The two sides can be described as word-for-word translation versus thought-for-thought translation. Word-for-word is also called literal and thought-for-thought is called meaning-based, idiomatic, or dynamic equivalence. The difference comes from how much the translator helps the reader understand the meaning of the text. All translations are also interpretations of the meaning of the text at some level. Access to the original languages helps one to see that there is often more than one way to read and understand a verse. Word-for-word translations help keep the reader more aware of that ambiguity in interpreting the text. Thought-for-thought translations usually pick one possible meaning (because they're trying to represent the concept, not the words). Using a meaning-based translation removes some of the ambiguity of interpretation, but also gives the impression that the text has a single clear meaning.
Word-for-word translations try to stick as closely as possible to the wording of the original.
True thought-for-thought translations try to represent the meaning of the verse in common everyday English. They're not as concerned with the exact wording or sentence structure of the original language text. They might change the word order of a sentence or make other changes to the wording and grammar to make the meaning more explicit. A paraphrase is an extreme example of this kind of translation. It typically represents what one person understands the text to mean and puts it in simple contemporary wording.
Most translations fall somewhere in the middle and mix elements from the two approaches.
Mixed approach translations are moderately idiomatic, with some constructions which are not totally everyday English, typically Hebrew or Greek phrasing put in English.The following list explains the translation approaches for the most popular versions.
NASB – New American Standard Bible (1967, 1995). The most literal translation available, it very closely follows the sentence patterns of the original language, sometimes at the expense of readability but the updated version of 1995 greatly improved the English style.
ESV – English Standard Version (2001, 2007). This is an essentially literal translation that excels in providing a very readable, easy to follow text. It is my personal favorite and recommended version. For a fuller explanation of why, click here.
KJV – King James Version (1611-1769). The standard English Bible for over 300 years until the modern English versions began to appear in the 20th century. Noted for its literary elegance, but many consider it difficult to read due to our unfamiliarity with seventeenth-century English grammar and vocabulary. The New King James Version (NKJV) came out in 1982 and tried to preserve the literary elegance of the KJV in more modern English.
NRSV – New Revised Standard Version (1990). A mostly literal translation that is considered to be the approved version of bible scholars due to its willingness to incorporate new findings such as alternative readings from manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
NIV – New International Version (1978). Their approach attempted to blend the goal of accuracy for a literal translation with the concerns for understanding of a meaning-based translation. It is one of the most popular English versions, but some critics claim it waters down theology too much. The most recent version, the TNIV (Today’s New Internation Version – 2005), was widely criticized for their decision to translate in gender-neutral terms (also a feature of the NCV).
NLT – New Living Translation (1996, 2004). A meaning-based translation created for the purpose of making The Living Bible (a paraphrase of the ASV) more accurate while retaining its highly readable character. It is a fairly accurate translation since it sticks closer to a more literal reading in many places. A new edition came out in 2004. I recommend it for those who want a moderately idiomatic version. It is definitely superior to the NIV in my opinion.
CEV – Contemporary English Version (1995). The goal of this translation was to put the Bible into everyday spoken English. It was originally intended for children, so the three men involved immersed themselves in children’s TV programs and popular magazines to get a feel for the everyday language. It is an okay version for reading, but the meaning of many passages comes off differently than in more literal versions because the translators have decided that the readers would have a hard time understanding certain concepts. It is very close to being a paraphrase. The original target audience was kids at a 4th grade reading level. They gave test copies to parents who thought it was so readable that they wanted it for themselves, so they repackaged it as a Bible for adults, too. Same translation, new packaging. (What does that say about the reading -level of the average church-going adult?)
NCV – New Century Version (1987). This version also aims to put the Bible in contemporary language, but they’ve also given it contemporary packaging. For example, the NCV is the version found in the Biblezines like “Becoming,” a cross between the Bible and a women’s magazine targeted to twenty and thirtysomething women. There’s also one called “Revolve” targeted at teen girls. The "Biblezine" is a good way to make everyone buy a new bible every year too. Good marketing plan.TM – The Message (1993-2002). The most popular paraphrase. The Old Testament was finally finished in 2002. I guess it's okay if you like paraphrases.
Anyone interested in doing serious bible study should choose an essentially literal translation like the ESV, NASB, or KJV. If your interest is primarily devotional reading, a more idiomatic version like the NLT would be a good choice.