What Should Be the Goals of Bible Translation?

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from 40 Questions About Bible Translation
by Mark L. Strauss

There is a broad consensus concerning the essential goals of Bible translation. Consider these quotes from the introductions of some of the most popular English Bible versions:

New American Standard Bible

The NASB strives to adhere as closely as possible to the original languages of the Holy Scriptures and to make the translation in a fluent and readable style according to current English usage.[1]

New King James Version

This principle of complete equivalence seeks to preserve all of the information in the text, while presenting it in good literary form. . . . Complete equivalence translates fully, in order to provide an English text that is both accurate and readable.[2]

Christian Standard Bible

The CSB places equal value on fidelity to the original and readability for a modern audience, resulting in a translation that achieves both goals.[3]

New International Version

We have prioritized accuracy, clarity and literary quality with the goal of creating a translation suitable for public and private reading, evangelism, teaching, preaching, memorizing and liturgical use.[4]

Common English Bible

Accuracy and clarity. The CEB translators balance rigorous accuracy in the rendition of ancient texts with an equally passionate commitment to clarity of expression in the target language.[5]

New Living Translation

The goal of any Bible translation is to convey the meaning and content of the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts as accurately as possible to contemporary readers. . . . The resulting translation is easy to read and understand, while also accurately communicating the meaning and content of the original biblical texts.[6]

Good News Translation

The Good News Bible . . . seeks to state clearly and accurately the meaning of the original texts in words and forms that are widely accepted by people who use English as a means of communication.[7]

New Century Version

Two basic premises guided the translation process of the New Century Version. The first concern was that the translation be faithful to the manuscripts in the original languages. . . . The second concern was to make the language clear enough for anyone to read the Bible and understand it.[8]

Notice that all of these Bible versions agree on two fundamental goals of translation, accuracy and readability. One might think from this that there is a great deal of agreement and a single unified approach to translation. Yet these eight versions represent a broad spectrum of approaches, from very literal to very idiomatic. This is because, to a certain extent, they have different ideas of what is meant by accuracy and readability.

What Constitutes Accuracy?
The answer to the question, “What is the meaning of a text?” can be a complicated one in the modern field of literary criticism. Contemporary discussions of hermeneutics (the science and art of biblical interpretation) debate the relative roles of authors, texts, and readers in the creation and discernment of “meaning” in written texts.[9] For our (simplified) purposes, accuracy in translation may be defined as reproducing the meaning of the source text in the receptor language in a way that preserves, as much as possible, the author’s intention.

Historical and Cultural Accuracy

An inaccurate translation is therefore one that misrepresents the historical or cultural meaning intended by the author. This can sometimes be seen in versions that seek immediate relevance over historical precision. In Romans 16:16, Paul encourages the believers in Rome to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (most versions). J. B. Phillips contemporizes this as, “Give each other a hearty handshake all around” (PME; cf. 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). The Living Bible similarly has “Shake hands warmly with each other” (cf. 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). These versions are intentionally recontextualizing the text, seeking to communicate its message of mutual love and affection for contemporary cultures where kissing is not a sign of such hospitality. For more examples, see Questions 5 and 36.

Capturing as Much of the Meaning as Possible

Accuracy can also be compromised by simplifying or generalizing the text to the point that significant meaning is lost. Instead of “this is the Law and the Prophets” (ESV), J. B. Phillips translates Matthew 7:12 as “this is the essence of all true religion” (PME). The problem is Jesus is not here epitomizing all religion. He is distilling the many laws of the Hebrew Torah into their central theme. Similarly, instead of “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known” (Rom. 3:21 NIV), the Living Bible reads, “But now God has shown us a different way to heaven.” But the manifestation of the righteousness of God for Paul is far more than a ticket to heaven.

Loss of Accuracy Through Obscurity

In the previous two examples, translations were deemed inaccurate because they translated the text too freely. But in many other cases, inaccuracy results from translating too formally. Esther 1:14 ESV describes advisors to the Persian king Xerxes as the seven princes of Persia and Media “who saw the king’s face” (ro’e pene hammelekh). This Hebrew idiom, however, does not refer to literally seeing the king’s face (which would apply to any number of servants), but rather to an authoritative position to give counsel. In English you would never say, “These were the White House officials who saw the President’s face.” The NASB translates more accurately as “who had access to the king’s presence.” The NAB has “who were in the king’s personal service.”

Similarly, in Luke 15:20, when the father of the prodigal son sees his son returning, the NKJV reads, “his father saw him and . . . ran and fell on his neck.” The phrase “fell on his neck” is a literal rendering of the Greek phrase epepesen epi ton tracēhlon autou. But of course, in English we would never say it this way. It sounds like he is attacking his son (perhaps what we would expect from the father after the son squandered his inheritance!). In normal English, we would say, “he hugged him” (NET; CEB; CEV), “he embraced him” (NLT; ESV; NASB; REB), or “he threw his arms around him” (NIV; TEV).

What Constitutes Readability?

Like accuracy, readability is a goal affirmed by virtually all translators. Yet just as there are different perspectives on what constitutes accuracy, so there are different perspectives on what constitutes readability. As we will see, different kinds of translations (formal, mediating, functional; Question 3) set different standards of readability.

Readability as Comprehension

For some translators, readable means understandable or comprehensible. The meaning of the text may not be readily apparent, but can be determined when the overall context is observed and reflected upon. Compare Psalm 12:2 in the NRSV and NIV:

NRSV     They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and
a double heart they speak.

NIV    Everyone lies to their neighbor; they flatter with
their lips but harbor deception in their hearts.

The Hebrew idiom to speak “with a heart and a heart” (belev walev) is translated by the NRSV as to speak “with . . . a double heart.” While this may be understandable from the larger context, it is awkward and opaque English. I would never say of someone who distorts the truth or seeks to deceive that “they speak with a double heart.” By seeking to retain the Hebrew idiom, the NRSV may (or may not) be comprehensible, but it is certainly not clear.

Readability as Clarity

Readability as clarity means that the text is not just understandable upon reflection but that its meaning is readily apparent to the reader. The ESV translates Isaiah 6:10 as “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy.” The Hebrew verb translated “make . . . heavy” (hakhbed) in some contexts can mean to make something heavy or burdensome. It can also mean to “honor,” “glorify,” or “harden.” When used of ears, it means to deafen or stop someone from hearing. The CSB reads, “deafen their ears.” CEB has “make their ears deaf.” These translations are both comprehensible and clear.

Readability as Natural Language

Taking readability a step further, a translation may be clear, but not natural. In the 1984 edition of the NIV, Psalm 23:1 reads, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” This translation may be clear (there is no confusion as to what it means), but it is not natural. No native speaker in English would say, “I am not in want today.” They would say, “I have everything I need” or perhaps “I lack nothing.” The likely reason for this translation is that Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved and well-known passages in the Bible, and many people know it by heart from the King James Version: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Seeking to preserve as much of the familiar wording as possible, the original NIV translators rendered this as “I shall not be in want.” The 2011 edition of the NIV changed this to a more natural reading, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” The NLT is even more natural: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.”

The difference between a translation that is “clear” and one that is “natural” is subtle but important. I have a missionary friend who served for a number of years as a Bible translator in Guatemala. He described to me his experience of working on a particular verse and reading his first draft to one of his native-language consultants. He asked, “Does this make sense?” and the man replied, “Yes.” Sensing some hesitation, my friend asked, “Is this how you would say it?” The consultant laughed and said, “No!” and responded how a native-language speaker would say the phrase. The draft translation “worked” grammatically and lexically. It was comprehensible and even clear. But it was not natural. This kind of natural fluency is something native speakers intuitively recognize, but it can take many years for new language learners to pick up.

So should a translation strive to be natural? Another way to ask this is whether a translation should sound like a translation from another language, or whether it should sound like an original composition in the receptor language. We will discuss this topic—sometimes called “domesticating” versus “foreignizing” translation—in Question 6 below.

Other Goals

While accuracy and readability are the most widely asserted goals of Bible translation, others, such as beauty and dignity, should also be noted.[10] “Beauty” usually refers to literary quality. A children’s book or a simple instruction manual might be easy to read and understandable, but would not be considered great literature. By contrast, a well-written essay may be difficult to understand, communicating complex ideas with sophisticated vocabulary and grammar, but be very fine in literary quality. The NT letter to the Hebrews is an example of high literary Greek (and a great challenge for my beginning Greek students!). Beauty can also refer to aesthetic appeal. One of the great challenges of translating poetry is that it often depends on formal features, such as assonance, alliteration, parallelism, rhyme, and rhythm, for its appeal. Translating poetry in a way that preserves both its cognitive content and its aesthetic appeal can be a great challenge (see Question 13).

Another goal often set forth by Bible translators is “dignity,” translating the text in a manner appropriate for sacred Scripture. Translations that are colloquial, coarse, or trendy seldom gain wide support or staying power. Rob Lacey’s The Street Bible, also known as The Word on the Street, was meant to translate the Bible in the hip language of the street. Instead of “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1 NIV), the Street Bible reads, “First off, nothing. No light, no time, no substance, no matter. Second off, God starts it all up and WHAP! Stuff everywhere.”[11] In Genesis 2:23, instead of Adam saying about Eve, “This is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (ESV), the Street Bible has, “Woah! Now we’re talking!” says Adam. “She’s like me . . . only not. Same bones, same skin, same shape . . . only not. She’s . . . uh . . . sexy.”[12] Needless to say, this doesn’t quite achieve the poetic dignity of the original text.

In the preface to the NRSV, the translators note the goal of producing a dignified translation and point to the significance of the KJV tradition in achieving this goal: “We have resisted the temptation to introduce terms and phrases that merely reflect current moods, and have tried to put the message of the Scriptures in simple, enduring words and expressions that are worthy to stand in the great tradition of the King James Bible and its predecessors.”[13]


There are two main goals that virtually all Bible translators strive to achieve: accuracy and readability. “Accuracy” means interpreting the text according to the author’s intended meaning, staying true to the original historical and cultural context, and using clear and accurate English to communicate that meaning. Translators (and readers), however, sometimes have different thresholds as to what constitutes “readability” in the target language, whether it means comprehension, clarity, or naturalness. Debate on this issue centers especially on whether priority in the translation process is given to form or meaning. It is to this issue we turn in the next three questions.

40 Questions About Bible Translation is Amazon’s #1 New Release in Religious Literature Criticism! Click here to grab your own copy today!

[1] Foreword to the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 2020).

[2] Preface to the New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982); italics in original.

[3] Introduction to the Christian Standard Bible (Nashville: Holman Bible, 2020).

[4] Preface to the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[5] Preface to the Common English Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013); italics in original.

[6] “A Note to Readers,” in the New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2015).

[7] Foreword to the Good News Translation (New York: American Bible Society, 1992).

[8] Preface to the New Century Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

[9] See Jeannine K. Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 1–131.

[10] Ken Barker, for example, describes four goals of translation, using the acronym A-B-C-D: accuracy, beauty, clarity, and dignity. Kenneth Barker, The Balance of the NIV: What Makes a Good Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 41–55, 112–14l; Kenneth Barker, “Bible Translation Philosophies with Special Reference to the New International Version,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World, Festschrift Ronald F. Youngblood, eds. Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss, Steven M. Voth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 51–63.

[11] Rob Lacey, The Street Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 20.

[12] Lacey, Street Bible, 24.

[13] Preface to the New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989).

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Bible Translation by Mark L. Strauss. This title is scheduled to be released on September 19, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Nearly all believers read a translation of the original texts of the Bible, yet few understand the complex art and scholarship unique to Bible translation

The importance of Bible translation in historic and contemporary Christianity cannot be overstated, with millions around the globe reading and studying the Bible in their own language. Notable translation expert Mark Strauss answers a wide range of questions about this the process and reliability of this endeavor so essential to the core Christian faith.

40 Questions About Bible Translation covers topics related to the process and history of Bible translation; Bible versions and international translation efforts; and the multifaceted challenges in translating the Bible, such as:

      • How do international Bible translators go about their work?
          • How did the King James Version (KJV) come about?
          • When, why, and how were chapters and verses introduced into the Bible?
          • What should be the goal of translation?
          • What makes Bible versions different from one another?
          • What is the difference between grammatical and biological gender and how does this affect translation?

40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament uses an accessible question-and-answer format so readers can pursue the issues that interest them most with additional resources at 40questions.net.


About Author

Mark L. Strauss (PhD, Aberdeen) is University Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary San Diego, where he has served since 1993. He is the author of various books and articles including commentaries on Mark’s Gospel in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series and Expositors Bible Commentary. He serves as Vice-Chair on the Committee for Bible Translation for the New International Version and as an associate editor for the NIV Study Bible.

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