A Survey on Bible Translations

A recent survey conducted by Lifeway Research on Bible translation found that people who read the Bible regularly prefer “word-for-word translations, where the original words are translated as exactly as possible.”

Below are excerpts from the survey published by Lifeway Research:

Most American Bible readers prefer word-for-word translations of the original Greek and Hebrew over thought-for-thought translations and value accuracy over readability.

That is the finding of a new study by LifeWay Research. A total of 2,000 Bible readers participated in the study through a demographically representative online panel. To qualify, participants had to read the Bible in a typical month either by themselves or as part of a family activity and not merely in a corporate setting.

When asked whether they prefer “word-for-word translations, where the original words are translated as exactly as possible” or “thought-for-thought translations, where the translators attempt to reproduce the intent of the original thought rather than translating the exact words,” 61 percent chose word-for-word.

That includes 33 percent who strongly prefer word-for-word translation and 28 percent who somewhat prefer it. In contrast, 20 percent prefer thought-for-thought, including 6 percent with a strong preference and 14 percent who somewhat prefer it. Fourteen percent say both translation philosophies are equally fine, and 5 percent are not sure.

Regarding accuracy, respondents were asked, “In general, what is more important to you in a Bible: total accuracy to the original words, or easy readability?” Three out of four (75 percent) opt for total accuracy, with 43 percent saying accuracy is much more important and 32 percent saying it is somewhat more important.

***

Study participants were told: “Bible translators have to make choices regarding gender issues. For example, the original Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible often uses masculine words such as those literally meaning ‘man’ to describe people in general. Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘man’ while others think they should be translated into gender-inclusive terms such as ‘humankind,’ ‘human being,’ ‘person’ or ‘one.’ Which do you prefer?”

A majority (53 percent) strongly prefer literal translation while 29 percent somewhat prefer the literal rendering. Only 9 percent somewhat prefer gender-inclusive translation, and 3 percent strongly prefer it. Six percent are not sure.

Bible readers are even more adamant about not making references to God gender-inclusive.

They were told, “Another issue Bible translators face relates to references to God as ‘father’ in the Greek and Hebrew. Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘father’ while others think they should be translated into gender-inclusive terms such as ‘parent.’ Do you prefer the literal or more gender-inclusive?”

In response, 89 percent want a literal translation of gender-specific references to God, including 68 percent who strongly prefer literal translation and 21 percent who somewhat prefer literal translation. Five percent somewhat prefer gender-inclusive translation, and 2 percent strongly prefer gender-inclusive translation. Four percent are not sure.

Read the complete study published by Lifeway Research by clicking here

This survey of Bible readers confirms what I have discovered in my own teaching.  People who study the Bible prefer literal translations of the original Hebrew and Greek texts as opposed to translations that try to convey the intent of the original words because they really want to know what the original writers said.

Every translation of the Bible is an interpretation of the text.  It is almost impossible to translate word-for-word from the Hebrew into any language.  However, when Bible readers say that they prefer a word-for-word translation, they mean to say that they want to decide for themselves how to understand what the original writers were trying to say to their original audience.

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6 Responses to A Survey on Bible Translations

  1. John says:

    While I generally prefer a word for word translation, sometimes I feel idioms used in ancient cultures are better translated so the modern reader can understand what they were trying to say (Amos 4:6 for example). How do you feel translators should handle these issues in cases where a literal translation might actually mislead the modern English reader?

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    • John,

      I agree with you. What most readers of the Bible do not understand is that it is impossible to translate the Bible word-for-word. It just does not work, primarily when you are translating from Hebrew into English. I believe translators must give the right meaning of the original writer, even when the translation is not word-for-word. What readers want is to know what the original writers were trying to communicate to their readers. But, as you pointed out with Amos 4:6, sometimes word for word can be confusing and make no sense in another language.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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  2. Ronnie Daly says:

    It is my experience that most students of the scriptures tend to
    prefer the more “formal” translations. In certain areas the ASV-1901
    and the NASB-77 are gaining in popularity due in part to their closeness
    to the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. AMG has recently begun
    publishing what they call the giant print handy size edition of the NASB-77.

    Understandability and accuracy are not always synonymous. A translation
    can be understandable in terms of the languages it uses, yet it may not
    be an accurate reflection of what is contained in the Hebrew and Greek texts.

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    • You are correct in saying that understandability and accuracy are not always synonymous. This is the reason there can never be a word-for-word translation of the Bible. The ASV was a literal translation of the Bible, but it never gained much popularity. I am not very familiar with the NASB-77, thus I cannot pass judgment on its reliability. Thank you for this information about AMG.

      Claude Mariottini

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  3. Matt Honstain says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve long been a fan of some of the translations more focued on dynamic equivalence, but have recently become extremely frustrated with what seem to be unnecessary levels of interpretation within translation, particularly with the new edition of the NIV. What do you suggest as a more formally equivalent translation that maintains readability, especially for preaching?

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    • Matt,

      I do not like the revised NIV. I used the old NIV in teaching Sunday School but will not be using the new NIV in church. Probably a better translation is the ESV. I think the ESV has a good approach to the text.

      Claude Mariottini

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