There’s still room for the ESV to improve

Tim gave a well thought-out comment in a previous post ESV can become better. I am posting his comment here, particularly because he felt that he wasn’t heard on another blog mentioned below. It was a response in my post that the work invested into the NRSV was much greater than the work invested into the ESV. I still stand by this, however, I really like Tim’s comment. He said:

I think it’s a little unfair to expect there to be another revision so soon after the last one. Let’s not forget, they brought out the revision relatively quickly after the ESV first came out and that is to be commended. I feel very strongly that they do listen and that another revision will happen. If they didn’t listen then the first revision wouldn’t have taken place would it?

People say that the NRSV is a good version, and I echo that, as I like it. But I couldn’t understand why there were not that many sales. I asked this question on BBB, that if it was the version recommended by scholars and academics why did it consistently do poorly in the sales rankings, to be told that the reason was probably because not many scholars and academics bought it. Bit of a smart**** answer and not the one I was actually looking for, so I did a little rooting around myself…..

It’s clear to me that where a translation is concerned it becomes an attempted balance between style and substance. Such a balance is going to, by its very nature, be almost impossible to strike as many people have their own ideas of what ‘perfect’ English actually means. I tried to demonstrate this on BBB, failed, and instead had people jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about my comments, and getting it wrong […]

I believe Tim’s view is valid and is felt by many other ESV readers whose sentiments do not resonate with those who favor gender-inclusive language. I don’t know what the solution is to this but I think both views are valid. Neither is wrong. For some, gender-inclusivity in the bible translations do speak more clearly and directly to them. For others, gender-inclusivity in translations is unnecessary because they read and interpret the bible with gender-inclusivity in mind but would prefer to leave the technical definition of the masculine in tact. I believe there are many readers out there who would agree with both views too.

The AV (1611) was itself a revision (even then the language was considered a little dated), and went through numerous revisions after it was first released. But for all its faults, it brought millions to Christ. Yet there are many who would make fun of others for still using it. How out of date was the Septuagint when the apostles were quoting from it? To my mind it isn’t the version that matters but whether you read it and use it, that does. As someone else (I cannot remember who) said, use the version that sings to your heart. I use many versions, and although my favourite is the Wycliffe Bible that is purely for stylistic reasons and its historical value. Firstly it can be considered the first shot fired in what led to the Reformation. Secondly, as an Anglo-Saxon buff, it interests me for the language it uses and is a link between Anglo-Saxon and our modern English.

When I think of some translators I am put in mind of the priesthood of old (before the Reformation) which maintained that no-one was allowed to read the bible unless it was one of the ‘approved’ versions. Only the priesthood held the ‘secret knowledge’ that enables others to understand it properly. Well that’s rubbish. And regardless of how perfect the style is, it isn’t going to be much worth if no one wants to read it, is it? The ESV tends to fly off the shelves around here, and that is a big plus. It doesn’t matter what version it is, nor how perfect the English within it. What matters is whether people buy it and use it. And on that score the ESV is doing well. So, if you can’t have both then what’s it to be, style or substance? I know what I’d rather choose.

Personally, I do not agree with Tim on this one. We need both style and substance in bible translations. If a translation lacks one or the other, it needs to be improved. If one loves style, there are many out there who are not Anglo-Saxon buffs and cannot even begin to read the Wycliffe Bible or even the King James Version. The ESV still has room to improve on its style and substance. I am confident that Good News Publishers and future revisions will be working on improvements in the ESV. In the end, there is lots of room for the ESV, and even the NRSV to improve.

5 thoughts on “There’s still room for the ESV to improve

  1. Thanks, Tim. I had read your comments on the other blog, and they struck home to me. You made several good points (no need to restate them here) that are often overlooked in discussions today.

    I have been fascinated by translations for 25+ years when I was in seminary, then later serving as pastor of congregations that were testing grounds in the early days of God’s Word (then known as NET, New Evangelical Translation). In my blog series on the liturgical use of a translation I have looked at oral quality as an important aspect of Bible translation. What I find interesting is that GW is excellent for oral reading, but ends up not being as good for a liturgical translation. Part of that is because of the break with the KJV/RSV/NRSV/ESV tradition.



  2. I don’t mean by my love of older versions that I read it purely for style, but because it takes me back and I feel a link with the people that went before us. Like you I have lots of different versions, many of which are full of footnotes I’ve added to the margins e.g. the Greek means this, or the Greek means that etc. Or adding a bit of historical context and so on.

    I was given my first bible when I was seventeen, and to my disappointment it was the RSV. I say my ‘disappointment’, because I’d wanted the A.V., and this despite the fact that there wasn’t an A.V. anywhere in the house. Then I turned to the NIV, and stuck with that for some time. Then I went to University, and became hooked on ancient texts and documents which is when I began buying different bible versions to enable me to get at the root of what was being said. I’m no Greek scholar but I know just enough to get by, and one thing I love about the Greek which I have only found reference to in the NASU and JB Philips NT, is the way things are written in the present tense. It gives the text a sort of living quality and I wish more translators would use that sometimes.

    Echoing L.Wells (thanks for that L.), I had a similar experience with my daughter a few years ago when she was sixteen. When she decided to become a member of the church and asked me if I could get her a bible for her own use, in the shop she went straight for the A.V. This despite the fact that at that time I had never had an A.V. in the house, she had never seen one to the best of my knowledge, and our local Churches used the Good News Bible and the NRSV. She felt the A.V. was the proper bible, the language issue didn’t bother her at all, and her friends pretty much felt the same. Although we compromised a little and I ended up buying her the NJKV (I really wasn’t sure how she’d cope with the Middle English of the A.V.) she now reads the E.S.V. and is very happy with it.

    Funny story, the first time my daughter saw me adding footnotes to one of my bibles she went mad. She thought I had been trying to re-write the bible, lolol! You should have heard the lecture I got.

    p.s. I’m sorry about the two deleted comments. I messed up and had to correct myself.


  3. “You’d be susprised how many teenagers even still consider the A.V. to be the ‘proper’ bible with all others somehow inferior”

    Funny you mention this Tim, my 19 year old son was telling me the other day he doesn’t like his NRSV with apocrypha very well, saying he wants a KJV with apocrypha, which I’ve had a hard time locating unless I get a 1611 version (any suggestions are welcomed). Anyway, I realize this is unusual for a 19 year old, but he has always preferred the KJV because of the language and style.


  4. Tim, I’m a big believer in respecting others for their preference of translation. Some might even see me as one who doesn’t take a stand but I don’t really care what they think. People prefer certain translations for different reasons and even for different purposes. Unlike yourself, I don’t appreciate scripture for its literary eloquence but primarily for understandability, which is also likely also the view of the majority of bible readers out there.

    I remember my first bible ever as a boy was the KJV but it frustrated me because I didn’t understand it. So upon recommendation of a Sunday school teacher, my mother got me a GNT. Later, after my teen years, I picked up a goatskin leather KJV and it became my main bible for many years because I began following TV preachers who used it. There’s a certain richness and mystique about its language, and it was a translation I could trust. Then switched to the NKJV when a pastor gave me his leather edition. Later, I moved to versions based on the earlier critical texts like NLT and NIV. Today, when I preach, I use almost every translation: NRSV, ESV, RSV, TNIV and NLT. So I can appreciate all translations and can understand why they would prefer it.

    Personally I do not know any young person who reads the KJV. In younger generations, there is an increasing ignorance of the KJV. The history of the Wycliffe bible is interesting. Thanks for your tidbit of information. It gives me an appreciation for its history. It’s interesting how translations influence the language of the culture. It’s also like Luther’s German translation of the bible into the vernacular. It influenced Lutheran Germany and gave the people a more uniform modern language. Previous to this, the German language was not as uniform.

    You’re right, substance should come before style. We rely on the bible to speak God’s word to us because of the substance of accuracy; and syyle is secondary to substance, but it should not be ignored.


  5. Thank you for using my comment as the subject of your post. I had to do a double-take when I saw it, it was such a shock, and then go away to think about it, lol!

    Every translation has it’s supporters as well as its detractors. Even the NASU, for all its claims to literalness, made some rather questionable preferences in translation at times. I think there will always be arguments about translations, and which one is preferable, but we have to be careful not to put people down for preferring one translation over another as that can just create hurt, discord, and confusion. And considering how many versions there are out there today there is enough confusion already amongst people, people that simply want a bible. I believe that this is one reason why many people still prefer the A.V. (1611). No confusion there, they’ll say to themselves, as it was the only bible for centuries and if it was good enough then, then it’s good enough now. You’d be susprised how many teenagers even still consider the A.V. to be the ‘proper’ bible with all others somehow inferior. It’s partly a cultural thing I think, and at the same time it’s a version that hearkens back to an earlier, less stressful time, which I think many people wish we still had today. Not everyone is concerned about particular meanings and so on, and they aren’t translators. They simply want a bible they feel that they can trust.

    Only the other day I saw a couple choosing bibles for themselves, with the woman choosing the NLT and her partner choosing the A.V.(1611). My own A.V. is a beautiful little royal ruby text, calfskin, from the T.B.S. with a glossary of words at the back for those unfamiliar with Middle English words, and I’m assuming a lot of other A.V.’s have that feature also. Where the Wycliffe bible is concerned, it’s actually quite easy to read, if you can look past the spellings. And considering how many youngsters spellings today are atrocious (re texting, I.M. speak, which they then carry over into everyday life), I don’t think they’d find Wycliffe’s bible difficult at all, lolol! The authorities at the time considered Wycliffe’s bible to be the worst translation ever, but look at the amazing changes it led to.

    (As a side-note, and completely unrelated to your post, reading Wycliffe’s bible out loud also gives an insight into the origins of Scottish English. Many Anglo-Saxons accepted the invitation to settle in the Scottish lowlands to escape the Norman invasion, with much of their vernacular still retained today by the Scots and easily recognisable in Wycliffe’s translation. Living history if you like. There’s a bit of useless information for you, lol)

    We also need to remember that when its an argument of substance over style then substance must always take priority. After all, it’s only the fashion industry that’s supposed to believe that ‘image is everything, substance is nothing’. The packaging doesn’t matter, the message does. So long as the message is delivered then that’s all that matters. Everything else is just the icing on the cake.


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