Four Major Layout Options for New Foreign Language Bible Translations

I’ve recently done a little volunteer consulting work for a Bible translation organization. Volunteer, as in I’m not sure they wanted it or will do anything with it but they don’t yet have a “no unsolicited opinions” sign up and I couldn’t help myself… Here’s what I sent them. It’s a suggestion for four Bible typography options that might be presented to national church leaders as they prepare to print their new Bible.


I think at least four major options need to be made available to national church leaders, with explanations of pros and cons. More explanation under each point could be given, but below are the basics.

1. Double-column, every verse a paragraph

double-column-every-verse-a-paragraph

  • Pros: This format looks like what most Christians around the world, as I gather from talking to translation consultants, expect a Bible to look like. This is important for successful mass adoption, particularly in places which have had other Bibles (perhaps in colonial or majority languages).
  • Cons: This format is not conducive to good Bible reading; it invites misunderstandings, such as the tendency to lift Proverbs 24:16 out of context.

2. Double-column, verses collected into paragraphs

double-column

  • Pros: Uses page space (and therefore paper) economically; collects verses into meaningful units, aiding smooth reading.
  • Cons: Makes best practices for laying out poetic portions of Scripture convoluted, because hanging indents don’t work well on narrow lines; makes it difficult to lay out languages with long words in an aesthetically pleasing way.

3. Single-column, verses collected into paragraphs

single-column-paragraphed-verses

  • Pros: This balances smooth reading and ease of reference.
  • Cons: “Wastes” paper, particularly in the Psalms and other poetic sections of Scripture.

4. Single-column, verses collected into paragraphs but without verse divisions

single-column-paragraphed-verses

  • Pros: This is the set of conventions Westerners have arrived at over the centuries which, in the collective judgment of compositors everyhwere, is most conducive to good reading. Verse divisions are a comparatively late addition to Bible publishing, and increasingly people around the world can use their phones if they need to know verse references.
  • Cons: No national church that I know of in the world has gone without verse references in their Bibles in living memory.

On balance, I think I’d find myself recommending option 3 most often—because it would take bold leadership and a unique situation to make option 4 possible. I’d love to see what a church might do with option 4, however. And I wouldn’t push a group of national leaders who wanted option 2. Or even option 1. As long as they had a chance to go through the options in this post.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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