With so many English Bible translations available, how is someone to decide between them? What distinguishes each? What is the difference between a word-for-word translation versus a thought-for-thought translation versus a paraphrase? How difficult is one to read compared to another?
Most translations contain introductory information that informs the reader about the goals and translation guidelines used by the translators. That is helpful information, and more detailed than this post intends to answer, so I refer you to those introductions to answer the question about what distinguishes any particular translation.
One question we can address here is, "What is the difference between a word-for-word translation, a thought-for-thought translation, and a paraphrase?" My simple explanations of these are:
Word-for-word translations attempt to translate every word of the original into its English equivalent. Because languages change over time, it can be challenging to always find an exact word-for-word match in a different language, but this is the goal where possible. The main advantage of this approach is translation accuracy, but it may come at the expense of readability and understanding.
Thought-for-thought translations (also known as dynamic equivalence) take the original text's meaning and express it in thoughts and phrases that best capture the original author's intent, even if expressing it requires doing so with words and phrases that aren't exact equivalents. This approach helps with readability and understanding but at the expense of confidence in some terms used.
Paraphrases are not translations and do not (or should not) pretend to be. Instead of being produced by large groups of translators, paraphrases are typically done by individuals. For example, The Living Bible was created by Kenneth Taylor, and The Message by Eugene Peterson. Paraphrases take great liberties with the original text and attempt to communicate thoughts in ways contemporary readers may relate to at the expense of translation accuracy. While paraphrases can be interesting supplemental reading, they should not be the main diet of Christians consuming God's Word since they are not translations.
Given the variety of translation approaches, the many translations and paraphrases available fall along a wide scale of options. They also differ regarding reading level. It helps to visualize where translations and paraphrases fall along that scale and the approximate reading level for each. A chart from NotJustAnotherBook.com helps with this. Their graphic is shown below, with a few related notes below the image.
The extreme left of the above scale identifies interlinear translations, which show both the original language and the English equivalent word-for-word. These are the most literal translations available. The word-for-word translations are to the right of the interlinear, followed by the thought-for-thought grouping in the middle of the scale. Paraphrases are shown on the right.
The list of translation names and abbreviations includes an approximate grade reading level in parentheses. That isn't an exact science since evaluation tools may differ in their analysis somewhat. However, it's still helpful to know, for example, that the New International Reader's Bible I suggested for my 7-year-old grandson is much more understandable for him at a 3.5-grade reading level than would be a 13th-grade level King James Version.
I find the above chart helpful when discussing translation differences with others. I've distributed it to my Bible study class and keep copies in my classroom for when related conversations pop up. I commend Brent MacDonald and anyone else behind NotJustAnotherBook.com for producing it and updating it periodically. I suggest you do as I do and visit the site occasionally to see if chart updates are available.
There is no absolute answer to the questions, "Which Bible translation is best?" or "Which translation should I get?" In the absence of becoming scholars in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we must rely on the work done by others to present God's Word in ways they believe to be faithful in accomplishing their translation purposes. Take all of the above information, consider who the audience is for a Bible purchase, and make a decision confident that God's Holy Spirit can and will speak through various translations to all who genuinely seek to hear His voice.