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Q&A

What is the most accurate and literal English Bible translation?

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Which translation is most accurate and literal?

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Accuracy and 'literalness' are only two of several factors in a translation, and I would argue that they are subjective factors at that. 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
  • readability

As I stated, these criteria are purely subjective, therefore some religious 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 an attempt to reconstruct non-extant manuscripts in another language)? 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 Hebrew Bible is translated (and take into account differences between the Septuagint and Masoretic or other texts)? Are masculine pronouns translated as gender-neutral where grammar allows? Is there a clear bias (translations produced by sectarian groups or individuals often have a determined bias - and all translation involves bias if we're honest)?

Translation philosophy

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). 'Literal' is not always better, especially when the text refers to idioms or cultural/historical practices or events which are unfamiliar to modern readers.

This seems to be the main criteria you are using, but I hope to persuade you that the other factors are equally important. However, since this is the main criteria you asked about, here is an infographic prepared by Dave Croteau that illustrates where several major English Bible translations fall on this spectrum:

Translation Philosophy Comparison

Keep in mind, however, that this infographic does not take these other factors into account - which I believe are equally important (but highly subjective, and thus unable to be neatly graphed).

Usage of the best texts/manuscripts available

Some religious 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.), or they reject the 'family' theory altogether (e.g. Coherence-Based Genealogical Method). Others would prefer 'eclectic' texts produced with the best quality scholarship that take early translations and manuscript variants into account.

Readability

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.

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3 comment threads

What does accurate mean is a bit of a philosphical question (2 comments)
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While there are subjective factors, some translations are objectively better than others. I've run in... (1 comment)

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