Four Translations—Readability

Readability— in the eyes of the beholder, or in this case, in the ears of the beholder as well. While there are “official” measures of readability, there are also some human factors to consider. This makes readability more subjective than sometimes we want. This post focuses on what I have experienced with each of the translations.

Oral reading vs. sight reading

Ideally, it would be good to have a translation that is excellent for oral reading and sight reading. But that does not happen often. It is interesting to note that with NIV 1984, even those who did not necessarily approve of it or use it often admitted that it was good because it was a better reading translation than at the time NAS or NKJV. Notice that I am not addressing “accuracy” in this post; it is a separate topic, and much more elusive than readability.

Oral reading of a text is different than sight reading. Oral reading is linear and progressive. Sentence structure can be critical; that is, longer sentences with many relational clauses can be more difficult to follow orally. If the translation form tries to closely follow the original language text, then there may be problem with oral reading. That is, what might have been good oral reading in Greek might make for difficult oral reading in English. On the other hand, if short sentences are the norm then oral reading becomes simplistic and monotonous. Thus, a good oral translation has to vary the sentence structure and sentence length. And the oral readability has to take into consideration the audience, not just the speaker.

With sight reading of a text, we can often supply missing thoughts, make connections, review back a few sentences/words to refresh the memory. Sentence structure and length, while still important, is not the primary concern. Often, formal equivalent translations (NAS, NKJV, ESV, etc.) thrive in this category, especially for study Bibles. Likewise, if in worship the focus is Bible study (more than proclamation), and everyone has the same translation, these translations can be “readable” in this environment.

An Example: Ephesians 1:3-14

So, let’s take a classic text for comparison for number of sentences and sentence length: Ephesians 1:3-14. Let’s compare the Greek text with these four translations (and a few more)

Greek (NA-27): 4
NIV 2011: 8
ESV: 5
HCSB: 8
GW: 17

Other translations: NAS95: 5; NKJV: 5; NJB: 7; AAT: 7; NABRE: 6; CEV: 14; NET: 7; NLT: 14; CEB: 14

That’s quite a spread! Notice there are three groupings regarding number of sentences and hence sentence length:

4-5 (ESV), 7-8 (NIV 2011/HCSB), 14-17 (GW).

Practical Test

Now, for this to be beneficial to you, it is necessary to read each of the four translations in two ways. Do the sight reading first. Then do an oral reading, not in a mumbling sense, but in a public reading sense. Stand up while doing the oral reading; it will change how you read. Then if possible, listen to the translation (but don’t have the text in front of you). The key is whether the text is readable; don’t be distracted by thinking “Is this ‘accurate’?” That will affect how you read the text, i.e. bring something to the text that is not there. Also, try reading to people of different oral/sight reading levels (from 5-6th grade to high school to adult).

Note: I took out all verse references, but kept the paragraph formatting. That means paragraph formatting is critical for both oral reading and sight reading.

NIV 2011

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In loved he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemptiona through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteein our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

ESV

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

HCSB

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.

We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him for the administration of the days of fulfillment—to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.

We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.

When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory.

GW

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Through Christ, God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing that heaven has to offer. Before the creation of the world, he chose us through Christ to be holy and perfect in his presence. Because of his love he had already decided to adopt us through Jesus Christ. He freely chose to do this so that the kindness he had given us in his dear Son would be praised and given glory.

Through the blood of his Son, we are set free from our sins. God forgives our failures because of his overflowing kindness. He poured out his kindness by giving us every kind of wisdom and insight when he revealed the mystery of his plan to us. He had decided to do this through Christ. He planned to bring all of history to its goal in Christ. Then Christ would be the head of everything in heaven and on earth. God also decided ahead of time to choose us through Christ according to his plan, which makes everything work the way he intends. He planned all of this so that we who had already focused our hope on Christ would praise him and give him glory.

You heard and believed the message of truth, the Good News that he has saved you. In him you were sealed with the Holy Spirit whom he promised. This Holy Spirit is the guarantee that we will receive our inheritance. We have this guarantee until we are set free to belong to him. God receives praise and glory for this.

I’d appreciate any feedback you have regarding this test.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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9 Responses to Four Translations—Readability

  1. Pingback: Four Translations–Readability « Better Bibles Blog

  2. bobmacdonald says:

    For me, considering the aural as primary, musical terms come first to mind – pace, rhythm, pulse, repetition, theme, supporting and dominating motifs.

    For the visual it is important to mimic the aural using layout. These ancient texts are performance art with intent whether read aloud to another, or muttered to self.

    E.g. for the ESV, I would divide it visually into 5, not into 2. The five are in two parts: 2 sentences (Blessed + In love) + 3 sentences (In him, In him, and In him).

    The dominant motif in the first part is ‘bless’ (4x). The second sentence of the first part introduces the supporting motif, ‘according to’ (5x).

    The dominant motif in the second part is ‘in him’. the second part in turn divides as 2 + 1: in him we (2x), and in him you also (once). In both parts, the supporting aural motif repeats.

    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
    who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
    even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world,
    that we should be holy and blameless before him.

    In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ,
    according to the purpose of his will,
    to the praise of his glorious grace,
    with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

    In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,
    according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us,
    in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will,
    according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time,
    to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

    In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined
    according to the purpose of him who works all things
    according to the counsel of his will,
    so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

    In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

    ===
    I used indentation a bit – but WP removed it all – O well.

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    • exegete77 says:

      Thanks, Bob. Good insights. I like your comment: “musical terms come first to mind – pace, rhythm, pulse, repetition, theme, supporting and dominating motifs.” As a liturgical person all my life, I resonate with this understanding, especially the first three items. You captured more aspects of what lies behind an oral reading. Very helpful.

      You also wrote: “For the visual it is important to mimic the aural using layout.” Although not evident in this passage, GW does the best with visual layout (single column) and the ability to see visual connections. I like how you have taken the ESV and changed it. Let me see if I can produce an attachment that allows the indentations you wanted.

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  3. We tried something like this in a mission congregation… Tested NIV 2011, NLT, ESV and HCSB.

    Our findings after having church people read a variety of texts over several weeks…

    ESV consistently the hardest and most stumbling.

    HCSB better than ESV but some weird to pronounce words like “hyrax” I recall… technically correct but they might as well have inserted the name of a space creature from Star Trek.

    NLT definitely easiest to read but for me, the pastor, the most inaccurate at many key points oversimplifying the text to an extreme.

    NIV 2011 – best combination of accuracy and readability in our use/test.

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    • exegete77 says:

      Thanks, Chuck. Interesting that we come up with almost identical lists for translation options. Just curious, had you used NIV in other congregations prior to that?

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  4. Jason Leonard says:

    I did this experiment and the NIV is the most balanced, but the GW was clearly easier to read, if I wanted to believe people hearing me were still following. It at least gets the idea across.

    HCSB is simply a bit too long and wordy to communicate the thoughts. And “down payment”? We talk about that with stuff we buy, not with something bought for us..

    ESV just seems a bit outdated and churchy. It and HCSB also overuse words like “blessed”, which has flowery connotations these days. Who uses “beloved”, either?

    Of course, I think people focus too much on accuracy of text, which is why I’m a fan of Better Bibles blog. It just doesn’t always help and sometimes complicates thoughts. I’m not saying I would read the MSG or GW for scholarly work (I won’t even touch MSG), but even major translations have accuracy issues I’ve seen doing apologetics. Too many people are afraid to emphasize concepts, thoughts and ideas, but shouldn’t this be more important than specific words?

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    • exegete77 says:

      Howdy, Jason. Thanks for adding to the discussion. Yes, GW is easier to read, and that does not necessarily imply that it is “less accurate.” Even with my major criticism of not using “righteousness,” I am trying to approach with “fresh eyes” and I can see the advantage in some passages of “God’s approval.” I think I have more trouble with this than many of our people. Our unchurched rate in this area is 95%, so people are not carrying the baggage of “when I was young I remember how this sounded.”

      I have been involved with the GW translation since 1987, long before it became God’s Word. It is definitely different, but that may be what is needed.

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  5. alexander284 says:

    i found the ESV to be surprisingly easy to read out loud. it didn’t seem too wordy, and it seemed to flow nicely. just don’t ask me to explain it to anyone! lol

    the NIV was a close second, i believe, for oral reading. and it used simpler words than the ESV.

    the HCSB was the most difficult, i found, to read aloud. it seemed wordy, and sounded odd in places.

    the GW had the easiest vocabulary, but i found myself getting bored with the sound of my own voice as i read it aloud. lol

    in any case, just thought i’d share my impressions with you. 🙂

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  6. Pingback: MEV Layout & Readability | “believe, teach, and confess”

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