The starting point in answering this question is the fact that not many of us speak Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. Any translation can only be as perfect as the original languages from which it was translated. In the attempt to translate from one language to another, decisions must be made which affect the outcome.
How do you translate the words?
If you want to be true to the original language, you might get some awkward and stilted or unintelligible English sentences. For example, here would be the literal translation of Philippians 2:12, “So as, beloved of me, as always you obeyed, not as in the presence of me only but now by more rather in the absence of me, with fear and trembling the of yourselves salvation work out.”
How would you like to read a whole Bible that way? There are some drawbacks to using strictly literal translations. The first drawback is that literal translations can be misinterpreted by the reader. For example, when Jesus was talking to his Apostles during the establishment of the Lord’s Supper, the King James Version has Jesus saying, “Drink ye all of it.” While it is generally understood that this means Jesus intended for all of them to participate, some say people are in error if they leave any trace of juice in the bottom of a communion cup, or that we are all commanded to drink from only one cup.
Another drawback is that sometimes there are ancient words that have no equivalent word in English. But there are some advantages of literal interpretations. For one, you do catch some of the puns and word plays that you would find in the original language.
Another option is to be as true to the English language as you can get, and say what it MEANS to us. This is called dynamic equivalence, or what we know as a paraphrase. That same passage from Philippians 2 from the New Living Translation reads, “Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.”
So the biggest reason we have different translations is because of this distance between a literal translation (which may not make much sense in the English language) and a free paraphrase (which may miss some nuances of the original language or worse, eliminate some important concepts that affect the author’s meaning. There are many charts available online which rank different translations from literal to paraphrase if you are interested in a particular version.
There are other factors influencing why Bibles are translated the way they are.
What original manuscripts will you will use in your translation?
Sometimes you will be following along as someone reads a passage and you find they read a verse that isn’t in your Bible, or they leave out a verse that IS in your Bible. What’s going on?
What is happening is that we have no original manuscripts of the original language, only copies. And sometimes these copies of copies of copies of copies were written hundreds of years after the originals were penned. Sometimes it is clear that a manuscript is so far from other similar manuscripts that translators would not trust it.
We need to remember that just because a translation is old does not mean that the manuscripts they used are old. And just because a version is popular does not mean that it is any more inspired than a later translation. I don’t want to get into a debate over the King James Version, but you will notice some differences between the KJV and the newer translations, some due to changes in the English language, but others due to the fact that when the KJV was written, they didn’t have access to some of the manuscripts that were found in later years.
What person or group developed the translation?
Inherent with any translation are the biases and theological beliefs of the people doing the translating. This is why translations done by interdenominational groups tend to not reflect obvious theological biases. “Translations” done by more cultic religious groups are prone to error. The “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures” was done by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of the most well known examples of how they have added words to their translation that are not in the original at all is John 1:1, “And the word was with God, and the word was ‘a’ God,” which fits their theology which denies the truth that Jesus was in fact God in human flesh.
With most reliable Bibles you don’t find these kinds of errors. You will find differences related to what we have talked about earlier. But you do have to be watchful when you get a “study” Bible that has notes at the bottom trying to explain what verses mean. Remember that these notes are opinions of men and may or may not reflect truth.
Why does your church lean toward a certain translation? In many cases the leadership put thought into the question, compared various versions and read how each version was developed. There is usually a helpful description in the preface of your Bible that talks about its translation philosophy. I would suggest you read it if you have any more questions about the philosophy of the people who translated it.
For general devotional reading in your quiet time I wouldn’t get too hung up on which Bible is the best to use. But if you want to get deeper in your study I would recommend reading from two or three different translations that cover the spectrum from literal to paraphrase. The advantage of reading from several translations is that you are able to spot areas which would prompt you to dig a little deeper. When you find all of your readings say the same thing that is a good sign. But if they use different words that actually could give a different interpretation to a passage, that is an area upon which to focus more study. Happy Reading!