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It seems confusing to have so many translations of the Bible. Why isn't there just a single (English) one? Or maybe a single "modern" one (given that KJV is hard to understand these days).

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Because no two languages have 1:1 mappings, languages change over time, and translation necessarily involves interpretation since the translator is continually faced with choices. –  hippietrail Sep 6 '11 at 11:39
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Being a speaker of a minority language, I can state one good reason and many -- well, not so good ones.

The good reason

Language changes. In some languages, you only have different Bible translations for this reason: the translations are temporally spaced maybe a hundred years apart.

Look at 2 Timothy 2:15 in different English translations:

The Wycliffe Bible, 1395
Bisili kepe to yyue thi silf a preued preisable werkman to God, with oute schame, riytli tretinge the word of treuthe.

Tyndale New Testament, 1526
Study to shewe thy silfe laudable vnto god a workman yt nedeth not to be a shamed dividynge the worde of trueth iustly

King James Version, 1611
Studie to shewe thy selfe approued vnto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly diuiding the word of trueth.

King James Version, 1769
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Young's Literal Translation, 1862
be diligent to present thyself approved to God -- a workman irreproachable, rightly dividing the word of the truth;

The New American Standard Bible, 1995
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

It's quite necessary to renew the Bible translation time to time, so that people can understand it. The 1769 KJV is still quite understandable for the most part, but the reasons are cultural. The huge popularity of the KJV has kept its language alive.

The not-so-good reasons

Translation philosophy

There are other reasons, which vary from good to bad in different instances. First, there are the different translation philosophies already discussed in another question -- this amounts to multiple reasons. Note that there are benefits to having different types of translations.

Doctrinal reasons

Then there are the doctrinal reasons -- in my opinion, bad reasons. I'll show just one example, the New World Translation's take on John 8:58.

New World Translation
Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”

New American Standard Bible
Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am."

Looking at other English translations of John 8:58, every one of them translates the end as "I am." Looking at an interlinear version, one can be quite sure that the NWT translates the passage on a purely doctrinal basis.

John 8:58 interlinear

What's very interesting is that the Watchtower Society has an interlinear of their own, and even that translates the phrase as "I am" while also showing the NWT "I have been":

Watchtower interlinear showing "I am" vs. "I have been" in John 8:58

The bad reason turned good reason

If the NWT was the only available translation in English, it would almost force a new translation to be made. Take a bunch of errors such as the one shown above, and the translation gets too unreliable.

Of course, the errors need not be especially crafted to suit some doctrine; they can be made of ignorance, disbelief in the original, etc. First translations in a new language (e.g. what the Wycliffe Bible Translators are doing) almost necessarily contain errors, as many needed terms are very hard to find for a non-native speaker. Whatever the reasons are, a large amount of errors is a good reason to create a new translation.

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I really like the progression of English you've shown; 1395 English is really showing it's Germanic roots. –  Lawrence Dol Aug 30 '11 at 17:08
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+1 But a reason I didn't see on there is that translators can make mistakes. (I'm thinking of the one that made a mistake in the ten commandments... nicknamed the wicked bible or something. I don't think it every got into real production but its a good trivia question) –  James Khoury Aug 31 '11 at 2:34
    
@dancek if you look at Psalm 8:5 in the NKJV it says "little lower than angels" but in the NLT it says "little lower than God" the Original Hebrew had Elohim but the translators couldn't understand how that was possible so they used angels instead. biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%208:5&version=NLT Can't give a reference to the original translators thoughts though thats just speculation/hearsay. –  James Khoury Aug 31 '11 at 6:56
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@James - In the so-called "Wicked Bible", they left out the word "not" in the commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_Bible It actually did make it into print, and there are multiple copies still in existence. –  GalacticCowboy Oct 6 '11 at 13:13
    
@James. That was a printing error, not a translation error. –  TRiG Jan 28 '12 at 22:24
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Referencing the wikipedia article:

theological issues also drive Bible translations. Some translations of the Bible, produced by single churches or groups of churches, may be seen as subject to a point of view by the translation committee. Among these the New World Translation, produced by Jehovah's Witnesses, is seen as controversial by some because of the renderings of key verses. Especially verses, that in other Bible translations support the deity of Christ, are rendered differently in the NWT.

The main reason that multiple versions exist, in my opinion, is that when you translate from one language into another, you have to make choices and decisions as to the methods employed. Consider the translations of Homer, Beowulf, Sun Tzu, and countless others - are the English versions identical to the originals? No. Are they as close as can be reasonably made? Yes.

With the different translation philosophies in use (dynamic equivalence, formal equivalence (similar to literal translation), and idiomatic or paraphrastic translation), you are bound to get multiple "versions".

Other linguistic issues arise when there are multiple words that can be translated (properly) for a given original, or when there are multiple originals that can only be translated into one word (eg the Greek words for love - agape, philia, eros, storge : they are all translated "love" in English because we [tend to] prefer one word with multiple definitions over multiple words each with one definition).

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Translations are only approximations of the original text. Each translation of the Bible will vary on two levels: (1) The scholar's study and understanding of specific phrases and what they mean, and (2) the purpose of the translation which can vary from a staunch adherence to the original phraseology to freely changing the text for the purpose of increasing mainstream understanding and clarity.

When you translate a work from times of antiquity, you have to make some tough choices between translating the original words (literal translation) and preserving the meaning and intention of the original work for the modern ear.

A "chair" in ancient Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic is largely a chair in modern English; Easy enough. But what about phrases and idioms that do not have a direct translation? Sometimes even entire concepts and traditions don't even exist in modern languages. How do you translate those?

For example — In ancient Egypt, wielding a name held great power. If you curried favor with a god (for example), it was believed that you could evoke their name and have them do your bidding at will. That practice was an abomination to the Hebrews and their teachings in that God's name was to be treated with utmost reverence and never evoked for such trivialities like mere mortal endeavors. So when the Hebrews read the original text of the Third Commandment "taking of the Lord's name in vain," they new exactly what was being prohibited. Today, the concept is largely lost so there isn't even a colloquial phrase to describe the prohibition. So we're left with a bit of ambiguity in the text of the Third Commandment which is interpreted to mean anything from "don't say 'bad' words" to "you do NOT tell God what to do, He tells you what to do!"

The same goes for the various nuances of what a passage means by "love," or conveying the meaning of "to kill" vs. murder vs. slaughter. Even a single mention of the word "manger" evokes portrayals of Mary and Joseph traipsing out into the field to to stay in the little red building out back. So decisions are made to faithfully translate the words as written, or rewriting the passage to closer approximate the original meaning of the text. Tough choices.

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I think that dancek and warren covered the good reasons for the different versions: language changes. Also the not-so-good reasons: philosophies.

One other reason that I think has come about recently is publisher fees. The big houses like Lifeway and Crossway can save money on their products if they do not have to pay fees for the NIV and NASB translations. From this you get ESV and HCSB. You will see many of the Lifeway resources using the HCSB now.

Some translations are created so they can be free like the New English Translation (NET)

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Two more reasons:

  1. Some scholars make translations to develop their understanding of the Bible. An example of this is the "Cassirer New Testament", translated by Heinz W. Cassirer as a the result of his need for personal clarity regarding the meaning of the New Testament texts. He did not care to have his translation published in his lifetime. Later, people saw something of value in his translations, and his work was published.

  2. Some translations are made to target a particular audience. "Letters to Street Christians", for example, is a paraphrase written in the street language of the 1970s. Another example is the "Contemporary English Version", which was translated with readability in mind, especially for those with a lower reading ability.

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English Bible Translations differ for a number of reasons:

1. Differences in the English language. Dancek's excellent answer points out how the English language changes over time. In addition, some translations are more dialect-specific (American English vs British English).

2. Sources used for the translation

Bible translators use a wide variety of source materials, including but not limited to:

  • Masoretic Text (Hebrew text of the Old Testament)
  • Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament. Completed around 130BC, this is the version known to the writers of the New Testament.)
  • Latin Vulgate (4th Century Latin translation by St. Jerome. Became the official version of the Roman Catholic Church.)
  • Textus Receptus (Greek New Testament by Erasmus in the 1500s, based on "Byzantine" manuscripts, sometimes called the "majority text". Basis for KJV and most early English translations.)
  • Novum Testamentum Graece (Greek New Testament based largely on "Alexandrian" manuscripts discovered in the 20th century, sometimes called the "critical text". Basis for most modern English translations.)

Many modern scholars think the Alexandrian manuscripts used to make up the "critical text" are earlier and more reliable. Other scholars strongly disagree, preferring the "majority text" for a variety of reasons.

Some modern translations use a single source, others try to harmonize multiple sources. Many modern English versions are based primarily on other prior versions. Plenty of examples here.

3. Different stated purposes for creating the translation. A few examples:

  • The Common English Bible is designed to have English "at a comfortable level for over half of all English readers", and contains the apocryphal books used by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
    The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:5)

  • The Amplified Bible was designed to "amplify" the text by bringing out all shades of meaning in the original. It tends to contain lots of synonyms:
    And the Light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness has never overpowered it [put it out or absorbed it or appropriated it, and is unreceptive to it]. (John 1:5)

  • The Message Bible was written by a single Evangelical scholar and pastor in contemporary idiom to keep the Bible "current and fresh and understandable".
    The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out. (John 1:5)

  • The New Internation Reader's Version was an update of the New International Version with more accessable language, for children or those just learning English.
    The light shines in the darkness. But the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:5)

4. Translation philosophy (Dynamic vs Formal Equivalence).

This is easiest to illustrate using an example: how would you translate the following Spanish phrase:
"¿Cómo te llamas?"

A very literal word-for-word translation (formal equivalence) might be "What do you call yourself?" or perhaps "What are you called?". This is understandable, but is a little awkward in English.

A modern English speaker would probably ask this question as "What is your name?" This would be an example of dynamic equivalence, which translates idea-by-idea instead of word-by-word.

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Thank you for the comprehensive answer! –  Flimzy Mar 21 '12 at 1:28
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