The two most common translation theories are usually referred to as dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence. Those less familiar with translation theory may refer to them as "thought-for-thought" and "word-for-word," or more commonly, "paraphrase" and "literal" (but those terms aren't very useful). Below is a handy chart that show several popular translations along a kind of spectrum, from formal to dynamic:
from The Lord's Prayer- Matt. 6:10
(Interlinear) "let come the kingdom of you, let be done the will of you, as in heaven (so) also upon earth"(The Message) "Set the world right; do what’s best— as above, so below."
If you're already familiar with the Lord's Prayer, you can make out the interlinear version, but it doesn't make much sense as actual prayer or speech. The Message is pretty loosy-goosy : no "kingdom" or "heaven" or even "earth." So we see, there are some difficulties with excessively literal or excessively paraphrased.
Looking at a few other versions of the verse above will help us see how things work.
The King James Version, of course, is pretty familiar to most English speaking Christians:
"Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven." (KJV)
Apart from "in earth" sounding a little strange to modern ears, this is very familiar. Notice the KJV translator italicized words that were added to the text for clarity. (So all the flap you may hear about the KJV being a "literal" translation is not really correct.)
Now let's look at a modern translation closer to the middle of the spectrum:
"Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (HCSB)
The HCSB retains the basic flow of the KJV, with just a little updating of the language.
The CEB, which is not on the chart above, would probably end up a bit to the right of the middle, maybe just to the right of the TNIV. The CEB renders Matt. 6:10 like this:
"Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven." (CEB)
This is quite different from the traditional KJV language: sentence structure has been adjusted, the contraction "it's" is used as it would be in everyday English.
Let's look at one other very familiar passage: Psalm 23:1, in a few different versions:
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want." (KJV)
"The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing." (CEB)
"The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack." (HCSB)
"The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need." (NLT)
"God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing." (Message)
"The Eternal is my shepherd, He cares for me always." (The Voice)
Several differences here, aren't there? The rendering of the Divine Name (YHVH in Hebrew) is traditionally "Lord" or "LORD" (all caps), but The Message just uses "God," while The Voice renders it "The Eternal." The familiar "I shall not want" can be translated all kinds of ways: The Voice is probably the loosest in its version, translating it "He cares for me always." The NLT kind of flips "I shall not want" on its head, but rendering it "I have all that I need."
There are long articles and whole books written on the theory of translation, and how different versions approach the Bible with differing translation philosophies; I will include some of them soon on my "Links" page here at Bible Bookshelf. I have often read that it is a good idea, as a discerning Bible reader, to have at least one more formally equivalent translation and one dynamically equivalent translation oh hand, to compare them to each other. I would second that opinion myself, with one caveat: beware hopping from version to version, simply to pick the one that matches your preconceptions the best. The version with which you are personally familiar may not always translate a passage in the best way. The simple fact is, most modern versions are quite reliable. There are a couple versions that I would personally avoid, or at least, handle with care. I will discuss them in future posts. Thanks for reading.
[If you want to look up Bible verses online in a variety of different translations, I would highly recommend the site Bible Gateway. You can search Bible Gateway right from this site, in the BG search box on the "About" page.]