Word-for-Word Translation Philosophy (literal) translation seeks to render the original language words and style into a corresponding English word and style. Again, they seek to retain the original syntax and sentence structure, and the style of each writer as far as possible.

Bible Translation Spectrum_differences_philiophies

Thought-for-Thought Translation Philosophy (dynamic equivalent) seeks to render the biblical meaning of the original language text as accurately as possible into an English informal (conversational) equivalent.

 Of course, as any translation continuum chart will show, many translations fall throughout this spectrum. For example, the ASV and the NASB are more literal than say the ESV, and the ESV is more literal than the HCSB, while the HCSB is more literal than the NIV or the NRSV. On the other side of the spectrum, the MSG and TLB are a paraphrase instead of a translation than say the NLT, CEV, or TEV (GNT). In addition, you have the NIV trying to work right in the middle of these two philosophies. Moreover, if you are still following the picture, the HCSB attempts to fall between the NIV and the ESV. Both of these translation philosophies have their strengths and weaknesses if the translator goes to the extreme in either direction. However, the dynamic equivalent translation philosophy has weaknesses and dangers that are harmful to the student of God’s Word.

The main strengths of the literal translation are that they are trying to preserve the original text, the ancient expressions, how the words are joined together and rendering the words consistently. All of this allows the reader to determine what the meaning is, and not have to depend on the translator to do his work for him. This also ties the Bible together as a whole, and the reader is better able see the Old Testament in the New Testament. The main strengths of the thought-for-thought translation are simply that they get the meaning immediately, as would have the original readers. As the original readers would not have had to struggle with grammar and syntax, or idiomatic expressions, so it is too, the modern reader of a thought-for-thought translation has all of these points of concern modernized for them in an easy to read translation. At first glance, this may appear like an ideal approach.

Those who favor the thought-for-thought form of translation abuse the statement that “all translation is interpretation.” Dr. Leland Ryken has touched on this, saying, “There is only one sense in which all translation is interpretation, and it is not what dynamic equivalent translators usually mean by their cliché. All translation is lexical or linguistic interpretation. That is, translators must decide what English word or phrase most closely corresponds to a given word of the original text. I myself do not believe that “interpretation” is the best word by which to name this process, but inasmuch as it requires a “judgment call” on the part of translators, there is something akin to interpretation when translators decide whether, for example, the Israelites were led through the wilderness or the desert.” [1]

The translator should not go beyond the “lexical or linguistic interpretation” that Ryland speaks of unless there are very good reasons for doing so, such as a verse that would be unintelligible. When the translator goes beyond into the realms of interpretation, i.e., explaining the literal meaning, “wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne, in place of “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.” (Eccl. 9:8) What readers are not being told is, when a translator or committee makes these interpretive changes, he is removing the reader from the equation. In other words, there is no need for the reader to concern himself with understanding how to interpret the Word of God correctly, as it has already been done for him.

Perception of Today’s Readers

The reader of God’s Word, be they young children, teenagers, the elderly, or ones with learning disabilities, they need to see as the structure and meaning of the original, by way of corresponding English words and phrases, and sentence patterns. The original word of God needs to be transparent to the reader. The reader needs to be brought up to the translation, not have the translation dumbed down. The focus of the literal translation is the Word of God in the original, so we know that what we have is the Word of God, not the word of man. The focus of the dynamic equivalent is on the reader. Below are some examples of how the dynamic equivalent perceives today’s readers.

  • “After ascertaining as accurately as possible the meaning of the original, the translator’s next task was to express that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers” – GNB.
  • “Metaphorical language is often difficult for contemporary readers to understand, so at times we have chosen to translate or illuminate the metaphor” – NLT.
  • “Because for most readers today the phrase ‘the Lord of hosts’ and ‘God of hosts’ have little meaning, this version renders them ‘the Lord Almighty’ and God Almighty’” – NIV.
  • “Ancient customs are often unfamiliar to modern readers” – NCV.
  • “We have used the vocabulary and language structures . . . of a junior high student” – NLT.
  • “The Contemporary English Version has been described as a ‘user-friendly’ and ‘mission-driven’ translation that can be read aloud without stumbling, heard without misunderstanding, and listened to with enjoyment and appreciation because the language is contemporary and the style is lucid and lyrical.”

Choosing Your BibleEugene Nida, the father of thought-for-thought translation, had this to say about literal translators in Christianity Today: “This ‘word worship’ helps people to have confidence, but they don’t understand the text. And as long as they worship words, instead of worshiping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, they feel safe.”[2] The real facts are that Nida and of his Dynamic Equivalent camp worship the modern reader instead of respecting the Author of the Bible and his Word choices. Bible scholar John MacArthur states: thought-for-thought translations “diminish the glory of divine revelation by being more concerned with the human reader than the divine author.”

The thought-for-thought proponents have gone beyond translation by modifying words that they feel to be too difficult for the modern reader to comprehend; to taking the metaphorical language of say 2 Kings 2:7: “Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God …” (ESV), to ‘the personal attendant of the king said to Elisha …” (GNB). Rather than even modernize the idea of the ancient custom of kings or men of authority to lean on the hand or arm of a servant or one in an inferior position, they simply removed this thought from God’s word. They also assume ignorance on the part of the modern-day reader by taking statements that they believe would be misunderstood and expressing them to be easily understood. In addition, they have removed gender language they feel offensive, as one will see from their evaluation of the TNIV.

Literal Translation

Dynamic Equivalent

1 Timothy 6:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

17 Instruct those who are rich in the present age[1] not to be arrogant,[2] and to place their hope, not on uncertain riches, but on God, who richly provides us with all the things to enjoy;

[1] Or world

[2] Lit to be high-minded

1 Timothy 6:17 New Living Translation (NLT)

 17 Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment.

1 Timothy 6:17 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 17 Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.

1 Timothy 6:17 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

17 Warn the rich people of this world not to be proud or to trust in wealth that is easily lost. Tell them to have faith in God, who is rich and blesses us with everything we need to enjoy life.

Why do both the NLT and the CEV feel the need to add words that are not in the Greek text: “we need”? Is it because they feel the inexperienced reader will abuse the text? Is there some liberal progressive mindset that cannot allow a person to have more than what they need? Paul is simply stating that we can enjoy all of God’s creation, not just what we need.

James 3:1-2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment. For we all stumble[1] in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says,[2] he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

[1] Or “make mistakes.”

[2] Lit., “word

James 3:1-2 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

James 3:1-2 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body.

James 3:1-2 The Message (MSG)

 1-2Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

Okay, raise your hand if you want to trust the Bible after reading in The Message paraphrase that James and other teachers like the apostles get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. We could go on and on with literally hundreds of examples of the changes that go into God’s word by means of these creative translators, who ‘get it wrong nearly every time they translate.’ The last comment was meant as comedic sarcasm and is a bit of an exaggeration.

Our example texts below are well chosen as they demonstrate the differences in translation principles. Keep in mind that the ESV is an essentially literal translation, and its translation team has penned numerous books and articles emphasizing the value of the essentially literal approach, yet at the same time, it tends to abandon that approach all too quickly and runs to the dynamic equivalent philosophy. After we read the texts below, let us ask what a tutor is. Does our modern-day understanding of tutor correspond with what Paul meant? Did the Galatians have a different understanding of a tutor? Does “guardian” or “charge” solve the problem? Well, read the texts below. After reading the text, reflect on what each translation accomplished. After the UASV and the NASB’s use of “tutor,” did we get the impression that the law was a teacher? And what happened to that impression after reading the ESV? What about after the NIRV, did it cloud our mental grasp up even more? Then, look at the notes below that.

Galatians 3:23-25 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor[1] to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

[1] Lit pedagogue; Gr paidagogos. The tutor in Bible times was not the teacher but rather a guardian who led the student to the teacher.

Galatians 3:23-25 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a [a]tutor.

Lit child-conductor



Galatians 3:23-25 English Standard Version (ESV)

 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,





Galatians 3:23-25 New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)

 23 Before faith in Christ came, we were held prisoners by the law. We were locked up until faith was made known. 24 So the law was put in charge until Christ came. He came so that we might be made right with God by believing in Christ. 25 But now faith in Christ has come. So we are no longer under the control of the law.

Literal Translation: The literal translation will bring over from the Greek [paidagogos, tutor], the structure of the original text (SL) and the presupposition pool[3] of the author and original readers. However, if understanding would be next to impossible, only then would the literal translation step over to the interpretive translation.

Dynamic Equivalent: The dynamic equivalent, the thought-for-thought translation will take the structure of the original and the presupposition pool of the original author and reader [“tutor”] and will bring it over into the structure and presupposition pool of the modern reader “guardian.” Nevertheless, the rendering of “guardian” is actually a somewhat correct interpretation, unlike the NIRV “control.”

1: a tutor i.e. a guardian and guide of boys. Among the Greeks and the Romans the name was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood.[4]

However, does “guardian” help us any more than did “tutor”? Yes, it would, but it is not the complete picture. In addition, a person reading “tutor” would tend to think in a modern way and come home with the idea that the “law” was a teacher in some way. This would be incomplete too. Like the childhood tutor of the first-century, the Mosaic Law was a guardian that protected the Israelites from their surrounding neighbors until the arrival of Christ. Like the guardian of boys, the Law [tutor] also taught some lessons about life along the way, as well as disciplining the child. There is no doubt that upon the Exodus from Egypt, one would view the nation of Israel as nothing other than a child, in a world of raptorial nations and people.

There is no doubt that the Bible is simple and easy to understand at times, but this is very rare, it is far more often than not: extremely complex, difficult and sophisticated. Consider,

Isaiah 38:12-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
13     I calmed myself until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
from day to night you bring me to an end.

Why So Many New Translations?

The last 60-years have seen the release of one new English Bible translation after another. Here we go again as if we need another translation! It has become quite the big business to keep putting out the latest, updated, new version, a new translation. However, it goes even deeper than that, because we now have: church Bibles and ministry Bibles, family Bibles, study Bibles, topical Bibles, apologetic Bibles, audience geared Bibles, and so on. In addition, one can now determine where they want their Bible to be on the scale of just how literal it is.

After making the point that there seems to be no end to the line of new English translations, it must be said that there will always be a need for new translations. ‘Why’ you may be asking? If we were to turn to the many translators in the field of Bible translation, they would offer at least three good reasons: (1) the manuscripts that have been discovered over the centuries are always being studied and better understood, and this increased knowledge may mean adjustments in the translation. (2) Our knowledge of the Bible languages just keeps improving over the years, and once again this can lead to more accurate translations. (3) Languages are living and growing and change over time, altering the meaning of words, in some case, to the opposite. In 1611, “let” in “I let John go to school” meant “stop” or “restrain.”

Translating the Word of God is No Easy Task

While it is true that technology may have made the task somewhat easier, it still takes years to bring a translation to the market. Some things that most may have not considered are (1) the method, process, tools, and sources that will be used to make the translation (2) who is the audience that the translation will be directed toward (the target audience); and (3) what type of translation is it to be: literal (UASV, NASB), dynamic equivalent (NLT, TEV), or something in between (NIV, NJB)? Below we will take a brief look at each of these.

What are the Sources behind the Translation?

Many, who are aware that there are Hebrew and Greek manuscripts used in Bible translation, are not aware of their extent. As some may also know, there is not one single manuscript of the original Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament still in existence. Yet, there are thousands of copied manuscripts of the original language Old Testament and New Testament, and thousands of copies of it in other languages, as well as quotations from the early church Fathers. Are these what the modern translator will consider? Yes, they are a part of the tools within their tool chest, but some of the world’s leading scholars have already considered them extensively for 200-years. In this, they have created a critical text[5] for both testaments.

Today’s translation committees have access to a number of critical texts. However, most modern English translations depend on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible as found in the BHS Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd ed., 1983), and the Greek text as found in the WH NU Westcott and Hort of 1881 and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (28th ed., 2011), as well as the United Bible Societies (5th edition, 2011). The work is far faster today than 50 years ago, as the translator, today has access to Bible software as well as internet access.

Target Audience – Who is it?

In the days of the Tyndale-King James Version, where one translation served the purpose of the many, this would seem to be a strange question. However, for any who have ventured in the bookstore to pick out a Bible, it is immediately clear. You have a church Bible, a family Bible, a Children’s Bible, a study Bible, an archaeological study Bible and many others. One might ask, ‘why can we not just have one Bible for everyone?’

The Dynamic Equivalent translator would argue that the scholar must have a translation that is targeted to him (NASB, UAS); the teacher must have a translation (ESV) while his Bible student must have another (NIV), and the churchgoer yet another (NLT). In the house, the father may have a specific form of translation (NIV), while the wife another (NIV Women’s Bible), and the teenager his own (NIV Teen Bible, TNIV), with the younger children still yet another (NIV Boy’s Bible, The Action Bible, My Little Bible). Then, there is also the African American Bibles. The questions are simple, are the Bibles to be adapted to the people needs, or are the people expected to adapt to the Bible?

Even the Plowboy Should Have Bible

William Tyndale (1494 – 1536), brought us our first printed English Bible. His translation philosophy would be followed for the next 420 years. His objective audience was all English speaking people. On one occasion, Tyndale, heard an educated man say that it would be better to be without God’s law than without the law of the Pope. Tyndale answered “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he does.” Tyndale’s translation of the Greek New Testament was easy enough for a plowboy to understand in his time. However, does this mean that he dumbed down the translation so that the plowboy could easily understand the Bible?

No, Tyndale did not produce a translation to appease the needs of the plowboy; he expected the plowboy to buy out the time, to make an effort to be able to understand God’s Word. He made no adjustments; his translation was informal when that was the case with the original, and formal when that was the case as well. At times, his translation ranges from complex to highly complex. Tyndale translated what the original text said, not what he determined it meant. Unlike: Ps 24:4 (ESV) He who has clean hands and a pure heart; Ps 24:4 (CEV) only those who do right for the right reasons; or Phil 4:1 (ESV) my joy and crown; Phil 4:7 (TEV) How happy you make me, and how proud I am of you. Tyndale did not give way to the less educated, even though that was the largest portion of the population at the time. He expected the less-educated to grow in their understanding of the English language.

The Type of Translation

What is the method of translating the critical texts of the Old and New Testament that the translation committee will follow as they produce their new Bible translation? Will the committee use other translations as their foundational text; if so, how closely will these be followed? Other translation committees may choose to make a completely new revision. If it were the former, an example would be the 1946-1952 Revised Standard Version (RSV), which is a revision of the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV). The RSV would have had the intentions of removing the archaic language and correcting any inaccuracies. Another example would be the 1990 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), a revision of the Revised Standard Version. Both the ASV and the RSV continued in the translation philosophy of William Tyndale, sometimes with the exact wording. Sadly, the NRSV has abandoned those principles, being a considerably less literal translation.

Do We Still Need a Literal Bible

If the committee is following the latter and producing a new translation, completely from the original language texts; it would still consider other translations. However, it would give most of its attention to the BHK and BHS for the Old Testament[6] and the WH, UBS5, NA28 for the New Testament.[7] Other tools would be textual commentaries, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, grammars, exegetical commentaries, translation handbooks, special investigations, and so on. Many translators that have had experience in the field of translation would certainly prefer to produce a new translation, as opposed to making a revision.

Another choice that comes before those producing this new or revised translation is the option of a literal translation or a Dynamic Equivalent (or functional) translation. The literal translation has the aim to capture the accurate wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer, as far as possible. In other words, they want to reproduce what the Bible writer penned in both word and style. The Dynamic Equivalent method seeks to transmit interpretive opinions of the original text, focusing on the message. The literal translation is focused on the reproduction of the text, and the Dynamic Equivalent translation is focused on the reader.

If the Bible translation committee is commissioned to do a literal translation, they must then determine just how literal the translation will be, without sacrificing the sense of the original. Another concern is the consistency of the rendering of the words in the original. If the context permits, each time a Hebrew or Greek word appears, the same word should be given to it in the translation. Another aspect of the team is that they must try to capture the different styles of the New Testament writers. The 27 books of the New Testament consist of multiple writers that all have distinct ways of writing. For instance, the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, cover Jesus’ life and ministry but differ in the words they choose to use and the arrangement of those words. Mark writes a fresh and natural Greek of high quality. He tends to keep it simple but certainly animated and exciting. Luke, on the other hand, has the pen of a professional, using terms that show he is far more careful about small details. His being a physician is the reason for his extensive use of medical terms. He also appears to be very familiar with seafaring, as is evidenced by Acts 27-28. Matthew appears to be in between Mark and Luke when it comes to style.

There is a complication to maintaining the style of a given author, as he may change his style. Being that the Apostle Paul has penned far more books than the other New Testament writers have, he is the most noted for this. A professor of classical languages, who is also a member of the Swedish Bible Committee, comments on this, “He has an enormous register: elevated prose poem as in 1 Corinthians 13, moving eloquence as in Romans 8:31-39, but also dry explanations. . . . His vocabulary is great (900 words that are specific only to him). He was a brilliant master of speech.”

The NET Bible (New English Translation) has over 60,000 translator notes; while other translations have over 10,000 footnotes to help the reader better understand their Bible. The footnotes are used further to explain such areas as custom and culture, textual problems, translation issues, original language words, basic language meanings, valuable alternative renderings. Also, the meaning of names of Bible books, persons, and places, as well as geographical data. Money, weights, measures and calendar dates are converted into modern terms. Obviously, this would take extensive research, aside from the translation itself. Moreover, these are just a few of the problems that are faced when one contemplates a new translation. Some of the other basics that most may not consider are the text on the pages, the organization of chapters and verses, the font, and so on.

The Need for New Translations

If the gospel is to be preached in all the earth, new translations are always going to be necessary, in many languages. Yet, as was demonstrated in the above, this is no easy task. The labor involved in such a task takes years, and by dozens of people, even with today’s technology. The need for new English translations is not really as paramount. The ones that we have are more than we could ever need, and only need to be revised and updated periodically.


[1] (Ryken, Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences 2005)

[2] Nida, Eugene: Meaning-full Translations. Christianity Today, October 7, 2002: 46-49.

[3] A presupposition pool is the common knowledge and understanding of a particular time, place, language, culture and religion.

[4] Strong, James: The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order. electronic ed. Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship., 1996, S. G3807

[5] Critical should not to be misconstrued in a negative sense in this instance. It involves comments and opinions that analyze are judging each word of the Old or New Testament as being original or not, in an extremely detailed way, which we do not have time to cover herein. For an introduction in textual studies, see the end of the article under Resources for Additional Research.

[6] “BHK” refers to Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica and “BHS” refers to Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

[7] “WH” refers to The New Testament in the Original Greek. “UBS” refers to The Greek New Testament, by United Bible Societies. “NA” refers to the Nestle-Aland Greek Text.