Making a Good Translation Better: The 2011 ESV Update and Beyond

Miles Coverdale; the first to translate the entire Bible into English

As previously discussed, the ESV Translation Committee has recently introduced 27 pages worth of updates to the English Standard Version translation of the Bible.  Since then, a full list of changes has been made available online.  Now, just last week, someone over at the ESVBible page on Facebook mentioned a rumor that a 2013 revision was coming down the pipe. The page administrators said that the rumor was unfounded. I might be in the minority, but I was actually disappointed to read that. See, I think that it could be a brilliant move for the ESV to continue to make revisions intermittently, and I’d like to make my case.

In today’s post, I’ll start by pointing to a few places where the 2011 text update is right on the money. In days to come, I’ll try to make the case that there is more work yet to be done.

Updating Archaic/Outmoded Word Order and Vocabulary in the ESV

 The ESV is, in my opinion, the best essentially literal translation available on the mass market, and it is the English translation that I use most frequently. Nevertheless, the language is still outdated where it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes this is simply a result of outmoded vocabulary, but it usually is because the ESV has left in archaic syntax dating back to the KJV. That is to say, while the ESV has done a good job of bringing the vocabulary up to date, sometimes the words are out-of-order from the point of view of a 21st Century English speaker. While the changes made in the 2011 edition are few in number, this latest edition has taken steps to update both the words and the word order. Here are a few examples:

2007 ESV 2011 ESV
Gen 46:2; Isa 6:8; etc. Here am I Here I am
I Sam 4:10 there fell of Israel forty thousand foot soldiers forty thousand foot soldiers fell of Israel
I Sam 26:8 Then said Abishai Then Abishai said
II Sam 6:21 make merry celebrate
Eccl 7:9; Job 31:33; etc. bosom heart (or arms; or lap)
John 1:9 enlightens gives light to
Matt 18:22 seventy times seven seventy-seven times
Matt 23:37 you would not you were not willing

Now, to be clear, this list is only representative of one of several types of changes made in the 2011 update; namely, places where outmoded language has been brought up to date. Many (probably most) of the changes have no effect whatsoever on the currency of the language (e.g. Matt 23:35, where Abel is now said to be “righteous” rather than “innocent”). In others the phrasing or word choice might become somewhat more difficult for most readers, and therefore it might look more like “old-fashioned Biblese;” but the changes in those cases are due to a more literal and consistent rendering of the Hebrew or Greek (e.g. I Sam 2:1, 10, where “strength” and “power” are replaced by the more literal “horn”). In such cases, I think the ESV 2011 update has made the right decision by taking a more literal path.

Even so, I still think that much work needs to be done, and I hope to show why in posts to come. For now, I ask what other readers of the ESV think. Should the ESV continue to update their text? Or perhaps you think they’ve done too much already, and wish they had never tinkered with a good thing?

About hjimkeener

Education: B.A.: Moody Bible Institute GCTS: Knox Theological Seminary M.Div.: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Ph.D.: Baylor University Ministry Experience: I have served as a Youth Minister, Associate Pastor of English Ministry, and a pulpit supply preacher. Teaching Experience: In addition to teaching in various volunteer and professional ministry settings, I have taught as a University Professor (Teaching Fellow; Baylor University) and as a Seminary Professor (El Seminario de la Iglesia Presbiteriana de Bolivia). I have also given lectures and sermons in Spanish.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Translating the Bible and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Making a Good Translation Better: The 2011 ESV Update and Beyond

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    They should continue. It doesn’t need to be wholesale revision. It can retain its ESV character. But it needs to be worded in good literary 21st century English, especially since it is being used with young people, in Christian schools, and for other audiences that need to hear God’s Word as they basically speak and write it today. I’m looking forward to other posts in this series of yours.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Jim, I have catalogued a number of revisions which I feel could benefit the ESV:

  3. hjimkeener says:

    Thanks, Wayne, for your input and the link. Your work is quite thorough. I’ve perused the ESV page on the BetterBibles blog in the past, so I am already familiar with some of your observations. Looking at your ESVlinks page, it’s evident that you’ve done a lot of “grunt work” to identify language that could easily be updated.

  4. Pingback: Making a Good Translation Better, Part II: The Case for Updating the ESV | For His Lovingkindness is Everlasting.

  5. Pingback: Fine-Tuning a Modern Classic: The New Black (Imitation Leather) ESV Pitt Minion | For His Lovingkindness is Everlasting.

  6. Mike Allan says:

    The 2011 “update” was little more than correcting errors in editing that were overlooked in the 2007 edition. Completely unnecessary and added little to the text but lots to Crossway’s profits. Now it is rumored that they want to do another “update ” in 2014. Killing their brand fast.

    • hjimkeener says:

      Thanks for your input. That’s an interesting perspective. Yet, I wonder if you can cite any hard evidence for any of your opinions? Granted, there may be some debate about how one defines an “error,” but I just perused the first three pages of corrections posted by Crossway, and I don’t see a single change that I would regard as correcting a clear-cut “error.” On the fourth page I see one spot that I suppose one could debatably define as an error (Judges 5:25). But even in that instance, the original ESV text preserved the wording of the RSV (and KJV), so it seems more accurate and charitable to regard this as an instance of updating the language, not correcting some sort of editorial error.
      As far as your claim that the update was “completely unnecessary,” that seems to run counter to your claim that the changes are “correcting errors in editing.” Surely any self-respecting translation would find it necessary to correct any remaining editorial errors!
      And again, two other claims seem to me to be conflicting: Either Crossway is making “lots of . . . profits” from their updates, or they are “[k]illing their brand fast.” It would be hard (though I suppose not impossible) to do both at the same time.
      And, as far as another update, I’m dissapointed that I’ve not heard anything about any more upcoming updates. If there is one, I’d be very glad for it (see my next post). If anyone has anything more than rumor to share about a 2014 update, please do share! That would be good news, in my opinion.

  7. Mallen says:

    Look, if you are making changes to a translation, you are admitting there were errors in the earlier edition. If you don’t like the word “error”, then use a different phrase like, “updating the language”, “smoothing the grammar”, or “correcting for spelling”, etc. Whatever. If the ESV editorial team decided to modify the text, they modified it because they believed the existing text could be improved because the text was not as good as they felt it could be. Fine. But you would expect these changes to be major and multiple to warrant an entire new translation. But the total changes to the 2007 text numbered just 500. And these 500 changes made to the 2007 text were overwhelmingly insignificant. Most of the updated text variants were either:

    1. word order changes like “Here I am” instead of “Here am I” and “has not” to “does not have”;


    2. word substitution changes like,

    “servant” to “worker”,”strength” to “horn”, “young man” to “boy”, “burden” to “oracle”, “slave” to “bondservant”, “enlightens” to “gives light to”, etc. I think “Kidron Valley” got the biggest change, a demotion down to “Kidron brook”.

    Look through the full list of changes:

    I would argue these are hardly major text changes by any stretch of the imagination. And frankly, for slight grammar changes or word substitutions like these, I think the ESV editorial staff should have caught them in the 2007 editorial process. No need to create an entire new translation for just 500 words when the changes don’t add anything substantive to the meaning of the text. “Enlightens” to “gives light to”—wow, I’m glad I bought the 2011 translation because I wasn’t clear on that.

    You can always find something in a translation that could be changed, but the real question is: are the changes substantive enough to warrant a new translation? I think it’s pretty clear the 2011 changes were not substantive and I think it’s a bit naive to believe the 500 word update wasn’t made with a view to boost Crossway’s sales and profits. Think of all the people who bought the wildly popular 2007 ESV translation but now find themselves with an “outdated” text. Who wants an old version of the text? Simple answer, says Crossway. Buy our new “updated” 2011 version!

    Lastly, my pastor studied under one of the ESV editorial staff members while at seminary. This pastor and ESV New Testament editor told my pastor a year ago that he was again working on yet another ESV translation that is due to appear “2013 or 2014 at the latest.” Given the market saturation of English Bible translations and the ESV track record so far, I find his statement very believable. I hope he’s wrong and ESV doesn’t further water down their brand, but I’m not holding my breath on that.

  8. hjimkeener says:

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on what constiutes an error. I think your definition is highly problematic and unfair, but I’ll let that pass.
    I do think it’s important to be clear about one thing: the 2011 text edition is not a new translation. It is an updated edition of the text. This is an important distinction. Most translations undergo similar text revisions.
    As far as your claim that “it’s a bit naive to believe the 500 word update wasn’t made with a view to boost Crossway’s sales and profits,” I’m not really overly concerned about whether or not Crossway was motivated by the bottom line. If the profit motive encourages them to make their translation better, great! That’s the good-ol’ invisible hand at work, if you ask me. If you want to imply that it was some adverstising gimmick or something, though, I definitely don’t see that. I haven’t seen a single ad from Crossway touting the updates at all; quite to the contrary. In many bookstores you have two similar looking Bibles sitting side-by-side with two different editions of the text (two copies of the ESV Study Bible, for example). The only way that you will know that one has the 2011 text and the other the 2007 is if you peel back the cellophane, turn to the front matter (and who, besides an uber-geek like me, bothers to look at the front matter?), and read the fine print. There is no sticker on the 2011 text edition Bible anouncing “NEW IMPROVED TEXT!” In fact, if anything, the difference seems to be totally hidden.

    And finally, I hope your Pastor is right. I hope Crossway continues to commit to excellence by introducing more improvements to the ESV by 2014.

  9. Dr. Tom says:

    Something I find very common among pastors and academics I know is a wholesale frustration with the rush to get this translation out instead of getting it right. I know all translations make changes over time (NIV, HCSB, NASB) but still, it seems like Crossway is sending us to the bookstore every couple of years to make sure we have the new and improved ESV. Maybe if it had not been so slavish to the RSV, we wouldn’t have to have so many revisions. I love this translation, but I’m frustrated by it. I’m not alone.

  10. Alexander Thomson says:

    Sorry to be so late in commenting, but I have just come across your website!

    I agree that the ESV could-and should-be improved,since (as I see it in the UK at least) the only two modern translations widely used by serious/evangelical Bible students are the NIV and the ESV.(Alas, for several reasons, the NASB is unlikely to replace either!) Unless you are committed to a translation dedicated to so-called gender inclucivism and prone to omit features in the original text-eg connecting Greek particles), the ESV is the only possible road to take. If so, it must be as accurate as possible, while eliminating archaic structures-eg “he knew not”).

    I also agree that any revision will be light, experimental and ongoing. The proper way to proceed is for the publishers to issue periodic lists of proposed changes and invite comments, as well as receive ongoing comments from readers.Then, when sufficient proposed changes have been aired/agreed, a new edition could be issued. This sort of approach has been adopted in other disciplines, but has been avoided by Bible publishers – For profit purposes, I fear! Other disciplines charge for such periodic lists, and I would have no objection to paying a reasonless price for them.

    The alternative, if the publishers will not go this route, is for individuals to form a group with the specific aim of improving the ESV. Or, failing even that for an individual to publish his own proposed changes. I accept, but with considerable consternation, that Bible publishing has fallen into the hands of commercial concerns (even if they are not-for-profit enterprises), but we users must make more demands upon Bible publishers…or perhaps make our own translation, based on genuine community and co-operation!

    Every Blessing!

  11. Pingback: The Final Update to the English Standard Version (ESV) | Veracity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s