Should the Bible Be Readable or Accurate? (Why Not Both?)

Is it more important for a Bible to be “readable” or “accurate?” And is it impossible for both traits to coexist in the same Bible translation?

In a recent study conducted by LifeWay, 61% of the survey’s 2000 (American) participants preferred “word-for-word” translations of the Bible over “thought-for thought” translations. But they were only offered two options. Blogger Mike Sangrey, commenting on the survey results, puts it this way: “I think the ‘accuracy versus readability’ statement is like the question, ‘do you walk to school or carry your lunch?’” Joel Hoffman makes a similar point at the God Didn’t Say That blog:

There is overwhelming evidence and near universal agreement among linguists that word-for-word translations are less accurate than other approaches. Equally, translators generally agree that, when the original is readable (as much of the Bible is), accuracy and readability go hand in hand. That is, valuing accuracy is often the same as valuing readability.

So why do Americans generally associate word-for-word translation with accuracy? Some might think that exactly reproducing the grammar of the Biblical languages is the best way to respect the original text. But this doesn’t guarantee a perfect translation of the text’s meaning. As Sangrey writes, “there’s an assumption that a syntactic element in one language when morphosyntactically reproduced in another language accurately reflects the same function as it performed in the original text. That’s quite demonstrably not true.”

Accuracy and readability are not intended to be mutually exclusive. Translators can uphold literary precision while keeping the Bible approachable and understandable—so why do we have to choose? In fact, most Bible translations live on a spectrum between a pure word-for-word translation and a completely paraphrased “thought-for-thought” translation. Different Bibles might put more emphasis on one than the other, but translators understand that for the Bible to be used as a tool to study and worship, it must observe both standards.

If you’re interested in learning how your preferred Bible combines readability and accuracy, our Bible versions page links to information pages about most of the Bibles in our online library—the translators often explain their methodologies there. (For example, read the introductory notes for the English Standard Version, the Lexham English Bible, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible to learn about their approaches to translation.) You can also often find this information in the Introduction or Translators’ Notes in most print Bibles.

Related posts:

  1. Your response to our question: Why read the New Testament in Greek?
  2. Perspectives in Translation forum launches—join the discussion!
  3. GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) added to Bible Gateway’s online library
  4. Why “Christ” instead of “messiah”? And other translation questions
  5. The New American Bible gets an update

Posted by Katie

Filed under Translation