Are Word-for-Word Bible Translations More Accurate to the Original Meaning?

Are word-for-word (or “literal”) Bible translations the best at accurately conveying the meaning of the original inspired text of Scripture? No. In fact, there aren’t any popular English Bible translations that are actually literal. For example, here is Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) of 2 Peter 1:20-21 compared with the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.

“This first knowing, that no prophecy of the Writing doth come of private exposition, for not by will of man did ever prophecy come, but by the Holy Spirit borne on holy men of God spake.” 2 Peter 1:20-21 YLT

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV

As you can see, the most accurate Bible translation is the one that gives the reader a clear, true understanding of the meaning of God’s Word.

Even the most literal English Bible translations include some interpretation of the original text. In the preface to the King James Version (KJV), the translators explicitly wrote that they did not translate the same word in the source manuscripts the same way in all instances; rather, they attempted to capture the sense of the original word in each case.

Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, translated the Bible into German. Reflecting on the translation process, he wrote, “I must let the literal words go and try to learn how the German says that which the Hebrew expresses. Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it – once he understands the Hebrew author – that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, ’…what do the Germans say in such a situation?’ …Let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows.”

To understand the current discussion, it bears mention that there are two basic approaches to translation. The first is known as formal equivalence, also called “literal” or “word-for-word” translation. The goal of formal equivalence is to reproduce, as much as possible, the form of the original Greek or Hebrew. The second approach is known as functional equivalence, dynamic equivalence, thought-for-thought, or idiomatic translation. The goal here is to reproduce the meaning of the text, without necessarily following its form. All Bible translations lie on a spectrum between form and function, and there are no pure versions of either approach. Contemporary versions that tend toward formal equivalence include the New King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version. Versions that tend toward the functional (thought-for-thought) side include the New Living Translation, the Good News Translation, the New Century Version, etc. Other versions take a mediating approach, following the form only when the result is natural or easily comprehended English. Mediating versions include the New International Version, the New English Translation (NET), the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and the Common English Bible.

Word-for-word Bible translators place a particularly high priority on translating Scripture the way it was written — giving the modern English reader the opportunity to see much of the form and structure of the original documents. Ease of understanding varies from verse to verse and from book to book according to the complexity of the source material. But all verses and all books adhere to a high standard of transparency to the original languages.

Thought-for-thought Bible translators place a particularly high priority on helping English readers understand the meaning of Scripture. All Bible passages adhere to a high standard of accessibility and comprehensibility.

Since its release in 1978, the New International Version (NIV) has stood as the modern pioneer of a more balanced approach — an approach that mirrors the balance of priorities held by the KJV translators four hundred years ago. The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience: providing the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning in every verse. The NIV Bible is founded on the belief that if hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding the authors’ intent were the hallmarks of the original reading experience, then accuracy in translation demands that neither one of these two criteria be prioritized above the other.

Built upon this philosophy, the NIV has experienced much the same reaction in the church and beyond as its beloved predecessor, the KJV, whose values it seeks to emulate. Thirty-seven years after its first publication there are more than six hundred and fifty million NIV Bibles in print.