How Bible Translations Work

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If you’re new to reading the Bible, a helpful tool is to know how different translations work.

All modern translations are based on the most accessible and earliest biblical manuscripts we have available. As scholars translate, they have an intended audience in mind as they select the right English words to communicate the authors intent. All this to say, Bible translations do not operate like the telephone game - where one person says something who then tells someone else, and so on and so on until the last person says something way off from the original message. Rather, translators want to be faithful to the original text and contextualize to their audience. (To know what manuscripts translators have access to and the audience they’re translating for can be found in the Preface of most major Bible translations.)

Below you’ll find a chart with a brief explanation behind the major Bible translations. To gain a wider understanding of biblical passages, we’d recommend using multiple translations and comparing them. Below you’ll also find a sampling of verses put side-by-side with different translations.

Word for Word - These translations are based on finding a 1-for-1 from the original language to the English. Since biblical languages work differently than modern-day English, these translations can be at times hard to read.


Meaning for Meaning - These translations look to bridge the gap between faithfulness to the exact wording of the original language while also communicating the idea behind the author’s word choice.


Thought for Thought - Rather than word-for-word, these translations will try to communicate the author’s intent behind the original words while still maintaining exegetical faithfulness.

Paraphrase - These translations are not based on the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Rather, their aim is to be contextual and casual for a specific audience to understand.

Below are samplings of different translations using one translation from each category: word-for-word (NASB), meaning-for-meaning (GW), thought-for-thought (NLT), and paraphrase (The Message).

Psalm 2:7

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

"I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.' "

GOD'S WORD Translation (GW)

I will announce the LORD's decree. He said to me: "You are my Son. Today, I have become your Father."

New Living Translation (NLT)

The king proclaims the LORD's decree: "The LORD said to me, 'You are my son. Today I have become your Father.

The Message

Let me tell you what GOD said next. He said, “You’re my son, and today is your birthday."


Matthew 16:13

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

GOD'S WORD Translation (GW)

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

New Living Translation (NLT)

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The Message

When Jesus arrived in the villages of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “What are people saying about who the Son of Man is?”

 

2 Timothy 3:1-5

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. [2] For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, [3] unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, [4] treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, [5] holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.

GOD'S WORD Translation (GW)

You must understand this: In the last days there will be violent periods of time. [2] People will be selfish and love money. They will brag, be arrogant, and use abusive language. They will curse their parents, show no gratitude, have no respect for what is holy, [3] and lack normal affection for their families. They will refuse to make peace with anyone. They will be slanderous, lack self-control, be brutal, and have no love for what is good. [4] They will be traitors. They will be reckless and conceited. They will love pleasure rather than God. [5] They will appear to have a godly life, but they will not let its power change them. Stay away from such people.

New Living Translation (NLT)

You should also know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. [2] For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. [3] They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control; they will be cruel and have no interest in what is good. [4] They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. [5] They will act as if they are religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. You must stay away from people like that.

The Message

Don't be naive. There are difficult times ahead. [2] As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, [3] dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, [4] treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. [5] They'll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they're animals. Stay clear of these people.