Recently, we offered a few thoughts in response to the common question “Which Bible translation is the best?” Today, we’ll continue the discussion with a look at one type of Bible translation that you can find here at Bible Gateway: word-for-word Bible translations.
A word-to-word Bible translation is a Bible that aims to hew as closely as possible to the wording and grammatical structure of the original text. (The more technical term for “word-to-word” is formal equivalence.) Whenever possible, a word-for-word translation tries to translate each word, phrase, and concept in the original text with an exactly matching word, phrase, and concept in the target language. People sometimes call this kind of Bible a “literal” translation.
What’s Important to Know About Word-for-word Bible Translations?
1. They aim to reduce the “human interpretation” factor in Bible translation. By sticking as closely as possible to the original words and structure, these translations reduce the number of major interpretative decisions that a translator has to make—and thus, reduce the chance that fallible translators will make the wrong translation choice and distort the meaning of the original.
2. “Word-for-word” is a goal to be aimed at, not completely achieved. Because no two languages are exact 1:1 matches to each other, it’s not possible to create a 100% word-for-word translation (certainly not one that is comprehensible). While translators may try to be as “literal” as possible, they must inevitably make many interpretive decisions, sometimes choosing the best of several unsatisfactory options. And it’s not possible to completely remove fallible human interpretation from the mix—even the decision to translate a Bible word-to-word is an interpretive act! Nonetheless, a word-for-word translation tries to keep translation compromises to a minimum.
3. Their language is unique and memorable. Because they’re translating a vocabulary and sentence structure that are quite far removed from modern spoken language, word-for-word Bibles have a unique voice that truly stands out from modern writing and literature. You might use words like majestic, soaring, or inspiring to describe them—perhaps even “old-fashioned,” but in a positive sense. If this style of language appeals to you, you’ll want to be sure to listen to them as well as read them—so visit our library of audio Bibles to get the full effect.
4. They work especially well when paired with a Bible commentary or other study tool. Because these Bibles’ language and phrasing can differ from modern English, you’ll benefit from keeping a commentary or study Bible handy while reading, to help you sort out unusual or confusing terms and phrases. Bible Gateway’s digital commentaries and study Bibles are very useful for this purpose. (Bible Gateway’s study library includes several good free resources; if you upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus membership, you’ll get access to additional study materials, some of them specific to word-for-word Bible translations—like the King James Study Bible and the NKJV Study Bible.)
Who Will Most Appreciate a Word-for-word Bible?
Consider a word-for-word Bible if you:
- Want a Bible experience that is closer to the vocabulary and phrasing that its original audiences read and heard.
- Love majestic language and phrasing.
- Have access to a good study Bible, dictionary, or other tool to help you when you run across unfamiliar terms.
Four Word-for-word Bibles to Start With
Bible Gateway has many Bibles that lean toward word-for-word translation. Here are a few prominent ones that would make a fine starting point for anyone looking for this kind of Bible reading experience.
1. The Authorized (King James) Version: Easily the most famous word-for-word Bible translation, the King James Bible has had a lasting impact not only on Christianity but on the English language itself. Its majestic language and memorable turns of phrase have cemented it in our cultural consciousness. Many popularly-known and oft-memorized Bible verses use the language of the King James Version; if your early encounters with the Bible were with the King James Version, you probably have a nostalgic connection to its language as well! Although it draws on other English translations, it remains a reasonably literal translation.
The King James Version is still widely used today across the English-speaking world. Here’s a sample Bible passage from the Authorized (King James) Version:
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. — Hebrews 6:1-6 (AKJV)
2. Young’s Literal Translation: A very literal translation of the Bible by Robert Young in 1862. This translation vividly highlights both the advantages and drawbacks of the word-for-word approach: it sticks quite close in many places to the structure of the original biblical languages, but as you can see from this sample passage, it’s not always easy going for modern readers. But like many such translations, even its difficult-to-read sections have an appealing poetic quality to them.
Here’s a sample Bible passage from Young’s Literal Translation:
Wherefore, having left the word of the beginning of the Christ, unto the perfection we may advance, not again a foundation laying of reformation from dead works, and of faith on God,
of the teaching of baptisms, of laying on also of hands, of rising again also of the dead, and of judgment age-during,
and this we will do, if God may permit,
for [it is] impossible for those once enlightened, having tasted also of the heavenly gift, and partakers having became of the Holy Spirit,
and did taste the good saying of God, the powers also of the coming age,
and having fallen away, again to renew [them] to reformation, having crucified again to themselves the Son of God, and exposed to public shame. — Hebrews 6:1-6 (YLT)
3. English Standard Version: One thing you may have noticed about a lot of word-for-word translations is that they’re old—although they may have been revised and updated through the years, many of them (like the previous two on this list) have their roots in Bible translations that are often centuries old. This can lead to some added reading difficulty, as you combine the quirks of word-for-word translation with archaic English vocabulary. But that doesn’t need to be the case! The English Standard Version is a very popular word-for-word Bible that uses modern English while still employing a formal equivalence translation philosophy.
Here’s a sample passage from the English Standard Version:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. — Hebrews 6:1-6 (ESV)
4. The Amplified Bible: One of the most unique Bibles in our library, the Amplified Bible aims for a word-for-word translation… with some interesting tweaks to help convey the original text’s meaning. The Amplified Bible uses “amplifications” in the text to help readers understand concepts that might not be clear in the text. These amplifications include:
- Explanatory notes in [brackets] that clarify concepts which the English translation doesn’t convey
- (Parentheses) to provide alternate translation possibilities for certain terms
- Italics to indicate words which aren’t in the original texts—often used for words like and or or, which the English language requires for readability
This Bible is a fascinating way to really dig into the nuances of translation and the original languages, and is probably best suited for Bible study (as opposed to casual reading or memorization). Here’s a sample Bible passage from the Amplified Bible:
Therefore let us get past the elementary stage in the teachings about the Christ, advancing on to maturity and perfection and spiritual completeness, [doing this] without laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of teaching about washings (ritual purifications), the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [These are all important matters in which you should have been proficient long ago.] And we will do this [that is, proceed to maturity], if God permits. For [it is impossible to restore to repentance] those who have once been enlightened [spiritually] and who have tasted and consciously experienced the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted and consciously experienced the good word of God and the powers of the age (world) to come, and then have fallen away—it is impossible to bring them back again to repentance, since they again nail the Son of God on the cross [for as far as they are concerned, they are treating the death of Christ as if they were not saved by it], and are holding Him up again to public disgrace. — Hebrews 6:1-6 (AMP)
More Word-for-word Bibles at Bible Gateway
The four Bibles above are just the beginning! We encourage you to explore the many more word-for-word translations available at Bible Gateway, including:
- Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition
- American Standard Version
- Lexham English Bible
- New King James Version
- World English Bible
There are yet more for you to peruse in our Bible library. While exploring these Bibles, we also highly recommend using the side-by-side Bible view on Bible Gateway to compare how two or more Bibles translate the same passage.
Hopefully, this has helped you to understand and appreciate the word-for-word Bible translation approach, and given you some good places to start reading these Bibles for yourself! In the next post in this series, we’ll introduce you to Bibles which take a different approach: the thought-for-thought or dynamic equivalence philosophy. Until then, have fun digging into these Bibles—and let’s be continually grateful that God has preserved His Word through the centuries for us to read today.