You could think of translation styles as varying levels of zoom on a camera. Word-for-word zooms in the closest and gets right to each word. Thought-for-thought zooms out a bit and looks at sentences as a whole. And if you zoom out even more, you’ll get to the area of the paraphrase.
A solid paraphrase focuses on a section of Scripture, which might be an event, a speech, or even a whole chapter. Instead of trying to capture the exact wording, the paraphraser attempts to convey the meaning in modern English. This might require changing the order of words or how something is phrased. They may even change a metaphor or comparison to a similar one in our culture. Beyond this, they also focus on making the poetry of the original language sound poetic in ours.
That doesn’t mean they have free rein, though. The paraphrases on our site do not change the basic facts of Scripture. They maintain the people, places, events, and theological truths found in God’s Word. In fact, if you compare them to a word-for-word translation, you’ll see how similar they are.
For many Christians, a paraphrase helps them cross the cultural divide and get into the Bible. They more readily understand the purpose of the text when it’s presented with the language and rhythms they’re used to. We certainly recommend that you try one out along with the other translations.
If you’re interested in a paraphrase, we have the Message (MSG) on our site.
Next week, we’ll wrap up this series by answering the big question: Which type of translation is best?
Last week, we saw that word-for-word translations do just that: give us (approximately) one English word or phrase for every word or phrase in the original language. They even focus on keeping the same word order if possible. To explain the differences between that and thought-for-thought translations, it might be best to consider an analogy.
You’re probably familiar with the two basic types of printers available today: inkjet and laser. Inkjet printers shoot out ink a line or a few lines at a time. Laser printers, on the other hand, churn out pages by reproducing a single image on the paper. It’s all done at once, not line by line.
Thought-for-thought translations are like the laser printer. Instead of focusing on moving each word to English, thought-for-thoughters examine the whole sentence and do their best to move it over as an easily understood unit. That is, they rearrange the order of the words so that it makes the most sense to a modern English-speaking audience. They’re going for the meaning, not the exact wording.
That’s what makes thought-for-thought translations very readable to us. The scholars who produce the text are all committed to holding true to what God’s Word says in a way that’s easy to understand.
We’ll dive into paraphrases next week.
Last week, we looked at why there are so many different versions of the Bible. Moving languages across time and culture takes a great deal of effort to get right. And there are three main ways translators can go about this: word-for-word (which we’ll discuss today), thought-for-thought, and paraphrase.
Word-for-word is probably the easiest to explain. At its most rigid, this simply means that a translator takes a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word and renders it as an English word or phrase. The translators even try to keep the word order as close to the original as they can. This isn’t always possible because English word order is much more restrictive than those ancient languages.
You might say that this type of translation is the most literal. And that’s its biggest selling point. These translations get about as close to the original text as you can get.
But, on the other hand, word-for-word translations can also be more difficult for a modern English speaker. The more literal, the more cumbersome some phrases may be. After all, there are some major cultural divides involved. A phrase that made sense in ancient Israel makes little or no sense to us. That’s why even the most direct translations have to make a few updates or add footnotes.
Here are some examples of word-for-word translations: English Standard Version (ESV), King James Version (KJV), New American Standard (NASB), New King James Version (NKJV), Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
Next week, we’ll tackle thought-for-thought translations.
Why are there so many different translations of the Bible? Wouldn’t one for each language be enough? Not necessarily, and that’s because there are several approaches you can take to translating the original languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Bible translations usually come in three basic styles, which we’ll call 1) word-for-word translations, 2) thought-for-thought translations, and 3) paraphrases. You may have heard other, fancier names for these categories, but we’ll stick with those. (See Choosing a Bible Translation for more detail on that.)
The basic challenge of translating anything is that language doesn’t exist in isolation. Language exists to transmit ideas and culture. We want to communicate something because we want to share our experiences, thoughts, and values. The same is true with what God inspired the authors of the Bible to write. They wrote with the language of their experience.
In other words, the Hebrew writers communicated from their Hebrew-oriented worldview, the Greek from theirs. That may seem elementary, but it means that translating those words involves dealing with how they thought about the world.
Now, to be sure, the Bible presents fundamental truths about who God is and how He acted in history. Those basic facts won’t change. God will always split the Red Sea down the middle, Jesus will always die for our sin and rise again, and Paul will always see Jesus on the way to Damascus. Those are set facts.
But taking Hebrew and Greek ideas and rendering them in English, for example, is complicated. The languages don’t line up exactly. For example, Greek has four words for types of love; English has one. That’s why it takes scholars years of prayer and study to make sure they get it right. Add to that the fact that modern languages such as English keep changing, and you can see why new versions keep coming.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll examine the different approaches translators take for moving the original languages to English. Up next week? Word-for-word translations.
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