Defining “general-purpose”

I used the term “general-purpose translations” before here, but I don’t have a clear definition of what it really means. It feels pretty intuitive to me however. I would classify translations such as the NIV, ESV, NLT, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET and the Good News (among many many others) as general-purpose translations. The intended audience is any adult native speaker of English, and the intended use is, well, general: it could be for reading privately, devotionally, for studying, for preaching from or for reading out aloud.

What about those non-general-purpose translations? Well I’d classify The Message and the LOLCat Bible as non-general-purpose due to their deliberately unusual language, and the reasons for their being translated in the first place. The CEV was translated for those with lower reading abilities. The Amplified bible would be classified the same due to its intention as a study tool (or something). The Conservative Bible Project and The Woman’s Bible are non-general-purpose because of the agendas they push.

So there are some examples. Can you help me find a clearer definition of “general-purpose”? Do you disagree with any of my classifications? And if a translation is supposed to be general-purpose, and is marketed as such, are there aspects of translation that actually betray that purpose? As an example, although I have previously always considered the NASB to be a general-purpose translation, I’m now wondering if its great focus on morphosyntactic equivalence really means that it should really be classified as (and marketed as) a Bible for the purpose of study only… what do you think?

29 thoughts on “Defining “general-purpose”

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    This is a good post, Dannii. You’ve raised an important topic. You gave a good definition for a general purpose Bible:

    “The intended audience is any adult native speaker of English, and the intended use is, well, general: it could be for reading privately, devotionally, for studying, for preaching from or for reading out aloud.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily change anything you’ve said here, but I would personally explain (footnote?) that if the intended audience is “any adult native speaker of English”, the English used needs to be that of that speaker. There are not too many English versions that are written in English which is used by “any adult native of English.” Some in your list would make it onto my list of versions which are written in “general-purpose English”, such as the Good News Bible (TEV). I would add the God’s Word (GW) translation. The NLT probably fits on the list, but the exegetes on its team moved the English farther from “general-purpose” English when they revised NLT1 to NLT2. I do consider that the CEV is in general-purpose English, but you are right that it is at a lower reading level than what many of those who frequent this blog would prefer. I don’t think it would be too difficult to raise the reading level of the CEV to have an English translation that is still general-purpose English but has greater literary attractiveness for those who can read well above a 5th or 6th grade level.

    I also believe that it is possible to retain the distinctive character of the different genres of the Bible and reflect some of the beauty of its figurative language while still targeting a general-purpose audience. But in this effort English translators need to resist the temptation (usually subconscious, I think) to begin using non-English wordings, where the words used are English, but not the ways they connect to each other syntactically, lexically, and pragmatically.

    I think that a truly general-purpose English Bible version will sound like it was written by someone who is above average in English literary skills.

  2. iverlarsen says:


    Wayne has already made some good comments. My comment is that it is helpful to make a clearer disctinction between intended use and intended audience.

    I think all the Bibles you mention were intended for both reading and study. However, they are geared to different audiences. The intended audience determines the choice of translators and the style of translation. If you think of the difference between a churched audience and a non-churched audience, the translations you mention fall into different groups.

  3. John Hobbins says:

    Great topic.

    I would like to push back a little bit.

    There is no way for a translation of a library of literature which instantiates a set of cultural assumptions wildly different from our own to be written in language in general use among native speakers of English.

    Large concessions have to be made to the specific vocabularies, registers, and genres of the source text if meaning is going to be accurately transferred from source to target.

    For this reason, mediating translations are best suited for general use. Furthermore, especially if general use includes pulpit use – most churches, even those that claim to be “Bible-only” (a bit of an oxymoron) churches – are committed to a particular set of interpretations which have often been hallowed by particular translation traditions, “tradition” in translation turns out to be a feature, not a bug.

    In the King James tradition, widely used mediating translations include RSV (the standard where I currently serve), NRSV, and ESV (close to RSV).

    An evangelical alternative: NIV

    A Catholic alternative: NAB

    For the purpose of study, I am a fan of using (3) more paraphrastic translations alongside of (2) KJV tradition translations and (1) mediating ones.

    For the Hebrew Bible / OT, I recommend comparing (1) NJPSV, NRSV, REB, NAB, and NJB; (2) KJV and ESV; and (3) NLT, CEV, and TEV.

    I find NIV and HCSB less useful for purposes of study. I should state that my first text is always the Hebrew and Aramaic.

  4. Dannii says:

    Hi John,

    Firstly, if I understand you correctly you’re saying that no Bible translation can use language which is in general use among native English speakers, but I don’t think that is needed for a general-purpose translation. What I said was that the intended audience is a native English speaker, and I think that such a reader should be able to understand the text without needing external help, although the text itself may have to teach the reader how to understand. There are standard ways for texts to teach their readers new vocab, new styles of texts and even new types of meaning. So I think a general-purpose Bible translations is just as feasible as any popular science book or speculative fiction story. Footnotes, glossaries and side panels might be an essential part of a good general-purpose Bible.

    Secondly, can you more clearly define what a “mediating translation” is? I’ve heard the term used before, but not in a way that would include all the translations you listed.

    Thirdly, I must of course object to you calling translations such as the NLT and CEV paraphrastic without calling the NRSV and ESV ones as well. But I’ve already posted on that topic, so I’ll just say now that I think it is a thoroughly unhelpful term, and it would be great if you could classify those translations with other terminology.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    I think we also need to distinguish between the intended audience and the actual audience. The Good News Bible (TEV) was originally targeted at second language speakers of English but became popular among native speakers, especially those who could not read at a high level. The Easy-to-Read version, according to its publishers,

    was initially prepared to meet the special needs of the deaf

    but now

    most of the distribution of The Easy-to-Read Version is now geared toward evangelistic outreach to the hearing …

    On the other hand, there are versions for which “The intended audience is any adult native speaker of English”, or at least this kind of claim is made, but which can in fact be understood, and are in fact read, only by a small subset of those native speakers, those who have high level language skills and a basic background knowledge of the Bible.

    Indeed I know of an even more interesting case, where a Russian language abridged Bible version was intended by the publishers mainly for adults with no Bible background, but was titled and marketed as a children’s Bible because this was more acceptable to churches. Many adults bought this for their children but read it themselves.

    So, is it the translators’ original intention, expressed or covert, or the current actual distribution which qualifies a translation as “general-purpose”?

  6. John Hobbins says:


    You say:

    “There are standard ways for texts to teach their readers new vocab, new styles of texts and even new types of meaning. So I think a general-purpose Bible translations is just as feasible as any popular science book or speculative fiction story. Footnotes, glossaries and side panels might be an essential part of a good general-purpose Bible.”

    That is certainly one way for a Bible to be a general-purpose Bible in the sense of intelligible for the general reader: package it as a study Bible. I am a fan of Study Bibles in principle, not so much in practice. Few address the kind of questions that come to my mind when reading.

    Another way for a Bible to be intelligible to the general reader is for it to be read in the context of a community with a history of interpretation thereof, a community that seeks to be doers of the word, not hearers only. Kinetic learning in the true sense.

    On your second and third points, I am trying to find labels for different points on a continuum. All translations contain literalisms and paraphrases; the question is tendency. NASB is a relatively literal translation; NLT and CEV are relatively paraphrastic; most translations fall somewhere in the middle.

  7. Dannii says:

    I hadn’t actually been thinking of study Bibles when I wrote that. Study Bible notes too often are about suggesting implications of a text (and are distracting in inductive-style Bible studies) or else give random ancillary information about the passage. While there’s a time and a place for these I think it would be rarely suitable in a group setting. By contrast the notes which I’m imagining would be no more intrusive to a group study than a dictionary would be. Perhaps this intrusiveness is really just the outcome of practice not meeting principle…

    The communal context is of course very important! I think however that I could not classify a translation which couldn’t simply be bought from a book store and understood without also seeking out some Christian community as general-purpose.

    “Literal” is another term I abhor 😉 Generally it is used to describe morphosyntax-mimicking translations, which might make “paraphrase” refer to translations which don’t attempt to mimic the source’s morphosyntax (instead aiming to convey the semantics or perhaps pragmatics of the source.) While in one sense you could have a continuum here, it could only refer to the proportion overall – individual instances would either attempt to mimic the source’s morphosyntax or would not. For this reason I think it makes more sense to keep to black-and-white these prototypical types of translations, and instead discuss the situations in which a work will use one method over the other, rather than acting as if there was a hybrid method which was applied evenly over the whole text.

  8. Dannii says:

    Which I’ve just realised might have been your whole point – “mediating” referring to translations which mix up mimicking the morphosyntax and conveying the semantics/pragmatics.

    I’m not sure the raw percentage can be compared all that usefully however. Two translations could have roughly the same overall percentages while having two very different sets of rules for determining when to convey the syntax or semantics.

  9. John Hobbins says:

    A translation that preserves interpretation of the text that is tried and true fulfills an essential purpose for many people. They would not approve of a general purpose Bible that did not “vector” a particular way of reading scripture.

    For example, a reading tradition that leverages concordance across affine (and non-affine) passages will want a translation in which concordance is relatively visible.

    That is why KJV or NASV is the general purpose Bible of choice for some communities. But most reading communities prefer a compromise. That’s why mediating translations are popular




    It’s hard to preach or teach from a more (bleep) translation like NLT to the degree that the same word in the source text is translated every which way in the target text. An issue for the many who think of scripture as a symphony such that one passage is always to be interpreted in the light of many others.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I think you are confusing two different issues here, of concordance and of general translation style. A meaning-based translation can be highly concordant in how it translates significant biblical words. On the other hand, “literal” translations can be very far from concordant. It is actually easier to be concordant without being misleading in a less literal translation, as it is easier to restructure the rest of the sentence to fit in the word that concordance demands should be used.

    I accept that meaning-based translations will not be concordant in how they render prepositions and conjunctions. But such minor words should not normally be used as the basis of word studies – except perhaps in special cases like the recent series on this blog on “in”.

  11. John Hobbins says:


    In theory you may be correct. In practice, I don’t think it has yet to work out that way.

    Occasionally I have posted on the question by way of examples.

    I remember doing a study of a favorite expression, “find favor in one’s eyes” across Old and New Testaments in NLT. I was discouraged by what I found.

    Experiences like these – I could cite more – have made me loathe to make use of NLT and translations like it for general purpose Bible study.

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I accept that an expression like “find favor in one’s eyes” is a little more significant than a preposition or a conjunction. So perhaps translations should attempt to be concordant even if not literal. But it is not really a term of theological importance. So why are you doing word studies on it? It is legitimate, of course, to study English versions, but when you are preaching you should be trying to get beyond the versions to the original meaning.

    Yes, “favour” on its own can be significant and a good basis for word studies, but probably only when God is giving it. But in that case even traditional literal translations mess up your word studies by being inconsistent about rendering the same word “favour” or “grace”. A translation which abandons the often misunderstood word “grace” is then better, rather than worse, for your purposes.

  13. John Hobbins says:

    Iver and Peter,

    A concordance is a tool not only of personal study but of preaching. Beyond study in the original languages, concordances only work with relatively concordant translations.

    It doesn’t have to be a theological phrase. I can riff in a sermon on an expression like “finding favor.” When I do that, from Genesis to Ruth to the Psalms to the book of Acts, it has a powerful effect.

    I read the Bible in the original languages enough to have a rudimentary concordance in my head. For the rest, I consult original language concordances. But I value a translation that preserves concordance, a translation that is “as literal as possible and as free as necessary.” On the basis of such a translation, it is easier to preach “canonically,” comparing scripture with scripture.

  14. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I’m sure you can riff very convincingly. But if you preach about finding God’s favour in Luke 1:30, 2:40,52, Acts 7:46 etc without explaining to your congregation that this is exactly the same word and concept that is usually translated “grace” in the NT, then you are misusing your English concordance and preaching irresponsibly.

  15. Dannii says:

    John, can you explain for us why you think mimicking morphosyntax is a better strategy for achieving concordance than conveying the source’s semantics with consistent target language would be?

    Or, for the non-morphosyntax-mimicking translations you’re familiar with, is it an example of practice not meeting principle again?

  16. John Hobbins says:


    I concur. But my strategy is to interpret the New in the light of the Old. That is a central conviction of mine: that the New is fully understood if and only if the Old which it contains is laid bare. NLT and similar translations are too (bleep) to facilitate that kind of understanding.


    If the goal is to have a Bible translation that allows people to understand it “canonically,” such that scripture can be compared to scripture, a translation that translates important idioms every which way, on the basis of local choices of a translator assigned to a particular book, is not very helpful.

    I think a case can be made for reproducing the pragmatics of a source text in a target text: the easiest way to do that is to map information structure from one text to another, and the easiest way to do that is to transfer surface structure (morphosyntax). Where this would result in significant semantic distortion, dynamic equivalenta are necessary. It is a lot of work to find equivalents that will work across the canon. So far, translations like NLT and CEV have not put enough work into this task. So it seems to me.

  17. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I agree “that the New is fully understood if and only if the Old which it contains is laid bare”. But in that case the versions which should be attracting your ire are ones which use different English renderings for key NT words like charis “grace” and for their Hebrew Bible equivalents like hen “favour”. NLT may be at fault here, but if so no more so than more literal translations like ESV.

    But then some care is needed as sometimes the LXX translation equivalents are not real semantic equivalents like NT eleos “mercy” for Hebrew hesed “steadfast love”.

  18. John Hobbins says:

    I don’t know if any of these translations are at fault. They do have different aims.

    What I’m saying is that it is easier for me to preach from a translation that is more consistent in the way it translates important idioms. It allows me to lay bare connections with greater facility. The stilted syntax of RSV and ESV is a minus. The minus however is more than compensated by other features, a greater consistency in translation of important idioms among them.

  19. Dannii says:

    John said:

    I think a case can be made for reproducing the pragmatics of a source text in a target text: the easiest way to do that is to map information structure from one text to another, and the easiest way to do that is to transfer surface structure (morphosyntax).

    Whoa, surely unless the two languages are very closely related won’t transferring the surface structure absolutely decimate information structure? Some language’s word order is entirely determined by info structure, others are almost entirely determined by argument structure instead. Some languages use intonation to convey info structure. Some languages focus sentence-initially while others focus sentence-finally. There are many other different ways in which information structure is encoded. I can’t see how transferring surface structure will effectively convey the pragmatics if the languages encode info structure differently!

  20. John Hobbins says:


    I was speaking in the broadest of terms. I agree that if the target language requires a change in order of the constituents in order to achieve the same pragmatic effect, the change is welcome. It gets trickier when constituents are added and subtracted with elasticity in the name of pragmatics. The rule “as literal as possible” is often misused, but in essence correct.

    For the rest, examples would be helpful at this point.

  21. Theophrastus says:

    If we are speaking of “general purpose translations of the Bible” rather than “general purpose translations of books of the Bible” then it is hard to see how any translation which only serves only a denominational or sectional group of readers can be called “general purpose.”

    The best known ecumenical translations of the Bible are the RSV and NRSV. (Among translations discussed above, it is worth noting that there is an edition of the ESV published by Oxford University Press which contains modified versions of the RSV translations of the ecumenical Apocrypha — however some may argue that this translation is colored by a distinctive [that is, not general] theological perspective and thus fails to qualify as general purpose.)

    Certainly exclusion of the books of the Catholic canon disqualifies any Bible as general purpose given the large number of English-speaking Catholics.

    Of course, if we limit ourselves to individual books of the Bible, the scope could be widened.

    However, I think that the most exciting work in English Bible translation is not happening in general purpose translations but rather in specialized translations. For example, I would call out these examples: the New English Translation of the Septuagint, Robert Mounce’s amazing word-order concordant translation of the New Testament included in the new Zondervan interlinears, the Drazin-Wagner translation of Targum Onkelos, Michael Carasik’s translation of the Rabbinic Bible, and literary translations of the Bible by Everett Fox, Robert Alter, and Willis Barnstone. Many of these are simply stunning works demonstrating linguistic virtuosity and a stunning command of English. These specialized translations can be distinguished from examples give by Dannii (such as the “LOLCat Bible” which is simply a joke in poor taste, or The Message which is meant as an Evangelical tool rather than as a scholarly tool, or The Amplified Bible which is rife with errors and based on a fallacious theory) because they can be profitably used by scholars as well as lay individuals.

    We now have a sufficient number of popular Bibles, let’s bring on the specialized translations.

  22. John Hobbins says:


    You make a number of excellent points. But if “general purpose” is redefined as you do, in terms of ecumenicity, one might as well respond in symmetrical fashion: so-called ecumenical Bibles are anything but “general-purpose.” Outside of liberal Protestant circles, their use in the liturgy and in devotions is prohibited, unlikely, or unusual. Jews and Christians, apart from those who wish to read the Bible in a non-religious mode, are by and large going to fiod RSV and NRSV quite inadequate.

    If I can’t use a Bible translation for religious purposes, in what sense it is “general purpose”?

    NRSV is the best choice for an academic venue if the Bible is going to be read in terms of original historical contexts. Even then there are issues. I would rather have a study Bible that includes more literature than NRSV (it ought to include 1 Enoch and Jubilees, for example), and reports on and reproduces key received texts rather than limiting itself to translating eclectic texts of both OT and NT literature.

    I’m teaching a course on Bible and Current Events and I am often reminded of previous remarks made by you that KJV ought to be taught in college. Yes, because whenever I go about demonstrating how a particular passage has impacted the history of ideas in a decisive way, I end up returning to the diction of KJV, because it is KJV diction that ruled and continues to rule in reception history.

  23. Dannii says:

    John, I agree examples would be good. Do you have examples for translation between very different languages (such as Biblical Hebrew or Greek and English) where the most effective way to convey the pragmatics is via mimicking the source’s morphosyntax?

    Theophrastus, you make an interesting point regarding Biblical canons. But it goes both ways. Whatever you include will be sectarian and exclude other groups of readers. No protestant would choose a Roman Catholic Bible to give to a non-Christian friend of theirs if a protestant Bible was available too.

    When you consider all the different Orthodox churches finding a common canon will be very difficult! See this table of canons. Possibly the protestants have the advantage – at least no one reading their Bibles will see something they believe is non-canonical, even if they think it’s missing some books.

    While specialised translations have their place, this blog is mostly about general-purpose translations, and how to improve their quality. But if you think there are aspects of specialised translations which could be applied to general-purpose translations to improve them, you should write about that on the Share page!

  24. Theophrastus says:

    John: if I understand you correctly, you are discussing three uses of “general-purpose translation”: liturgy, devotion, and study. I’ll address these one by one:

    Liturgy: defining the notion of a general translation for liturgy is problematic, in part because many denominations may use original languages for liturgy (e.g., Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Slavonic) and because in other denominations a particular liturgy is mandated (examples range from the Roman Catholic Church in various national bishops conferences to the LDS Church). In this sense, it makes no sense to speak to of a “general purpose translation”; rather we can only speak of approved liturgies for pariticular denominations or churches. However, your statement that the RSV and NRSV are restricted to liberal Protestant liturgies is not correct; outside the US, the NRSV is being adopted as the standard liturgy for English-speaking Roman Catholic congregations (with the significant exception of the psalter, which will be either the Grail or New Grail psalter).

    Devotion: I was not aware that individual churches restricted the translations that could be used in personal devotions beyond a general notion of imprimatur. However, I do wish to note that the NRSV is the basis of the Roman Catholic new English Divine Office outside the US (again, excepting the psalter), and at least some of the Hours (e.g., Compline) are often prayed privately.

    Study: This was the sense in which I posted my earlier comment, and it seems that with some qualifications, you agree here.

    While the inclusion of extracanonical texts would make for an interesting work, one needs to draw the line somewhere — and it seems to me that the RSV and NRSV have a defensible boundary. As a practical matter, it seems to me that a Bible that included the Book of Mormon (for example) within its covers would not find wide readership outside of the LDS Church and various other Mormon denominations. I myself think a general-purpose Bible would be strengthened by inclusion of 1 Enoch, but I cannot say that the editors of the RSV Expanded Ecumenical Edition or the NRSV made an unreasonable choice.

    I am glad you find the KJV (and doubtlessly Tyndale and the 1560 Bible) useful for teaching. Beyond its importance in reception history, the KJV is also a literary landmark.

  25. Theophrastus says:

    Dannii — in fact, I was not aware that a focus on general purpose translations was the charter of this blog. My understanding was this the charter of this blog was primarily on Bible translations issue, and that ranking of particular translations was only a secondary role of this blog. If my understanding is not correct, perhaps the subtitle of this blog should be changed from “ideas for improving Bible translations” to “ideas for improving specific examples of general-purpose Bible translations.”

  26. Theophrastus says:

    No protestant would choose a Roman Catholic Bible to give to a non-Christian friend of theirs if a protestant Bible was available too.

    Is that so? It does seem that ecumenical editions of the NRSV do enjoy significant sales (even if they hardly reach the rocket levels of the NIV and other denominational Bibles).

  27. John Hobbins says:


    I made a comment on Iver’s latest post that illustrates the kind of translation issues I have in mind. Mimickry is not the goal; it is not even the necessary means; but it often works surprisingly well from Hebrew or Greek to English, with of course a number of constant adjustments one ends up taking for granted.


    I don’t know enough about English-speaking Roman Catholic practice outside of the US to know whether what is permitted or even encouraged is the case in practice.

    I am fairly sure that in the US the NIV, NAB, ESV, KJV, and NKJV (not in that order, I don’t know in what order) are heard by more people from more pulpits than NRSV. It is also more frequent than one might imagine that United Methodist congregations for example never made the transition to NRSV in worship. Nor would I recommend that they do. I would be happier if they transitioned to ESV or NIV than NRSV.

    I wonder however if the statistics of liturgical use has been the object of careful study.

  28. Theophrastus says:

    John, I that since the NAB (in the modified version used for US liturgy) enjoys an exclusive monopoly on US English-speaking Catholic congregations, the NAB trumps the translations you mention in terms of the number of Americans who hear it in a typical week.

    I despair of getting accurate statistics, since it seems that we are not even able to get accurate statistics about church membership or Sunday attendance.

    Re the question of general English Bible translation becoming passe, consider: in 2011, we will see at least three major Bible translations released — the NABRE, the NIV2011, and the CEB. And this is following a bumper crop of Bible translations in each of the years of this millennium. While there is still room for innovation and improvement amongst English Bible translations, one sincerely has to wonder how many niches remain unfilled at this point. However, when it comes to specialized translations, it is clear that there are lacunae — but that those lacunae are being and truly innovative work by a wide array of scholars. Intellectually, these specialized Bible translations seem to be doing a better job of pushing the limits of translation theory and practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s