When talking about Bible translations, inevitably the expression “word-for-word” gets used. As in, “I really want a Bible translation that is word-for-word.” You will never hear me use that expression, and I want to succinctly explain why: word-for-word is a really bad approach to translating anything, particularly the scriptures.
Before getting to that though, here is a disclaimer: we live in an era of history where we have no shortage of Bible translations. Scores of English translations exist, and most of them are really good. But there are 1,967 languages in the world that don’t have any scripture, and another 1,275 languages that only have a New Testament—for a total of 3,467 languages where Bible translation either has not started or is not complete. Those statistics are important to keep in mind when talking about the differences between the ESV and the NAS.
Nevertheless, it is a good endeavor to compare Bible translations. It is not demeaning to God’s word to have a favorite translation, nor is it disrespectful to scripture to care strongly about translation principles. After all, it was Augustine who freaked out (NIV) about Jerome’s translation of the plant in Jonah as if it were a gourd instead of an ivy. Its important to remember that we should care about Bible translations, but not to the extent that we cause our comparisons to cast doubt on the power and authority of God’s word. You just have to come to terms with the fact that God breathed his word in Greek and Hebrew,and he also confused languages at Babel. The result is that we are reading a Bible that was not written in the languages we speak.
With that out of the way, “word-for-word” is a bad approach to translation.
Languages consist of words, and words have meaning, but they have meaning only in their context. To use a common example from Spanish 101: ¿Cómo te llamas? Word-for-word, it means “how do you call yourself?” In Spanish it is how, not what. It is reflexive (you call yourself), and it is call—the word for name is nowhere to be found. Yet obviously you would translate this “what is your name?” The meaning of the phrase is more than the meaning of the word. It makes more sense to say that you are looking for a “phrase-for-phrase” translation than a “word-for-word.”
This is why translations themselves don’t call themselves “word-for-word.” In fact, when I hear the phrase “word-for-word” it’s often from someone who is using it to explain why they love the New American Standard Bible (updated, of course). That happens to be the translation that I preach out of, but the NAS itself in its introduction says “when the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom.” In other words, even the NAS says that they would rather use English idioms than be a word-for-word translation. That’s a good translation principle, not a bad one.
The other reason I don’t like the talk about one translation being more “word-for-word” than another (as if that were a good thing) is that it is just too hard of a subject to compare. The translations simply are not consistent on this topic because they have other principles at play than trying to be word-for-word. Here is one obvious biblical example: Luke 2:5 in the Greek literally says that Mary “was pregnant.” Yet the NAS and ESV opt for “was with child” while the NIV goes for “was expecting a child.” Notice that they add words (two Greek words become three or four English ones). The English meaning matches the original meaning, but apparently the translators of the NAS and ESV wanted to avoid calling Mary pregnant, so it was more important to say “with child” despite the fact that almost nobody says that phrase in English to begin with (when was the last time you said someone was “with child”?). The NIV apparently went with a similar approach, but at least used an American English idiom: “expecting a child.” The Holman, which is generally the least “word-for-wordish” of all major translations, here is alone in with its word-for-word translation: “was pregnant.”
Here is another example, similar to the Luke 2:5 one. In Matthew 1:23 the Greek literally says, “the virgin will have in a belly.” Lexicons let us know that the expression “have in a belly” is an idiom meaning to be pregnant. It makes sense that in a world with rudimentary medical knowledge and no ultra-sounds that an idiom like this would be used. But would it be good or bad translation to render that in English, “The virgin will have a big belly”? Here, the NIV and ESV go with “will conceive,” and the NAS and NKJV use “will be with child.” The Holman sticks with “will become pregnant.” Remember, it’s not an issue of word-for-word, as that would be “have a belly.” Its an issue of how to translate an idiom.
I use those two examples because they are theologically neutral and benign ones that illustrate the point that looking for a word-for-word translation is more difficult than you might imagine. Really, the only word-for-word translation would be an in inter-linear that shows the Greek and English side by side. It just wouldn’t make any sense.
The truth is, the Holman, ESV, NKJV, and the NAS have almost identical translation philosophies. While there are differences between them, it is not in the area of “word-for-word.” They all translate phrases, they all wrestle with idioms, and they all use a wide range of words for single Greek words (for example, between them they use 50 different English words for the Greek word logos).In short, they are very similar translations, yet the way they apply their principles makes them different in style and flow.
If you are looking for a Bible translation to buy, consider simply using the translation your pastor preaches from. If you don’t want to do that, then choose by reading a few chapters from different translations, and see how they flow. See if they sound like clear English to you.
I usually encourage people to choose a translation by reading different chapters—as in read Psalms 1-10 in the NAS, 11-20 in the ESV, 21-30 in the Holman, or some approach like that. When you compare the same verse in six translations it is easy to get lost in the weeds of “why did they say ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’? Why did they say ivy instead of vine?” By reading chunks at a time, you come away with a sense of which one reads better to you.
In other words, there are better questions to ask than “is a translation word-for-word?”