13 November, 2009

Which Bible is the most readable in contemporary English? Which is the most accurate and faithful to the original language?  Patrick Duffy assesses contemporary translations of the Bible with regard to accuracy of translation and readability in English.

In the last half century there has been an exponential growth in both the supply of and demand for translations of the Bible in English. This is due to a great flowering of archaeological, literary and textual studies on the Bible together with an exponential growth in literacy and a wide use of English as a second language. 

One of the balances in the art of translation is between a faithful rendering of the words used, or accuracy, on the one hand, and readability, or a lively account that engages the interest of the reader, on the other. 

Even within “accuracy” there are balances to be made: an original word or phrase may have several possible meanings – so the question arises: does the translator opt for one clear meaning among many possible renderings or should he look for a way to allow the ambiguity to stand?

Bibles highly regarded for accuracy and readability
The following seven English translations of the bible have appeared since 1950. All have a reasonably high degree of accuracy and readability.

  • The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was commissioned in 1937 and completed in 1952 was the work of American scholars.  It was based on the American Standard Version, itself a revision done in 1901 of the King James Version and became accepted on both sides of the Atlantic as a dignified and accurate translation. 
  • The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1990) made use of newly found manuscripts and it does have a good balance between accuracy and readability, but it did not find the same acceptance as its predecessor because of its uncompromising use of inclusive language (using ‘their’ to avoid ‘his/her’ and the addition of ‘and sisters’ where translators considered the text was addressed to women as well as men). 
  • The Jerusalem Bible (JB 1966) was the work of a distinguished literary panel of Catholics working in England under the editorship of Alexander Jones.  It was a translation of the French Bible de Jérusalem incorporating all its scholarship and excellent notes and had a freshness that was free from traditional biblical language. This has been adopted as the liturgical text in the Lectionary (except the Psalms which are The Grail England 1963 translation) in the Lectionary throughout most of the Catholic English speaking world, except the USA. 
  • The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB 1985) edited by Henry Wansbrough OSB is a completely fresh translation that uses inclusive language wherever possible, but without the rigour of the later NRSV.  However JB (1966) continues to be the accepted liturgical text.
  • The New English Bible (NEB 1970) initiated by the Church of Scotland in 1946 and completed in 1970 was an attempt to break away from the mould of ‘biblical English’. It is a ‘thought-for-thought’ version as distinct from ‘word-for-word’ that has freshness and modernity.  The Bible Society and most of the mainstream churches participated in revising this and it reappeared as the
  • Revised English Bible (REB 1989): while its solutions to translation problems are apt, it moves more towards paraphrase than accurate translation.
  • The Good News Bible (GNB 1976) was sponsored by the American Bible Society.  Published on both sides of the Atlantic – sub-titled Today’s English Version in the USA and in Britain as Today’s Good News – its purpose was to make the bible accessible to people whose English is less sophisticated.  This has led to some loss of the rich biblical imagery and vocabulary (God’s ‘right hand’ and ‘mighty arm’ become simply his ‘power’; ‘reconciliation’ becomes simply ‘making friends’, but the difficult suitcase word ‘righteousness’ is retained.  Excellent for young people and those for whom English is a second language. Illustrated throughout with thoughtful and witty line-drawings that combine humour with reverence. 
  • The New American Standard Bible (NASB 1971) was a revision of the 1901 American Standard Bible that took special care to reflect the original Greek and Hebrew words.  Sometimes people feel it overdoes this, even to the point of obscurity. For example, in 1 Thess 4:4 it retains the word ‘vessel’ where it is clear that what is meant is ‘body.  Compare: NASB: (God wants) “each of you to know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honour” with NJB: (God wants) “each one of you to know how to control his body in a way that is holy and honourable”.
  • Even judged by the principles it lays down for itself, NASB 1971 is not fully successful.  At Mark 15:39 it inserts the definite article where the Greek does not have one: it translates – “Truly this was the Son of God”.  What the pagan centurion actually said, with a strange poignancy, was: “Truly this was a son of a god” – which the Christian can understand on a totally different plane. 

  • The New American Bible (NAB) is the official American Roman Catholic version.  The Old Testament was translated in 1970, but was heavily criticised which led to a radical new translation of the New Testament published in 1986.  However, two features of the translation were disallowed by Vatican guidelines in 1997 and 2001 – the use of dynamic equivalence (that is, not sufficiently accurate in rendering the verbal shape of the original language) and inclusive language.  A new translation was then done of passages for use in the liturgy, the Amended Revised New American Bible, and this work is continuing. 
  • The New International Version (NIV 1978, Revised 1984) is an explicitly Protestant translation – the deuterocanonical books are not included – undertaken to meet the perceived need of having an updated Bible in contemporary English but which preserved traditional evangelical theology on contested points.  It is from original manuscripts.  It involved 100 scholars from the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  The translation work was done under the auspices of the International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House.  The range of theologians includes over 20 different denominations such as Baptists, Evangelicals, Methodists and many more.

Bibles that put a higher value on readability
The following five versions are veering further away from word-to-word fidelity and more towards the paraphrase end of the accuracy–readability spectrum.

  • The Contemporary English Version (New Testament, 1991, full Bible, 1995) was begun in 1984 by the American Bible Society with a mandate for a translation that was both biblically accurate and reader friendly.  Its English is natural and uncomplicated.
  • The Living Bible (1971) was published unashamedly as a paraphrase. Using the American Standard Version as his working text, Kenneth Taylor had in 1962 published a successfully paraphrase of the New Testament Epistles. The Living Bible is rephrased into modern speech so that anyone, even a child, can understand the message of the original writers. It has been very popular among English readers worldwide. 
  • The New Living Translation (Tyndale, 1996) is a “thorough revision” of The Living Bible involving more than 90 scholars with the aim of making it exegetically accurate as well as idiomatically powerful.  By taking the most reliable Hebrew and Greek manuscripts it is reasonably successful in turning Taylor’s paraphrase into a real translation. 
  • The Message (NavPress 1993) is a free, highly colloquial and interpretive translation/paraphrase of the New Testament by Eugene H. Peterson.  Like The Living Bible, it is a version of the New Testament in contemporary idiom, the language in which we do our shopping.
  • Oxford’s Inclusive Language Version of the New Testament and Psalms: (1995 Oxford University Press). Using the NRSV as its starting point and taking account of the latest biblical scholarship, this version tries to reflect and even anticipate a new inclusiveness of language by paraphrase, alternative translation, and other acceptable means.  Many scholars see it as violating basic translation principles by putting political correctness before accuracy of thought and expression.


For an English Bible Translation Comparison chart, see http://www.ibs.org/bibles/translations/

For the dilemmas involved in translation see http://www.usccb.org/nab/prefnew86.shtml

Preface to the New American Bible Translation of the New Testament 1986.