I know there are a TON of translations out there and that some people prefer things like King James Only. But I was wondering: What are some good criteria for choosing a translation and why?
I would propose the following criteria for selecting an English Bible translation:
- faithfulness to the original languages
- translation philosophy (thought-for-thought, word-for-word, or paraphrase)
- usage of the best texts/manuscripts available
These criteria are purely subjective, therefore some theological traditions will prefer various manuscripts or translation philosophies over others.
Faithfulness to the original languages
Is the translation based on the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts? Or is it based on an existing translation? Is the translation consistent? Does it take recent scholarly linguistic and philological data into account? Does it allow the New Testament to inform how the Old Testament is translated? Are masculine pronouns translated as gender-neutral where grammar allows? Is there a clear theological bias (translations produced by sectarian groups or individuals often have a determined bias).
A thought-for-thought translation is known as dynamic equivalent, while a word-for-word translation is called formal equivalent. A paraphrase involves restating the meaning of a given passage in other words. Essentially this is a metric of how literal a translation is (does it follow form or meaning?). Remember that both form and meaning can be important; this is a subjective decision (just like all of the other criteria).
Usage of the best texts/manuscripts available
Some theological traditions have defined manuscripts/texts that are to be considered authoritative. Others tend to trust certain "families" of manuscripts more than others (Byzantine/Majority vs. Alexandrian, etc.). Others would prefer critical texts produced with the best quality scholarship that take early translations and manuscript variants into account.
This criteria is often overlooked. There is some truth to the old saying that "the best Bible translation is the one you read." Who cares how well it meets the other criteria if you can't comprehend what you're reading? Some translations are harder to read than others.
The best translation is a purely subjective choice that factors in these criteria. Some may consider certain criteria to be more important than others, while others may wish to balance all of them equally.
If you accept what the Bible says about itself, specifically that it is "God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16) and that its authors were "carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21) as they wrote, then it follows that we would want as accurate a translation as possible.
Now, it is true that there are minor copyist errors in the original manuscripts from which translations are made. However, I have personally cataloged every variant in the first eight chapters of John and looked into this issue a fair amount, and I can confidently assert that the variances do not have any significant impact on the meaning of the text.
Still, we want to have an accurate translation. The Greek language of the New Testament is a very precise language--well-suited, coincidentally, for recording doctrinal issues. Hebrew, I am told, is great for storytelling, which is almost quite coincidental.
A good translation will attempt to capture the meaning put forth in the original language and represent that as closely as possible in the other language.
Many in the KJV-Only movement have made much of the differences between the Greek manuscript families of the Textus Receptus (TR) and the critical text. Most modern translations are based on the critical texts while the KJV and a few others are based on the Textus Receptus. I have personally investigated the variances between these two manuscript families quite a bit. Some claim that the the critical text is based on corrupted manuscripts. My personal conclusion is that the critical text is, indeed, older. What is "missing" from them that appears in the TR is essentially explanatory notes that were likely included in margins of manuscripts originally and over time found their way into the manuscripts themselves. Other variants seemed to arise from the inclusion of wording from one gospel into the account of the same event in another gospel. List of major textual variants in the New Testament
There are basically two approaches to translation--1) word for word, and 2) thought for thought.
In reality, though, an exact word for word translation does not really work. Oftentimes, a Greek proper name will have the definite article preceding it, and we don't typically do that in English. For instance, Greek has, literally, "the God". In English, however, this is just not the way we speak. So, even the most literal word-for-word translation will not say "the God" or "the Jesus" or "the Capernaum".
Of particular importance in translation is the faithfulness to render verbs in the correct tenses. An old adage for New Testament Greek is, "the theology is in the verbs".
Caution should be taken regarding translation that attempt to bend the Scriptures to modern philosophies. For instance, it would be inappropriate to render pronouns referring to God or Jesus as gender-neutral, because they are not so in the original language. It is not ours to redefine what the Holy Spirit intended.
So, those are some general principles. I would personally recommend the following translations:
LITV word-for-word, very precise, but difficult to read, more for study. KJV word-for-word, but with verb tenses and pronouns that have fallen out of use. NASB Word-for-word, but a little verbose at times. ESV Word-for-word, and perhaps a little smoother than the NASB NIV Thought-for-thought, but pretty faithful to the original text. One thing it does is replace pronouns with their antecedents in many places. This is most common with pronouns for Jesus. This does help with readability at times, especially in a world where individual verses are quoted out of context.
There are many other good translations, of course, but these are pretty reputable.
There are numerous things that go into finding a translation that works for you. Let's start with the different translation styles:
Literal word for word translations. These translations go back to the original translations and try to capture the exact words of the original language in the translation language (in this case, typically English). These tend to be fairly accurate but are often unreadable.
Thought for thought translations. These translations, rather than try to determine the exact words of the original translation in the new language, try to capture the meaning in a readable and interpretable way. These tend to be slightly less accurate and more open to the interpretation of the translator, but are often very readable.
Paraphrase. Taking a step farther from thought for thought you get paraphrase, which turns the original language texts into a very readable, almost story-like version. You lose a significant amount of connection to the original language text here, but you trade it for a far more accessible text.
Other things to consider are the scholarly rigor that goes into the translation (the NIV famously had a huge number of scholars and translators that worked on it). The number and quality of source texts used and the group of people doing the translating (did they all of one denominational or doctrinal bent?).
That said, each kind of translation is good for specific things. If you don't read the original languages of scripture (Ancient Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic) then your best option is to read several different translations when you are interpreting a passage. If the translations agree you have a good idea of the meaning, if they disagree than you can often get a sense of the lingual nuance of the original language by reading several different scholar's translations.
No one translation or type of translation is superior to others, although several are very common for usage. The main ones I see used are the KJV, NIV and ESV, though there are several other translations that are commonly used for answers on this site. Most translations have strengths and weaknesses and I would not recommend relying on a single translation for your interpretation of scripture.
As far as choosing a translation for your daily reading (or a specific purpose), evaluate your needs. Do you need readability? Do you need a solid understanding of what the scripture is trying to communicate? Do you want to know exactly what was said as close to word for word as possible?
Developing your requirements for a translation will inform which translation you use. Everyone has different needs and thus there are dozens of different translations into English. This is a supreme luxury (many langauges, even common ones like Spanish, only have a few translations) and one that allows a great deal of options. Choose a reputable translation that suits your requirements.
I have 28 bible translations in my bible study program. When I teach I use the Bible that is authorized by the Church I am in. You should use the Bible that your Pastor or Priest uses, otherwise you will be in conflict with the doctrine of your Church. Each Bible translation has been commissioned by a particular religious entity in such a way as to support the doctrine of that entity. No two Bible translations use exactly the same words. Some Bibles disagree on sentences and even entire verses are missing in some Bibles. There are 80 books in the Anglican Bible but only 67 in Protestant Bibles. It would be confusing to use a catholic bible for protestant study. If you are Anglican you would read the English King James version and not the Baptist version of the KJV, which excludes 13 books of the OT. Greek Orthodox use a different OT to Roman Catholics. And so on. So, stick with the Bible your Pastor or priest uses. If you want to branch out and find out what the Catholics or Anglicans teach, then select their Bibles - be warned, the theology is quite different, and their Bibles support their theology.