Lately I’ve become interested in English Bible translations. It started a few weeks ago when I was looking online for opinions on the ESV and found the Better Bibles Blog. They have a lot to say about the ESV that’s basically along the lines I’ve been thinking, except that they’ve thought a lot more about it (not an unusual occurrance for me).
The translation I’ve used for ages is the NIV, and during that time I didn’t really give other translations much thought. When the ESV came out, it was just another one that I didn’t really care about. It sort of got my attention when I heard John Piper’s sermon explaining why Bethlehem Baptist Church was making it their official translation, but I still pretty much ignored it.
What really piqued my interest was my brother’s curious habits during church. At the time we both attended an Anglican church that used the ESV in its liturgy, and often during the Scripture readings I would see him circling phrases in the reading printed in the worship guide. I thought he was being spiritual until I asked him one day what he was doing, and he told me he was marking awkward wordings. Linguistic analysis—I should have known!
His opinion is that although the goal of the ESV translators was to sound elegant, they ended up just sounding weird. In a later conversation he gave me an example that he thinks epitomizes the problem, Acts 26:29: “And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I amâ€”except for these chains.'” “I would to God”? Who says that?? In fact, my brother wonders if it was a mistake, though I doubt it. When he first brought it up, I defended the wording because I could make sense of it (Googling “I would that” gives 248,000 results, and “I would to God” gives 47,100); but the syntax is archaic, so the real question is whether that’s the right kind of wording to use in a modern English translation. The Greek doesn’t demand it. The word euchomai is used in six other places and is translated in the ESV as “pray” or “wish,” either of which would work fine in this verse.
This feature of the ESV intrigued me because clear communication and usability are very important to me, and reading Rudolph Flesch’s The Art of Plain Talk several years ago made me an advocate of using plain language for most purposes. The ESV raises all kinds of interesting issues relating to readability and accuracy, and its growing popularity, at least in certain circles, makes it especially worth studying.
Then I came across Wayne Leman’s posts at the Better Bibles Blog, and that launched me into an uncharacteristic interest in Bible translation. I’ve been collecting them. I already had the NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NLT, and TNIV, and I picked up God’s Word (yes, there’s a translation called that), the ESV, HCSB, and CEV. The less cheap ones I’d like to get are the NRSV (in the form of the HarperCollins Study Bible, because it was produced by the Society for Biblical Literature and I thought evangelicals had a monopoly on study Bibles!) and the NET, which I like because it has 60,000 translator’s notes.
My focus in studying Bible translation is kind of narrow. I’m interested in the broad issues of formal vs. dynamic equivalence, naturalness, and accuracy in translation; the suitability of a translation for particular purposes; the relationship between the goals of the translators, their methods, and their results; and in translation as an instance of exegesis, because as Scott Hafemann says, “All translation is interpretation!”
I don’t care about the gender inclusive language debate, which is one of the main points of contention in modern English Bible translation. There’s a whole battle over it between the ESV and the TNIV. I tend to be totally uninterested in and somewhat annoyed by hot button issues in society, and this is just one more example. So I won’t be talking much about that aspect of things, though I may discuss it briefly in connection with the idea of accuracy.
Right now I’m paying the most attention to three versions, the ESV, the CEV, and the HCSB. The ESV because it’s such an interesting case study of a bunch of different issues. The CEV caught my eye because it scored the highest in Wayne Leman’s naturalness study. I also encountered it in my through-the-Bible listening plan. For most of it I’m using the NIV Audio Bible Dramatized (unfortunately), but in between the testaments I paused to listen to 1 Maccabees for some historical perspective. I happened to find an audio version of the book in the public library’s holdings on NetLibrary, and it happened to be in the CEV. It turned out to be a very pleasant experience. I was impressed by the clarity of the translation, how smoothly it flowed through the ears and into the mind, and in fact that’s exactly what the translators intended for it. So the CEV became another focus in my translation investigations. Then I read that the HCSB, which I had had only minimal exposure to, was translated with similar goals to the ESV and did a pretty good job of it, so I’m looking at the HCSB as another way of doing a literal and readable translation. And as an alternative to the ESV, which leads me to my next point.
I used to wonder why there were so many English Bible translations and wasn’t it all kind of pointless, but now I think it makes reading the Bible more interesting. I like to see the different ways people have come up with to render the text. But it’s good to have a “home base,” so that’s another reason I’m looking at these different translations, to see what else is out there besides the versions I’ve always used and to make a switch if it seems like a good idea. Since translation is such an inexact science, I think it’s good to have different versions for different purposes, since different translators had different goals that guided their translation decisions. Right now for Bible study, if I’m too lazy to use the original languages, I’d still use the good ol’ NASB. It’s straightforwardly literal. A Bible for reading and memorizing is more what I’m searching for. The NIV is okay, but I want to see my other options.
So that’s been my latest hobby. We’ll see how long that lasts! My interests usually shift before I can make good progress on a project. It’s kind of depressing. But anyway, I have plans for this project.
I should warn you that, if I make any progress in my plans, I’ll be criticizing the ESV quite a bit, as you could guess. But my opinion of it is in process. In spite of my preference for plain language, I think there’s a place for a high art Bible. And I think it might work well as a preaching Bible, which is John Piper’s primary use for it. When it’s being preached from, the preacher can clear up any strange wordings that pop up. As a reading Bible, I’m not so sure it’s the best choice. It depends on your preferences and experience in Bible reading. And I probably wouldn’t use it for evangelism! Unless maybe I were bringing them into a church in which the language was explained.
Even if a literary Bible is a fine goal, there’s the question of whether the translators have succeeded in reaching it. Not that I’m especially qualified to say; I’m an utter novice when it comes to literary style (something to learn about during this study!). But I am a native English speaker, and I can at least record and analyze my own reactions to the text, and maybe others will share them.