ESV #9, by Mark Strauss

Awkward and Unnatural Style in the ESV

There are thousands of examples where the ESV is not necessarily wrong or exegetically inaccurate, but is awkward and unnatural English. Examples can be found on virtually every page. Here is a small sampling.

Mark 3:28

ESV “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man,

Comment: The phrase “children of man” is very odd, with a plural followed by a singular. Passive construction is also awkward

TNIV Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven all their sins…

Luke 12:50

ESV I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!

Comment: The cognate accusative in Greek (lit. “to be baptized a baptism”) just doesn’t work in English. We would never say “they are going to baptize with baptisms on Sunday.” Even the NASB catches the idiom.

TNIV But I have a baptism to undergo… (cf. NET; NASB, etc.)

Matt. 1:20

ESV “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife,”

Comment: “Fear to take” is an unnatural idiom. We would say “Don’t be afraid to take…”

TNIV “…do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,”

NASB “… do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” (cf. NET; REB; NJB; etc.)

Matt. 6:34

ESV Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

TNIV Each day has enough trouble of its own.

NASB Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Mark 6:31

ESV For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Comment: “Leisure to eat” sounds like the idiom of a British country club.

TNIV they did not even have a chance to eat,

NET and there was no time to eat

Matt. 14:5

ESV “he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet.”

TNIV …because they considered him a prophet

NASB …because they regarded John as a prophet.

(NASB; cf. TNIV; NET; NLT)

Comment: Though a possible use of “hold,” this is awkward English. Idiomatic English would say they “considered him,” “regarded him” or “believe John was” (NLT). The ESV is trying to translation the Greek echō “literally” as “have” or “hold,” resulting in unnatural English. But the semantic range of echō is much larger than “have” or “hold.”

Acts 14:11

ESV And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!

Comment: Neither “lifted their voices” nor “the likeness of men” are natural English idioms. We would never say, the crowd in the stadium “lifted their voices.” We would say they “shouted” or “cried out.”

TNIV …they shouted…“The gods have come down to us in human form!”

NET …they shouted…“The gods have come down to us in human form!”

Acts 11:30

ESV And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Comment: “By the hand of” is unnatural English and surely a dead metaphor in Greek. It means “by means of,” “through the agency of,” or (most naturally) “with.” I would never say, “I sent that exam home by the hand of his wife.” That is Biblish.

TNIV …sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

God’s Word … and sent their contribution with Barnabas and Saul to the elders.

Matt. 18:3

ESV unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Comment: The ESV’s “turn and become” is a very odd expression. Turn where?

TNIV unless you change and become like little children,

NLT unless you turn from your sins and become like little children,

HCSB unless you are converted and become like children

Matt. 14:10

ESV He sent and had John beheaded in the prison,

Comment: The ESV’s “sent and had…” is very odd. Sent what? The Greek reads (lit.) “sending, he executed John.” The participle pempsas simply indicates agency. Herod didn’t do it himself; he sent orders or sent soldiers to accomplish the task. The TNIV captures the idiom accurately: “he…had John beheaded.”

TNIV he…had John beheaded in the prison.

HCSB So he sent orders and had John beheaded in the prison.

Matt. 12:34

ESV You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

Comment: In English to “speak good” means to be eloquent or clear. The ESV sounds like it is saying those who are evil don’t talk very well. The phrase means to say good things (NRSV) or to speak what is good (NASU). The ESV’s “out of the abundance” is simply obscure.

TNIV …how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

NET How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart.

Matt. 9:4

ESV “Why do you think evil in your hearts?

Comment: English normally requires an object in such sentences.

TNIV …“Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?

HCSB …“Why are you thinking evil things in your hearts?

Matt. 1:21 (cf. Matt. 1:25; Luke 1:31)

ESV She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus

Comment: This is a unnatural English idiom. I would not say, “I called my son’s name Daniel.” I would say, “I called my son Daniel” or “I named my son Daniel.”

TNIV he will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,

NET he will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus

Titus 3:4-5

ESV …he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness

Comment: “Works done by us in righteousness” is nonsensical English. The Greek means “righteous works that we have done.”

TNIV …not because of righteous things we had done

NET …not by works of righteousness that we have done

Phil. 4:6

ESV do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Comment: Because so many of us memorized this as children, the phrasing here may sound “poetic,” but it is in fact tortured English. In normal English we would never say “let your request be made known to God.”

TNIVpresent your requests to God.

NETtell your requests to God.

Gal. 4:7

ESV So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Comment: “An heir through God” is a very strange English expression. The preposition dia indicates agency, so a normal English way to say this would be “…and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (NIV) or, as in the REB: “and if a son, an heir by God’s own act.”

Luke 17:4

ESV and if he sins against you seven times in the day

Comment: Odd English. Shouldn’t this be “in one day” or “in a day”?

TNIV …seven times in a day (cf. NET; HCSB; REB; etc.)

(cont’d)

16 thoughts on “ESV #9, by Mark Strauss

  1. Tim says:

    I have to say that it does appear this blog seems to single out the ESV over any other translation for a great deal of criticism, and unfairly in my opinion.

    Let me first say that I only sometimes use the ESV, although I do have a copy, and don’t restrict myself to one version at all. I use the NASU, NRSV, ESV, TNIV, NIV, RSV, JB Philips New Testament, Greek-English Interlinear, even the Wycliffe bible which is actually my favourite version. I use the NET bible (especially its notes) and also have a copy of the Source New Testament. But which one I use depends upon how I feel on a particular day. There are times I like to know exactly what the apostles wrote, and there are times when I like to relax and let the translator do all the work for me. There are times when I want to see what the idiom is, simply because I want to see it and for no other reason. There are times when I sit down with my Greek dictionary by my side, and times when I don’t. Maybe it’s more to do with my education, I don’t know, but when I read all the criticisms of the ESV verses, and then go and read them in context I really cannot understand what all the fuss is about. I have no problem understanding what they are saying.

    I have looked at your links to your assessment of various versions and it appears that, as here, the ESV has come in again for an awful lot of criticism yet again when similar accusations can be levelled at others too. But instead there is silence.

    What about the NASU? Claims to be literal and yet, translates the Greek word ‘licentiousness/debauchery’ as ‘sensuality’ which can have a very different meaning indeed. It claims to italicise all words that have been added to make the text clearer in English and yet that method appears to have been inconsistently applied. And there are other criticisms I could make.

    What about the people that translate the word ‘blessed’ as ‘happy’? Why? Happy are the poor? I’m poor and it doesn’t make me happy. However, ‘blessed are the poor’ and that carries far greater connotations.

    How about the NRSV and its quirky word choices? Right from Genesis 1. The ‘wind of God’? The Net bible notes say “Elsewhere in the OT the phrase refers consistently to the divine spirit that empowers and energizes individuals” so what on earth induced the NRSV to translate it so?

    Are you going to adopt the same methods adopted here with regard all the other translations/revisions?

  2. Mike says:

    “I have to say that it does appear this blog seems to single out the ESV over any other translation for a great deal of criticism, and unfairly in my opinion.”

    BetterBibles has only been focusing on the ESV this past week or so because they’re posting a paper from ETS on the ESV. If you look through their history of posts, you’ll make many, many translations are discussed.

  3. John says:

    By the way, see Robertson’s Word Pictures in the NT about translating it “happy” rather than “blessed”; if you type “Robertson’s Word Pictures” into Google’s search utility you’ll see a link to it that leads to crosswalk.com; there look-up Matthew 5 and those verses, and he explains the difference between them in English, as well as Greek correspondences, and very well at that. : )

  4. Tim says:

    Mike I’m not talking about the ESV over the past week or so but considerably longer than that. I used to read the old BB Blog and would read the comments/notes about different translations that were linked there. e.g. NRSV – 10 comments, TNIV – 8 comments, NASB – 13 comments, ISV – 6 comments, ESV – 56 comments!

    And re the word ‘happy’, it is defined in the OED as meaning “Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” Its secondary meaning is “Fortunate and convenient.” The implication is of a present condition, ‘whoopee I’m really happy!’ ‘Blessed’ on the other hand, is a reference to someone marked or consecrated, given divine favour. That would make more sense.

    And if the talk is about the ESV not being good English, then let’s not stop at half measures but go the whole hog. You can’t say you only want good English but only up to a point. American spellings are bad English, therefore all American versions of the bible are bad English, and all bibles should be Anglicised. You can’t have it both ways.

  5. Mike says:

    Tim,

    I didn’t say anything about word “happy” I don’t think its a better translation either. But as to your next paragraph,

    And if the talk is about the ESV not being good English, then let’s not stop at half measures but go the whole hog. You can’t say you only want good English but only up to a point. American spellings are bad English, therefore all American versions of the bible are bad English, and all bibles should be Anglicised. You can’t have it both ways.

    That’s a confusion of dialect and style. Quality of English is a matter of style, American spelling is a matter of dialect. I don’t think Annie Dillard would appreciate you calling her English poor just because she’s American. She’s also written some of the most beautiful and powerful prose I’ve ever seen.

  6. Tim says:

    I didn’t say that you’d said anything about the word ‘happy’. It followed in John’s comment below yours, and I was responding to that.

    “That’s a confusion of dialect and style. Quality of English is a matter of style, American spelling is a matter of dialect.”

    No, it isn’t. That’s being selective. Calling it a matter of dialect does not detract from the fact that Americans don’t spell it correctly. You call the language English. English is my native tongue, I should know, and do know, what my native tongue should look like when written down in a standard form. If we didn’t have a standard form then we’d have versions of the bible that were completely unintelligible except to a select few. And I’m thinking of broad dialects such as Mancunian, Geordie, Scots, West Country etc. But now I’m getting away from the point. If there are going to be demands for good English then those demands should be consistent, and across the board, but they aren’t.

  7. Mike says:

    Tim, I’m not being selective. Your criticism about spelling might have been valid in 1806 when Noah Webster first introduced revisions to American spelling, but that was 200 years ago and both American pronunciation and American spelling are an ingrained part of the American dialect of English. The fact that there is a British standard does not mean that there’s only one standard.

  8. Tim says:

    But you just told me that American English is a dialect. No one else accepts your dialect as the standard, only Americans, and that doesn’t make it right. The change that you have was an artificial construction by Webster and one of the reasons he did it was to deliberately pull away from British standards.

    How about this: “Ah wert kippin’ on’t serfa wi’ a fag in t’gerb.” Nice bit of dialect there, it’s actually Geordie, and it means “I fell asleep on the sofa with a cigarette in my mouth”. Just because a lot of people speak like that doesn’t make it ‘another’ standard.

    But now this is going way off track and I will get back to my original comment which was basically this: there appears to be a distinct bias on BBB against ESV, with criticisms thrown against it that never appear with regard other translations despite the fact that such criticisms could be justified. This is completely unfair. Let’s see a few other versions with pages and pages devoted to taking them down then eh? Then people won’t accuse BBB of bias.

  9. Peter Kirk says:

    Tim, I am British and so like you prefer British spellings. But I, although not an American, accept American English as a standard, as a valid alternative used in a standard way by our transatlantic brothers and sisters. I find it perverse of you to try to drive a wedge between us and them on these matters. Anyway, most mainstream Bible translation these days, including ESV, appear in separate American and British editions, with spelling differences and a few other changes.

  10. Tim says:

    I am not trying to drive a wedge, and don’t you accuse me of that. Read what I said and why I said it in the first place, and you will see that it began with the observation that if calls for better English are demanded, then why stop at half measures? (Quite apart from that, ‘English’ English has pre-eminence, whether some people are too proud to admit it or not, period.)

    When these posts first began with regard the ESV and the accusations of bad English in the ESV, I pointed out that the NRSV used those exact same wordings on many occasions. Now whilst BBB begins loudly declaiming that the ESV uses bad English, there’s a deafening silence despite the fact that the NRSV uses exactly the same wordings! That to me smacks of double-standards. And that is just one example, although I can think of a number of others.

    If this is acceptable to you it is not acceptable to me, and I don’t think I’ll be coming back here, not that we’ll be missing each other I am sure.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    Tim, I can agree with you that NRSV often uses just as bad wordings as ESV. Much of ESV’s bad English was copied from RSV, and was also copied by NRSV. That is no excuse for the ESV or NRSV translators.

    But NRSV is not being strongly promoted among evangelicals, and so it would not be appropriate to give a paper about its deficiencies at ETS. Maybe next year Mark Strauss should offer a similar paper about NRSV to SBL, to an audience likely to use NRSV. I’m sure we would be willing to post such a paper also here at BBB.

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Peter wrote:

    Maybe next year Mark Strauss should offer a similar paper about NRSV to SBL, to an audience likely to use NRSV. I’m sure we would be willing to post such a paper also here at BBB.

    I would like that, Peter. As you know, as part of the BBB blogging team, we don’t limit ourselves to discussion of just conservative evangelical Bible versions. All Bible translations can be improved.

  13. John says:

    Speaking of spellings…luckily for those of us in America, there’s plenty authoritative sources that favor our spellings…in Britain! : ) Like “ize” in the OED vs. “ise”.

    American spellings tended to follow etymology standardizing on the Latin and Greek origins (like the text regarding “ize” in the OED) while the British spellings tended to be more showy and follow French (from which we have many loan words, though more Norman French than “French”, which is very different). Not in every case, and these statements are very general, yet I get smug satisfaction in that we dumb Americans also tend, often, to use the “English” spellings before French spellings became popular in Britain, such as with “program” vs. the British “programme”. hah!

    That’s all in jest and fun…though not untrue, far as I know, either. Cheers to those across the “pond”. : )

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