Some Constructive Feedback for the ESV

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Introduction:

When I first read the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible back in 2003, I immediately fell in love with it.  I grew up imbibing the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in our church, and the ESV sounded to me like the right update to a classic.  Even though the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, the “official” update to the RSV) was the only Bible choice in my seminary, I was never quite comfortable with some of its translation choices while still claiming to be a “literal” translation of the Christian Bible.*  So when I read the ESV’s translation philosophy and the text of the ESV itself, I found myself in agreement for the most part.

After using it alongside other translations (and with the original languages) for a few years, however, I began to notice some of the imperfections and quirks that didn’t get ironed out in the ESV, even in the 2007 revision.

So I am writing a blog post to offer some constructive feedback to the ESV translation team, hoping to improve the clarity and accuracy of the English in the ESV.  Let me be clear: my motivation is love; I want to help make a good Bible translation even better, for God’s glory and for (English-speaking) humanity’s edification.

The ESV’s Strengths:

The ESV follows an “essentially literal” translation philosophy; that is, it tries (as much as is possible while still communicating the message in English) to match the words and syntax of the original languages.  Being literal also means keeping the concordance of similar words throughout the text.  I believe it is a strength when the ESV uses the generic “he” or “his” to draw attention to an individual in Scripture, rather than conflating it into “they” or “their.”

To its credit, the ESV translation team has also adhered to an evangelical, Trinitarian paradigm of Holy Scripture, rather than a revisionist, liberal approach.  The ESV’s translation philosophy reflects laudable goals, and there is definitely a niche for a solid, functionally-equivalent Bible translation (to be used in conjunction with mediating translations and dynamic equivalence translations) in the marketplace today.

The ESV’s Weaknesses:

Traditionalism:

Generally speaking, the ESV is weak when it chooses traditionalism over accuracy.  The translators should carefully read the entire text, checking to make sure certain choices are accurate and not merely the traditional way of rendering the text.

For example: Nearly every instance of hesed in the OT is translated as “steadfast love,” which is a good choice.  However, in Psalm 23, hesed is rendered as “mercy”–a capitulation to the KJV’s translation, which is burned into the consciousness of our culture.  Likewise, John 3:16 still reads, “For God so loved the world…” leading us to believe that God loved the world sooooo much, that he sent his only Son.  (In fairness, almost all translations choose to stick to the KJV on this one, too.)  But houtos (“so” or, better, “thus”) is qualitative rather than quantitative, meaning: “This is how God loved the world….”  To its credit, the ESV includes this alternative as a footnote; but when will they have the guts to put away traditionalism and stick with accuracy?

Word Order:

In the NT especially, the ESV sometimes follows curious word ordering in the text, choosing to stick with the Greek word order, even though even beginning Greek students will tell you that Greek sentences are flexible.

For instance, John 14:25 reads: “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you.”  While being grammatically possible, it just sounds weird to say “these things I have spoken.”  It’s a bit like Yoda-speak, and it happens often throughout the ESV.  It would be perfectly acceptable–and still “literal”–to simply say, “I have spoken these things.”  Interestingly, later in that same verse, the translators chose to deviate from a strictly literal approach.  Literally, it should read: “These [things] I have told you [plural] with you while abiding [meno, an important Johannine word that is not preserved here!].”

In Romans 4:24, the ESV actually reorders the Greek sentence to make it more confusing, even though it would have made sense otherwise!  The Greek would go like this: “It will be reckoned/counted to us who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”  But curiously, the ESV says, “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,” departing from the Greek text!  Baffling.

Reverse Negatives:

Although still technically grammatical, reverse negatives sound funny (archaic) to my ears, and they encode a faux-literary quality that is usually not present in the original text.  These are all over the place in the ESV.  For instance, Psalm 25:7 implores God, “Remember not the sins of my youth.”  Psalm 32:9 says, “Be not like a horse or a mule.”  In John 14:1, Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” which sounds more like a line from The Lord of the Rings than from a contemporary translation of the Bible.  In Romans 6:12, Paul says, “Let not therefore sin reign in your mortal body,” a problem of both reverse negative and confusing word order.  The prophet Hosea also warns God’s people, saying, “Rejoice not, O Israel.  Exult not like the peoples.”

In each of these cases, it would be more accurate–and less hoity toity–to simply say, “Do not be…” or “Do not let…”.

Other Archaic Constructions:

The vocative “O” has nearly disappeared from the English language.  Rarely does anyone–outside of church, that is–say, “I have told you, O man, what is good.”  Yet the ESV (and, in fairness, most other English translations) uses the vocative “O” generously, when there are perfectly good ways of expressing the vocative without using the archaic “O.”  For example, Psalm 27:11 reads, “Teach me your way, O LORD.”  It would sound more right–and not damage the “literal” style at all–to simply say, “Teach me your way, LORD.”  Likewise, in the NT, Jesus is quoted as saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)  Why not just omit the “O”?  Unfortunately, the overarching concern seems to be traditionalism in translation, rather than accuracy.

On a similar note, the archaic phrasing “he who” sounds more like a Chinese proverb than it does good, contemporary, standard English.  And yet the ESV uses “he who” liberally.  In Judges 21:18, for instance, the Israelites are quoted as saying, “Cursed be he who gives a wife to Benjamin.”  If you say that too fast, you could actually injure yourself!  The Hebrew could simply be rendered (sticking to the word order, even) as: “Cursed is the one who gives a wife to Benjamin.”  Although “he who” preserves the gender of the language, usually this is either insignificant or understood in context.

Inconsistent Gender Language:

God bless anyone who has to wrestle with gender language for humanity in published Bibles!  I maintain that this is the trickiest aspect of Bible translation today, and it’s made worse because our language and culture has shifted seismically since the RSV debuted (1952).  What’s more, our language is changing more rapidly today than it ever has before.  Hang on for the ride!

Three basic choices are available to translators today: 1) uniformly stick with traditional language for people (N/KJV, NIV, NASB), 2) remove all gender preferences for people (NRSV, NLT, Message, CEV, NCV [mostly], TNIV, God’s Word [mostly]), or 3) try to steer a course somewhere in between (ESV, HCSB).

Unfortunately, I think the ESV uses gender language for humanity inconsistently (so does the HCSB) and could be tightened up significantly.  For instance, John says, “the life was the light of men [anthropwn]” (1:4).  Doesn’t this clearly refer to all humanity?  Yet, just a few verses later, the ESV says, “the true light that enlightens everyone [panta anthropon], was coming into the world” (1:9).  In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others [anthropwn],” rather than “men.”  To me, I do not detect any overarching translation philosophy that deals adequately with translating this word/concept.  The ESV should either stick with man/men consistently or use person/people uniformly, perhaps with a footnote to alert readers to the word in the original language.

Limitations of an Essentially Literal Philosophy:

The essentially literal translation philosophy works beautifully in narrative, poetry, legal writings, and prophecy.  But the same philosophy has trouble accurately conveying the koine Greek of the letters, which is complex to us, but would have been natural to the first readers.  I would urge the ESV translators to adopt a more flexible philosophy when dealing with the epistles.  For example, the ESV does an okay job of handling Ephesians 1:3-14, which is one monster sentence in Greek.  It is good, because it breaks it up into meaningful English sentences.  Unfortunately, the next paragraph, Ephesians 1:15-22, is long and clunky and could stand to be broken up for better clarity.  The prologue of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-4a) also reads beautifully–and accurately–in the ESV, because they chose to be flexible, rather than slavish, to the Greek syntax.

Conclusions:

I realize that this is just scratching the surface.  There are many other specific pieces of feedback I could offer, but I am limited in this space.  It is nearly impossible to make blanket statements about a Bible translation, since the Bible itself is a complex collection of inspired writings.  But I hope I have sufficiently raised some themes of concern with adequate examples for the ESV translators and editors to wrestle with.  I would love to see the ESV get better–to become more accurate, more clear, and to fill that crucial niche of a readable literal translation.

* Generally speaking, the NRSV’s treatment of gender language for human beings went too far, often obscuring the individual nature of God’s interaction with people.  Also, the final editorial team (not necessarily the translators themselves) obviously does not believe in a Christian canon, where the New indwells the Old and the Old informs the New.  Most Messianic or Christian elements in the Old Testament, including references to the Holy Spirit, are watered down.  For instance, Holy Spirit is always translated “holy spirit” in the NRSV’s OT, and even Genesis 1:2–a Trinitarian prooftext–is altered to downplay the Christian sense: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” “Wind from God” in this passage is ruach elohim, which is usually understood as the “Spirit of God.”

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11 thoughts on “Some Constructive Feedback for the ESV

  1. Pingback: Constructive feedback for the ESV team « Better Bibles Blog

  2. As you think about how ESV has strengths & weaknesses, please think about the more-than-two-thousand language groups who don’t have a single verse of Scripture translated into their language!

    Check out theseedcompany dot org.

    Blessings today.

  3. Pingback: Constructive Feedback for the ESV « Christian Insight

  4. Ray,
    Thanks for your constructive comments. Several immediate (and not necessarily well thought out) things come to mind:

    1) On language for humanity, things are shifting so much, I don’t know if a consistent policy would necessarily be a help or a hindrance. At times the ESV makes some questionable choices. But it seems to me that outside the world of mainline church life (in its official and seminary varieties), the pendulum is swinging back. In fact, I often hear “man” and “mankind” used even on NPR, and even by women. In many ways, I think that “man” is still the best translation for both “anthropos” and “ish,” inasmuch as it can serve, like these terms, both to mean one person as well as the race. Having said that, like you said it is a tough things these days even to address the issues.

    2)I am not as bothered by some of the archaic forms that survive in the ESV, as they do reflect the fact that the Bible is an old book, using old literary forms. For example, restoring “Behold” as much as it did was, in my estimation, a good move by the ESV folks (and “O” as well). Biblical language does need to be “translated” to our time and place. However, these literary devices are still significant, and draw our attention to what is being said, and rhetorically still have power when used the right way in preaching.

    3) Having said point two above, you raise a very good point about the ESV’s selection of tradtional readings over alternatives. At time, this was a good choice (I like what they did to Luke 2, even as they restored some old forms and even the poetic cadences from the KJV tradition lost in the NRSV). But I must say that there are other selections that are not so good. The last verse of Psalm 23 comes to my mind, not for the selection of “mercy” for hesed (I will have to think about that), but for the use of the word “forever.” The Psalm does not say that. It says “length of days,” and thus is not talking about God’s house as heaven so much as the present worship of God. It is a committment to worship and praise, here and now. Interestingly enough, the Geneva Bible translated it that way “a long season” in the house of the Lord.

    In a few other places, the ESV translaters make some moves that reflect their conservative stance on some issues in which they could well have gone another (again, more literal way). I am disappointed by their translation of Romans 16:1 compared to the NRSV (a translation I even now have a hard time complementing!), by making “diakonos” “servant,” rather than “deacon,” given the fact that it is used in reference to a woman! Also, they make a similar choice in 1 Tim. 3:11, where the word “gune” is translated as “their wives” (there is no “their” in the text), rather than simply “the women” (as in the RSV).

    Having said all of this, I am thankful for the ESV, and its wresting away (in my opinion) the “Standard” Bible translation tradition out of the apostate hands of the NCC!

    Blessings!
    Walter Taylor

    Thanks for your comments!!

  5. Paul,

    Thanks for the reality check. Like most everything else, we Americans are spoiled with a bounty of English Bible translations; we argue over the finer points while many people in the world cannot read the Word in their own tongue. Last year, our church did a project with Faith Comes By Hearing (.com); it was a great idea, we listened to the NT during Lent and then made offerings to translate and distribute the Bible.

    Walter,

    Wow, I’m flattered that you would visit my blog! Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I value your opinions.

    As for the archaic renderings in the ESV, I go back and forth. The “O” and especially the “beholds” are valuable in translating the original languages. It’s just that most people (young and new believers) might not understand it at first glance, so we are faced with the rub: Do we translate for the lowest common denominator (and sacrifice literalness), or for mature believers (and sacrifice accessibility)?

    I do think the ESV betrays some complementarian bias. Romans 16:7 is not at all accurate; they hacked it to avoid the (somewhat) ambiguous suggestion that a woman (Junia) was an apostle.

    Ray

  6. Excellent points. Many translators and translations have an understandable but misguided reverence for archaic translations and that leads them to misrepresent the rhetorical character of many of the biblical books.

    The ESV is celebrated by proponents for its “formal equivalence” (or for being “essentially literal,” with that conspicuous and elastic adverb “essentially” dooming the entire phrase). In addition to problems of this approachthe ESV’s violations of its own criteria, as you point out, I think this approach should be more accurately labeled “lexical equivalence” (matching lexemes or lexicon entries in one language to those in another). We should differentiate among different kinds of equivalence — lexical, grammatical, rhetorical, prosodic, etc. — and note the uses and limitations of each (as well as the fundamental inability of any language to have true “equivalence” in any of these areas). The assumption that lexical equivalence is the most faithful to Scripture cannot be maintained.

    And in any case, as you suggest, using a single translation approach for a variety of genres (poetry and epistles and…) can make the 66 biblical books sound more alike than they really are.

  7. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival XL « ἸΑΚΩΒΟΥ

  8. Pingback: Translation Reviews: ESV and HCSB « Sinaiticus

  9. Considering the hostility toward the more classical literary flourishes of the ESV (which are part of the justification for sticking with the KJV lineage in the first place), I suppose I should not be surprised that the superb REB is practically unheard of in the United States. If I want to be reminded of how lifeless and powerless modern American English has become, I can always crack open an NIV (or its new Southern Baptist rival, the egregiously-titled HCSB). My main complaint with the ESV is that it’s a step down from the literary beauty of the RSV, which managed to retain the KJV flavor without being as awkwardly anachronistic as the NKJV. Even the NRSV is quite beautiful in its renderings when it’s not being excessively politically correct, and since the world already has a slew of “See Spot Run” translations (NLT, CEB, GNB, NCV), I see no reason why the heirs of the KJV cannot retain some of their ancestor’s dignity.

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