Making a Good Translation Better, Part II: The Case for Updating the ESV

Unlike the Decalogue, the ESV translation was not written on stone tablets by the finger of God. There is always room for improvement!

In my last post, I took a brief look at the latest update to the ESV translation of the Bible, and gave the Translation Committee a hearty “good job.” So much for the good news for the ESV. Today, I turn to the less pleasant task of being the bearer of bad news by 1) pointing out that outmoded language (among other things) is still unnecessarily peppered throughout the ESV, and 2) showing why this is a problem.

Then said I, “Invert not your word order”

Although the 2011 edition of the ESV is far more up to date in its vocabulary and word order than the RSV (and even the 2001 ESV), there are still places where the word order (to focus on just one issue) still unnecessarily veers away from standard contemporary English. Some cases are aberrational, and it seems that the ESV committee has merely “missed a spot,” so to speak. For example, while the ESV 2011 generally succeeds in placing the subject before the verb (your 6th grade English teacher would be so proud), for some reason I Sam 22:9,[1] like the KJV of old, still says “Then answered Doeg  .  .  .” rather than “Then Doeg answered  .  .  .” (compare this to the recent changes to nearby verses in I Sam 23:10; 26:8). Other cases, however, are more widespread. For example, often (but not always) the ESV puts the word “not” after a verb, whereas standard 21st Century English puts the adverb of negation first. So, for example, the psalmist pleads in Ps 51:11, “Cast me not away  .  .  .  and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” The NRSV, NASB, and even NKJV—literal translations—have all managed to update the language to read “Do not cast me away  .  .  .  and do not take  .  .  . from me”  (see also Isa 50:6; Matt 6:13; etc.).

Saint Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate. For those of you keeping score, some people thought there was no need for futher translation work after he was done over a millenium and a half ago.

Now, in the case of verses like I Sam 22:9, where outmoded language seems to have “slipped through the cracks,” some proponents of the ESV may argue that a few glitches here and there are not worth the hassle of issuing yet another update. In the case of more widespread outmoded language, no doubt many will argue that this language preserves a sense of “elegance” and style, or perhaps that it meaningfully retains familiar phrases inherited from the KJV and cherished by the community of the faithful (as though changing the wording of Matt 6:13 from “lead us not into temptation” to “do not lead us into temptation” would somehow destroy the beauty and legacy of the Lord’s prayer). In other words, some readers will ask, “what’s the big deal? Why bother with yet another update?” As an advocate of the ESV, let me begin to make my case.

Alienate not your audience

Outmoded language lays an unnecessary obstacle in the path of those interested in switching from a less literal translation (often the NIV84) to a more literal translation. I’ll give you just one anecdotal example: During my BU days, my pastor was entertaining the notion of switching in his sermons and sermon prep from using the NIV to trying some other translation, so he tried using the ESV (after some gentle persuasion from me) for a short period of time. After that mini-experiment, he decided to revert to the NIV. He explained to me his reasoning, and it went something like this: He weighed a) the benefits of a more literal translation against b) how much harder to understand/more foreign sounding he felt the ESV was for his listeners. He concluded that the increased difficulty outweighed the increased precision. Now, I want to emphasize that this pastor was open to switching to a somewhat more difficult/foreign translation if he felt it helped his congregation understand the text better by getting them closer to the originals; yet, at the end of the day, he concluded the degree of increased difficulty was too much to justify the benefits of switching to a literal translation. If all of the awkward phrasing was due to the literal philosophy, I’d feel differently about the situation. I’d just say that a literal translation isn’t for this pastor, and he needs to look at a more dynamic translation. But that’s not the case, and I think there is a good chance that this story would have ended differently if much or all of the archaic or foreign syntax in the ESV had been updated.

A translator with Wycliffe works on producing a version of the Bible in a Nigerian language.

Of course, this is just one piece of anecdotal evidence. But with a) the prevalence of the NIV84 (the “New Inspired Version”) in Evangelical American Churches; and b) the challenge to that dominance posed by the transition towards the NIV2011–a transition which, regardless of what you think of the NIV 2011, has many pastors rethinking translation issues afresh, I would wager that there are many other stories similar to the one that I just recounted. If Crossway wants to see the ESV catch on, it seems to me that they should do everything they can to reach this target audience. In the story above, the strong majority of the congregation also used the NIV, due in part to the unofficial default status the NIV had for church functions. That means, if the pastor makes the change in the church service, many in the congregation will also switch.

Confuse not the faithful student

Since the ESV is an essentially literal translation, readers who do not have access to the original languages are relying on it to, as the translation preface says, be “transparent” to the original languages; such readers will naturally assume that syntax that feels foreign to them reflects something out of the ordinary in the original languages. Therefore, foreign phrasing that does not derive from the Hebrew or Greek is misleading and a hindrance to in-depth exegesis. This will especially be a problem with the occasional stray misfires, such as is found in I Sam 22:9.

Now, don’t get me wrong; the ESV is not a broken translation. To the contrary, I think that the ESV is the best essentially literal translation available today, and I advocate for its use whenever I can. And that’s the primary reason that I want to see the kinks worked out—so that more people will see the value of switching to an elegant, essentially literal translation for study, reading and worship.

[1] To be fair, the English word order here does actually follow the Hebrew word order. The problem is that a) since this is the standard word order for Hebrew (VSO: verb first, followed by subject, followed by object), it should be translated with the standard English word order; and b) the ESV usually translates standard Hebrew word order with standard English word order—Hebrew VSO becomes English SVO (e.g. Gen 1:1 reads in the Hebrew “in the beginning created God,” but is translated as “In the beginning God created”). For a recent academic discussion of word order in biblical Hebrew, see Adina Moshavi, Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Finite Clause (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009).


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.
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4 Responses to Making a Good Translation Better, Part II: The Case for Updating the ESV

  1. Ken Langley says:

    You’re right that there are plenty more of us like your former pastor. I’m one. Not at all crazy about the gender chnages in the nIV2011, but if my choice is between that and the antiquated language of the ESV, our church will stick with NIV. Ken Langley, Zion, Il

    • hjimkeener says:

      Thanks so much for sharing, Ken! I hope the good people at Crossway take note! Having said that, I’d encourage you to take another look at the ESV 2011 (and my previous post); they have taken steps in the right direction. The ESV has so much to commend it, in my opinion. It really is unfortunate that there is just enough outdated language to keep churches like yours from adopting it.

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

  3. Alexander Thomson says:

    Please see my comments at Part I.

    You are absolutely right about the English of the ESV; and UK churches that would have changed from the NIV to the ESV have not changed, and others have updated their 1984 NIV to the 2011 NIV; and some have even reverted to the NIV!

    The fact is that the 2001 ESV was rushed through and published too soon, not having been exposed to a sufficient number of able students…and to how many ordinary users was it exposed?

    Unless the publishers tackle these questions of the English register and fluency of the translation, the ESV will not be used, I fear.

    You know, there was no need for anyone to revise the RSV and/or to pay any capital sum or royalties for copyright permission. Either the co-operation of The Lockman Foundation could have been sought to improve the NASB; or else the out-of-copyright ASV (arguably the most accurate English translation) could have been revised and updated..perhaps the simplest and most cost-effective solution! There is something not quite kosher about the world of Bible publishing!

    Every Blessing!


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