Here’s a very quick guide to the evolution and diversity of bible translations that I’m aware of. Hopefully I’ll get to expand and correct this post, because I’m aware I’m not an expert on history of translations, so I’d appreciate corrections.
In the beginning was the King James Version (also called the Authorized Version, because it was Authorized for use in the British state church). Actually this isn’t true, there were various bibles before this, and the KJV was based on a number of them, as well as texts in Latin. Still, the KJV is the earliest version still in significant use today, and it is the most important English translation of all time.
The KJV is a masterwork of english literature, and surely ranks alongside Shakespeare as the greatest achievements of english speaking culture. Its translation style is sometimes called ‘formal equivalence’ or ‘literal’ (although both terms have their problems). It tries as much as possible to translate a word directly into its nearest english sense. This isn’t always useful, of course. Sometimes the original word was an idiom or turn-of-phrase that doesn’t make as much sense in english. My favorite is ‘those that pisseth against the wall’ (1 Sam 25:22 KJV) meaning grown men.
The KJV was altered and tweaked through the centuries in a rather ad-hoc basis. More recently modifications have typically borne their own names. In the last 150 years its legacy has been taken up by two main families of translation.
The first are modifications of the KJV text designed to update its 17th century language, or correct egregious errors in the original version. I’m thinking here of texts such as the New King James Version.
The second are texts that use the same broad translation approach, but use up to date scholarship and textual criticism, correcting the elements (like the Johannine Comma) which the authors of the KJV didn’t know about. The most important of these is the Standard Version, which became the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version (which in my experience is the version most used in secular bible studies classes). Each iteration of these texts is less formal, leaving us with the situation that the NRSV is indistinguishable in approach from some ‘dynamic’ translations.
An important 19th century formal translation which is substantially different in character from the KJV is Young’s Literal Translation.
Another family of bible translations abandons the literal translation approach and aims for ‘dynamic equivalence’ – trying to express what the original text probably meant. Of course, this covers a wide variety of literalness, from those almost indistinguishable from formal translations, through to re-tellings of the story that you’d not identify as a bible translation at all. Most of this class of bibles aren’t much use for bible study because the translators embrace, rather than resisting, their own theological bias. No translation is without bias, of course, but its best to at least try to minimize it!
Popular translations in the dynamic equivalence class are the New International Version (and its offspring such as the Today’s NIV), the New English Bible, the Living Bible and the Good News Bible. In fact, the vast majority of modern translations fit firmly into this category. The NIV is interesting because it was designed to split the difference between texts such as the KJV and SV and informal texts such as the Living Bible. It is on the formal end of the dynamic group and you’d be hard pressed to distinguish its approach from ‘formal’ versions such as the NRSV.
And finally there has been a recent explosion of ‘paraphrase’ translations that are so informal as to have no pretence at being equivalent to the original text. The Message is a very popular paraphrase, for example, which retells and reinterprets text in a wholly conservative evangelical theology. I have a feeling that texts such as this are one reason that many fundamentalists think their theology is so biblical, when in fact it is their bible that is so theological!
There are a few other formal style issues around translation. Each of which gives rise to its own micro-tradition of translations
One that has been important over the last few decades, is the use of inclusive language. Even translations that aspire to be more formal, use inclusive language in places. So if the bible says ‘all men …’ they might say ‘all people …’. This is, of course, a highly dynamic translation decision – we’re assuming that the authors used the gender in a generic rather than a specific way. But that, surely, is the job of the biblical student to decide! So I find myself stuck with the otherwise excellent translations of the recent RSV family, consistently frustrated that they feel the political correct need to change the gender all over the place.
A second axis of difference centers around the communities that the bibles are designed to serve.
Catholic communities have a slightly different and more nuanced canon (the books that make up the bible) than protestants. There are certain bible translations that are aimed at catholic readers (such as the Jerusalem Bible, and its offspring the NJB) and other translations that have editions aimed at catholic readers (such as the NRSV). [Thanks to CRL in the comments for pointing out this egregious omission, I must confess I have a protestant bias in what I know of translations because of the highly protestant nature of the culture in which I have studied].
There are also bibles translated by non-orthodox Christian groups. Such as the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s witnesses (which is a pretty good translation, I have to say).
And there is an excellent body of OT translation coming out of Jewish communities, both messianic and non-messianic. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Tanakh (the OT) is particularly excellent, I think, with a moderately formal equivalent style (more RSV than Young’s) and a distinct lack of some of the biases of Christian translation normally found in the OT. The JPS translation of Gen 1:1 is definitely non-fundie-friendly, and worthy of its own post!
A third feature of differentiation is in the translation of the names given to God. The word normally translated LORD in the OT is a personal name for God. Which in English is probably best transliterated ‘Yahweh’, but could also be rendered ‘Jehovah’. Many translations are otherwise mainstream, but use one of these transliterated names for God rather than LORD. Similarly some translations use the most likely Aramaic name of Jesus ‘Jeshua’ rather than the Greek version we’re more used to.
And one final, crucially important, factor is the supporting material printed with the bible. Most people buy bibles that have additional content in them. This can range from maps to detailed footnotes and cross references, through to ‘subject summaries’ and book introductions. These apparatus are often highly theologically colored, and in some cases downright deceitful. This is another reason that many Christians have a poor understanding of their bibles: when passages that show genuine difference or difficulty appear, they are often accompanied by a piece of apologetics that shows what the reader should believe.
So I hope that gives some sense of the diversity as I understand it. I’m not an expert in translations, and while I have probably 15-20, I don’t collect them. I’m more interested in improving my skills with the original languages, so I tend not to do exhaustive comparative studies between English translations.
If you’re looking for a good bible, I recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible (a NRSV text with a passable set of footnotes and introductions – they are highly biased towards orthodox Christianity, but at least they avoid lying to you!). The 4th edition is out soon.
2009-02-01: A couple of minor clarifications and typos. Added section on Catholic bibles, based on CRL’s comment. Reordered the ‘other issues’ section.