Why the English Standard Version (ESV)
should not become the standard English version
How to make a good translation much better
Mark L. Strauss
Bethel Seminary San Diego
(this paper may be reproduced and distributed in complete form without written permission from the author)
Mark has given me permission to post his paper. I appreciate the way that Mark has approached his topic: He deals with wordings of specific verses in the ESV which can be improved. In my opinion, this is a better way to evaluate any Bible version, rather than making a subjective generalized evaluation.
As you read Mark’s paper, see if he has been objective in his evaluation of the wordings of specific verses in the ESV. The paper follows:
I need to say first of all that I like the English Standard Version (ESV). After all, the ESV is a moderate revision (about 6% I believe) of the Revised Standard Version (RSV; 1952), which itself was done by very competent scholars. Like the New Revised Standard Version (also a revision of the RSV), the ESV generally makes good exegetical decisions. Both the ESV and NRSV also significantly improve the gender language of the RSV.1
So I like the ESV. I am writing this article, however, because I have heard a number of Christian leaders claim that the ESV is the “Bible of the future”—ideal for public worship and private reading, appropriate for adults, youth and children. This puzzles me, since the ESV seems to me to be overly literal—full of archaisms, awkward language, obscure idioms, irregular word order, and a great deal of “Biblish.” Biblish is produced when the translator tries to reproduce the form of the Greek or Hebrew without due consideration for how people actually write or speak. The ESV, like other formal equivalent versions (RSV; NASB; NKJV; NRSV), is a good supplement to versions that use normal English, but is not suitable as a standard Bible for the church. This is because the ESV too often fails the test of “standard English.”
This paper is a constructive critique of the ESV and an encouragement for its committee to make a good translation much better by doing a thorough review and revision of its English style and idiom. Critical questions we will ask include: (1) Does this translation make sense? (2) If comprehensible, is it obscure, awkward or non-standard English? Would anyone speaking or writing English actually say this?
A few clarifications are in order. First, as a Greek professor and a Bible translator, I am a strong advocate for using multiple Bible versions, especially those from across the translation spectrum. Both functional equivalent (idiomatic) and formal equivalent (literal) versions have strengths and weaknesses, and both are useful tools for students of the Word. Functional equivalent versions (NLT, NCV, TEV, CEV, GW, etc.) are helpful for communicating clearly, naturally and accurately the meaning of the text. Formal equivalent versions (KJV, NKJV, NASB, RSV, ESV, NRSV, etc.) help to reproduce formal features of a language like metaphors, idioms, word-plays, allusions, ambiguities and structural markers. Mediating versions, which lie somewhere in the middle (NIV, TNIV, HCSB, NET, NAB, NJB, REB, ISV), are a nice balance, retaining more formal features than functional equivalent versions but with more clarity than literal ones. I have addressed these issues in depth elsewhere and will not repeat them here.2 Concerning my personal experience, I have served on three translation committees and have consulted for a fourth.3 My desire is for all English versions to reproduce clearly and accurately the meaning and message of God’s Word.
It will become obvious from the examples below that the ESV’s problems with clarity and fluidity are primarily related to its overly literal translation policy. For real-life translators around the world—whether in
1 See discussion below under gender-language.
2 See Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), passim.
3 I served on a revision committee for the New Century Version (NCV) and presently serve on the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) for the NIV/TNIV, and on an editorial team for a new version—tentatively called the Expanded Bible—to be released by Thomas Nelson next year. I have also done consulting work for the New Living Translation (NLT).
the jungles of Irian Jaya or in the halls of the United Nations—the best translation is not a literal one, but one that reproduces the meaning of the text in clear, accurate and idiomatic language. One anecdote may be helpful here. As I was reading through the ESV (in conjunction with another project), I came to the epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews contains some of the finest literary Greek in the New Testament and can be a very difficult book for my Greek students. I expected to encounter substantial problems in the ESV. Instead, I found that the ESV was quite well translated in Hebrews, with fewer of the kinds of problems I was encountering elsewhere. Then the reason dawned on me. The fine literary Greek of Hebrews—with radically different word order, grammar and idiom—is simply impossible to translate literally into English. To do so produces gibberish. Ironically, the ESV was at its best when it abandoned its essentially literal” strategy and translated the meaning of the text into normal English. It is ironic that the ESV’s main marketing slogan—an “essentially literal” translation—is what makes it deficient as a standard reading Bible for the church.
I have divided these ESV problems into eleven broad categories: (1) “oops” translations, (2) idioms missed, (3) lexical problems, (4) exegetical errors, (5) collocational clashes, (6) archaisms, (7) inconsistent gender-language, (8) awkward and unnatural style, (9) word-order problems, (10) run-on sentences, and (11) mistranslated genitives.
For most categories, I will note the ESV rendering and then compare it to at least two other versions that use more standard English. One of these will always be the TNIV, which will serve as a “control” text. This is to avoid the criticism that I am selectively choosing whichever version happens to improve upon the ESV. Sometimes, in fact, I will criticize both the ESV and the TNIV.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, a small sampling that I have come across rather incidentally during work on other projects.4 I hope this will stimulate a more thorough analysis of English style and clarity for all English Bible versions. Sadly, English Bible translators have an unfortunate tendency to sacrifice comprehension and clarity in a misguided attempt at “literal accuracy”—an oxymoron, more often than not.