This is something I wrote back in 2002 on the ESV translation that we currently use at CCB.
Should we abansone our Bibles? Nothing like a provocative opening to grab the attention! Let me put it this way, ‘should we abandon our dog eared and ageing New International Versions (NIV) and replace them with a shiny new English Standard Version (ESV)?’
Christian publishers like the Good Book Company want us to do so. Familiar voices from Australia tell us that it’s likely to become the Bible of choice amongst evangelical congregations in the English speaking world. Our own Christ Church Balham (CCB), Fairfield Community Church and Cornerstone have already abandoned the NIV and embraced the ESV and St Helen’s Bishopsgate followed our strong lead! Were they prudently sensible or recklessly impetuous? After all, the NIV is the biggest selling modern translation of the Bible. There are about 150 million copies in print. It makes up about 30% of all Bible sales.
Should the ESV be the Bible most evangelicals read? I want to suggest that all the congregations should make the change. But to substantiate that claim we need to think about what sort of translation we should be using.
What sort of translation?
We’re about to throw ourselves into the deep waters of translation theory and if we’re to emerge alive we’ll need to keep it simple. The debate about the merits of any Bible translation depends upon our commitment to functional equivalence (FE) or dynamic equivalence (DE). Readers who are keen to chase this further should visit the Matthias Media website and follow the ESV links.
The NIV is a DE translation that aims to convey the equivalent sense of a phrase rather than the equivalent words. The underlying translation philosophy prioritises the reader rather than the text. It attempts to reshape the ancient text to make it accessible to the modern world. The emphasis is on pursuing readability for the modern reader. Therefore the goal is seems to be to make the translation as simple as possible. There is no question that the NIV is simpler to read but that is not as good a thing as it first appears. This commitment to simplicity results in the following four frustrating features:
1. The NIV employs shorter punchy sentences that make the language lively and engaging. But doing this eliminates those helpful connective words that demonstrate the logic of the author’s argument.
2. The NIV irons out any ambiguities of meaning in the original text and presents one of the options to the reader. But this approach takes the responsibility of interpretation into the hands of the translator and not the reader. True, all translations involve interpretation but the NIV is at the ‘taking liberties’ end of the spectrum.
3. The NIV translates the same original word with different words to produce more stylish flowing English. But this means that the reader is unable to put together a picture of what the author means when he uses this same word.
4. The NIV removes concrete biblical metaphors with more abstract concepts that are supposed to be more straightforward. But the original images are not hard to understand and the effect is to flatten and lose the power of the word’s imagery.
The ESV is a FE translation that aims at ‘word for word’ correspondence. The underlying translation philosophy prioritises the text rather than the reader. Therefore the aim of the translator is give the reader as much access to the ancient text as the reader’s linguistic skills will allow. It is unrealistic to expect most readers to learn the original languages and so the aim is to replicate the ancient text in terms of content and also form. It does this by preserving as many of the features of the ancient text as possible. Nevertheless it would be misleading to suggest that the ESV translation is free from any interpretative translation decisions. All translation involves a degree of interpretation since a complete word for word correspondence would be virtually unreadable.
For example consider a literal translation of Galatians 5:16, ‘but I say in Spirit you walk and the desire of the flesh by no means you will complete’. It’s transparent but inaccessible! The ESV renders this ‘but I say walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the NIV goes for ‘so I say live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of your sinful nature’. The ESV is preferable since it preserves the vivid ‘walking’ metaphor and Paul’s frequent word ‘flesh’.
However, the ESV is not perfect. No translation is. There are two problems that will need revision. The commitment to FE is not carried out consistently and fails to meet it’s own translation aims. Nevertheless, what we get with the ESV is a translation that is at least at the same level of formal equivalence as the NIV but in most cases it is several steps closer to the original. The ESV has not lived up to its promise in the area of clarity of expression and the quality of English usage. At CCB we have had occasion to reach for the dictionary when words like, ‘sojourn’, ‘portent’, ‘confute’ and ‘adjure’ came up. It is supposed to be pitched at Year 8 but there must be some very clever 12 year olds in America! And this is its most frustrating feature. At times the English is almost inaccessible. We need a revision and someone without a degree needs to check it out!
Should we abandon the NIV? In time, perhaps. Should we abandon the Bible? Never. So let’s keep our perspective on this. In the Christian press there has been some theological mud slinging. Pejorative words like ‘transparent’ suggest that the NIV is ‘obscure’, it’s not. Words like ‘dynamic’ suggest that the ESV is ‘static’, it’s not. We’re talking about two good translations. And so to decide to go on reading the NIV is not like saying you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God. Surely we’d rather people read any translation than no Bible at all. But if you had to choose I’d recommend the ESV. It may feel for a while like owning an Apple Mac. It’s a superior product, loved by its users, revered by those in the know but owned by hardly anyone! And that may be a sufficient reason to stick with the NIV.
Further resources on this issue can be found here
- Driscoll, ‘Why Mars Hill Uses the ESV’
- Payne, ‘How close are we to the Bible?’
- Payne, ‘The Briefing and the ESV: A response to Don Carson and Allan Chapple’,
- Piper, ‘Good English with Minimal Interpretation: Why Bethlehem uses the ESV’
- ESV Resource Page at Matthias Media
- For information from the publishers on the ESV go here