Tuesday, March 10, 2009
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.”