I confess that one of my greatest frustrations regarding this topic is the sparse knowledge that most people seem to have regarding translations when an overwhelming amount of information exists on the pros and cons of each translation. If you are going to study the Bible in English, educate yourself on translations and read around before you choose one. I won't list a huge number of links here because you can merely google each translation to find information about why its the best or the worst or simply read the front of your Bible. Each edition almost always contains a note about the translation, and while this is written by the same people who wrote the individual version and will be slanted in their favor, you can find out a lot by reading their translation philosophy with a critical mind.
Simply put, take 15 minutes to find out what you are reading and if it's the best option.
Formal Equivalence vs. Dynamic Equivalence
Formal Equivalence = "Word for word" or literal translation. The writers of Formal Equivalence translations attempted to be as accurate to the wording and syntax of the Hebrew and Greek as possible, while still being readable. There is a reason the King James is more difficult to read and its not necessarily because its so old. Formal Equivalence translations are hands down the most accurate linguistically and probably the best for actual study of the Bible. Formal Equivalence translations are more literal and therefore more open, which means they choose a very literal word such as "affliction" and let the reader decide whether the verse is talking about physical, emotional or spiritual affliction or all three. However, all translations force the translators to make some amount of interpretative choices at some level.
Any highly accurate translation of an ancient language is going to be at a high reading level. Popular Formal Equivalence translations are the KJV, the NASB, and the ESV etc., all of which are probably at a college or high high school reading level.
Dynamic Equivalence = "thought for thought" translation. In order to be more readable and understandable, the writers of Dynamic Equivalence translations translate the thoughts and intents of the Hebrew and Greek rather than the specific words and syntax. This provides an easier and clearer read. However, a greater amount of theological interpretation necessarily goes into translating the Bible's Hebrew and Greek content into English content. Generally, the lower the reading level of the translation the more theological interpretation is involved in translation. Dynamic Equivalence translations are less literal and therefore more closed in their wording. They choose specific words and phrases, for instance the NLT uses "sin nature" rather than "flesh" throughout the New Testament. This makes an interpretation for the reader since some would argue that the "sin nature" in the heart, soul, and spirit is removed during regeneration and that only the physical body or the "flesh" retains a sinful nature. The NLT translators chose to answer the question is sin nature (after conversion) in the physical man or the whole man? Therefore they do not translate literally into "flesh" but rather "sin nature." This example is a little extreme, but it does reveal the kind of changes that can be made in Dynamic Equivalent translations.
Dynamic Equivalent translations are all easier to read and reside at a lower reading level. Dynamic Equivalent translations include the NIV, the NLT, NCV which are all probably at a high school level or lower.
Single Person Translations
Single person translations run the gamut. They are written by a single person who is fluent in Hebrew and Greek and therefore result in the Bible as interpreted and translated by one person. A single person translation is usually created in order to emphasize certain points and certain individual revelation and should not be used as an everyday Bible as they also contain individual misunderstandings, mistakes and failures. J.B. Philips translation, the John Darby translation, Moffat's translation and Young's Literal Translation are all popular single person translations and are interesting to consult as a reference and read entirely, but should be taken with a critical mind and perhaps a grain of salt: this is one man's understanding.
Paraphrases are generally single person translations that condense and reword the Hebrew and Greek to such an extent that they cannot be considered a true translation, but instead an adaptation. The Living Bible and The Message are currently the two most popular paraphrases. Neither of these was ever intended to be used for Bible Study. They are marketed as regular Bibles but they are NOT translations. I know a number of people who only read paraphrases and I believe it is a dangerous practice to do so. Both the Living Bible and The Message are highly colloquial, which means they have a greater chance of losing meaning as phrases and wording goes in and out of style. A simple perusal of Psalm 51, Isaiah 53 or any of the epistles will reveal that they are not the quite the same book as the Bible, and I would additionally argue that I can find places where they say things that are absolutely not said in scripture. Read them with a grain of salt and a critical mind. This is one man's understanding put in figurative and/or excessively plain language.
Perhaps the wisest course of action in Bible study (if you don't know much Greek and Hebrew) is to compare translations. Read multiple versions and pray about what you are reading. Make informed decisions for yourself. Shop around. When you spot something you don't understand or have a question about look it up in a different translation: try a literal translation; try a dynamic equivalent; try a single person translation; look at a paraphrase. By looking at different wording, you can realize different aspects of the verse.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible came out in 2004 and just finished an update a few months ago. I don't have a copy, but I'm looking into it. The CSB boasts of "optimal equivalence," meaning rather than being on one side of the scale or the other, they took the middle road between absolute linguistic accuracy and readability. You can read an (very informative) interview with the editor of the CSB here. Reading between the lines, I would guess that "Optimal Equivalence" means "as literal as we could make it and still keep it at a low college reading level."
What I do when checking out a translation I haven't read before, is read familiar passages and compare them to what I know. I usually take Isaiah 53, Psalm 51 and Romans 6 and 8 for starters. So I went to HCSB.org and entered them into their online Bible. I came away with some things I liked and some things I didn't like. Romans 6 and 8 I enjoyed. Isaiah 53 used the words "sick" or "sickness" three times, where I have never seen a translation use them before in that context (though the ESV footnotes "sick" as a possibility in one place,) Psalm 51:10 states "Create a clean heart for me," substituting "for" with "in," which I find rather odd. I don't know Hebrew or Greek, so I assume that they know better than me, but sometimes I wonder if new translations are just trying to be different from what has come before or if they have a certain theological slant. Careful comparison will continue.
My suggestion for personal Bible study is to pick the most literal translation you understand. Many people argue that people don't read the Bible because its difficult to understand or read, hence the paraphrases and less literal translations. I honestly find this hard to believe. The entire world lies under the power of the adversary who does not wish us to know the truth. Satan will fabricate any kind of justification or reasoning to keep us from reading the word of God (1 John 5:19). We are given the Holy Spirit which teaches us and reveals the truth of scripture to us (1 John 2:27). I know a number of people who had an elementary reading level when they came to the Lord and are now able to study and read the word of God and even the KJV. God promises wisdom to those who ask (James 1:5). So dig in. Pick something you can sink your teeth into, struggle with, have questions about. Don't just pick something easy. God will reward your effort.