After blogging on this series on the three formal equivalent translations, I cannot say there is a clear #1 winner because it all depends on what a person wants in a translation. This may be a post-modern approach but I do respect each person’s preference. All three translations are very good but I do not want to minimize any of their strengths so I cannot prescribe a “best translation”. I believe it is a subjective and personal decision because each person wants something different in a translation.
The NASB is definitely the most literal, the NRSV is the least literal of the three literal translations, and the ESV is somewhere in-between. If one wants the most literal word-for-word precision (in alignment with the Greek) and do not mind the choppiness in reading, plus a conservative theological outlook, then the NASB is best. If you want a fairly high degree of literalness but without the awkward choppiness of the NASB, and a conservative evangelical theological outlook, then the ESV is the best. If you want a fairly literal translation and even greater readability than the ESV, plus gender-neutral language, then the NRSV is best. So here is my individual conclusion to each of the three excellent translations.
What surprised me is that there have been several times when the NASB has superfluously added a word or two to the text where it does not exist in the original language. But then, the NRSV does this too. The amount of meticulous translation work done on the NASB is incredible. From a detailed perspective, it is definitely the most literal in the majority of cases; and overall, from a broader perspective, it is still the most literal of the three. It is excellent for careful exegetical bible studies. The NASB has a stellar reputation for very good reasons. It is literal yet accurate. The literalness in the NASB is in itself, its own strength, and at the same time, it is also its own weakness. Literalness makes it less readable, but nevertheless, it is still readable to the average person. This is why it has been the formal equivalent translation of choice for conservatives/evangelicals who have a high view of scripture and who do a lot of exegetical bible studies. It has been underestimated by mainline and secular academic settings in the past, and this is too bad. In my opinion, it deserves greater respect than what it has received. In conservative-evangelical seminaries, the NASB is still highly regarded.
The ESV seems to be the leanest in terms of wordiness—that is, it seems to use fewer words than the NASB and NRSV to say the same thing. Even though it is less wordy, it amazes me that it is also more readable than the NASB. In future revisions, if they could get rid of its inverted negatives, the ESV would be even more readable. The ESV is second in literalness after the NASB. This makes it excellent for indepth exegetical bible studies. Another strength of the ESV is that it is the most up-to-date in scholarship. Like the NRSV when it first came out, ESV translators also made distinctly unique decisions regarding the rendering of certain passages. This is why it is useful to consult different translations (however, it may be difficult to know why the translators rendered certain words the way they did). The ESV is a scholarly translation and will become known as such. I predict that it will gain a greater respectability from mainline/secular academia than the NASB ever did. Since its translators are conservative/evangelical, like the NASB, it will inevitably become the pride of evangelicals.
The NRSV is not as literal as the NASB and is slightly less literal than the ESV; but yet, it is very accurate. Accuracy and literalness should not be equated as the same thing. The language of the NRSV is also a strength because it makes it more readable than the NASB, and even the ESV. The NRSV translators made choices to go with slightly different rendering from the traditional ones and that may be due to a more liberal Christian worldview or just a different way of handling the original text. I think the difference in worldview is less of a factor than the way the text is handled. The translators of the NRSV did a lot of work in making improvements over the RSV, even more so than what the ESV translators have done with the RSV, in my opinion. The NRSV is greatly enhanced in its readability over the RSV, and has increased in accuracy too.
In my past, the two translations I usually consult the most are the NASB and NRSV but this should not be seen as a slight to the ESV. I have only done so because I became accustomed to pulling the NASB and NRSV off the shelf first but this should not reflect my opinion of any of the three. I have recently started to consult the ESV much more often because I have discovered its excellence. All three translations are very good, and they are each unique in their own ways. So my search for a formal equivalent translation will continue on sometime into the future.