Let’s stop calling the ESV a literal translation

imageThe Bible is the most important text in Christianity and people grow attached to whatever version they do use. I most often use the ESV Bible (though not really on this blog which tends towards NRSV) because it is the Bible I find at once most accessible, somewhat familiar, and used by those around me. I use it because it is in a line of translations that stems from the one I grew up with, the Authorized Version (KJV). However, this bible is not a bible that is, as you might say, true to what I most often hear it is, an accurate, essentially literal translation.

One endorsement of the ESV bible reads “The ESV embodies both word-for-word exactness and easy readability. It has quickly become my primary Bible for both personal use and public teaching.” And this claim of word-for-word exactness is among the most common responses I receive when I ask “why do you use the ESV.” The ESV is now the 4th best selling bible in America. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What I do think is unfortunate though is the faith that people have placed in the big names that have put forth the Bible as the Bible for English speaking Christians. This is just not so.

The ESV bible has a distinct agenda that colours its translations of certain key passages related towards gender relations in Christianity because of people like Grudem, the cofounder of the council for biblical manhood and womanhood who also served on the translation oversight committee for the ESV. Let me give you an example text: “but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” What is not clearly apparent here is the editorial decision to translate “woman” as “wife” to reinforce the point that the woman’s ability to prophesy in 1 Cor 11 derives from the authority of the husband. This is a deliberate change from the RSV (which is the basis of the ESV) which says “woman.” Indeed the ESV is the only major translation that uses this reading (unless you count the Message as a translation.) This reading of the Greek goes far beyond what the ESV translators have claimed is an effort to “use the same English word for important recurring words in the original” and this example especially stands out because the ESV is a reaction against perceived egalitarianism and political correctness in the TNIV (which has since been replaced by the NIV 2011) and it is in passages like these that the theological bent of the editors most appears. Whether you are complementarian or not, translating the Bible in such a way that emphasizes your own theological view is paramount to paraphrase at best and eisegesis at worst.

I can agree with the claim that the ESV is a good translation because of the soundness of its base, the RSV which is over 90% similar to the ESV. What I cannot agree with is the claim that this is a bible that is “word-for-word” as possible. I argue that this Bible is only popular because of the people who have popularized it. If we really wanted word-for-word to the point of unintelligibility we would have used Young’s literal translation or the more common New American Standard Bible. If you read the ESV say you read it because it sounds nice (and I do because it is as close as I can get to King James in a common bible), or because your favourite pastor uses it, or because you wanted a balance between readability and interpretation or because any other reason. But don’t say that you read ESV because it’s the most accurate Bible. Let us be honest with our words and not merely parrot those who speak words to us and let us as true students of God’s Word (who probably don’t know Greek) use more than one translation when comparing scripture with scripture.


3 thoughts on “Let’s stop calling the ESV a literal translation

  1. Regardless of which translation you’re talking about (apart from a Hebrew/Greek-English interlinear), no English translation can really be called “literal” in an absolute sense – even Young’s Literal and the NASB paraphrase to at least the degree required to produce intelligible English sentences. Because no translation is entirely literal (and no translation, even paraphrases like The Message, is 100% non-literal), “literal” is not an optimal word to use when describing any translation (once again, interlinears excluded). The technical terms that should be used are “formal equivalent” and “dynamic equivalent”. Formally equivalent translations prioritise word for word translation over English that is easy to read. This does not preclude some paraphrasing to render passages that would otherwise be incomprehensible readable, but the preference is to do translation that is more literal than it is paraphrase. Dynamically equivalent translations do the opposite, preferring to paraphrase to give clear English rather than to preserve word for word accuracy, although most dynamically equivalent translations will still translate word for word if the English is perfectly clear without any paraphrasing. There isn’t a binary distinction between the two – translations exist on a spectrum between the two.

    The ESV isn’t perfectly literal, like any other translation, but it’s definitely on the formal end of the spectrum. Of the mainstream translations, Young’s Literal and NASB tend to sit furthrest on the formal end of the spectrum, followed by the N/KJV (very solid translations of the Received Texts, but I personally prefer Critical Texts translations), then the ESV/RSV, NRSV, and the HCSB (HCSB states its translation philosophy as being “optimal equivalence”, aiming for formal equivalence wherever the meaning is clear, but more open to dynamic equivalence where it gives a distinct readability advantage. NIV sits roughly in the middle of the spectrum. I’m not as familiar with dynamic translations – I much prefer formal equivalency for my own use – but things like the NLT are definitely dynamic; the Message sits about as far on the dynamic end as Young’s Literal and NASB sit on the formal end. “Literal” is often used in common parlance as synonymous with formal equivalent and “paraphrase” is often used the same way to describe dynamic; in that sense, the ESV can be described as “literal”, but it’s not a perfectly accurate use of the word. The two translations I use most often are ESV and HCSB; I prefer ESV for my personal use because it is a generally accurate, formally equivalent translation that stylistically reads well to an ear that grew up hearing the KJV, and I prefer HCSB for occasions when I am reading for others to listen, as the additional paraphrasing tends to cause it to flow off the tongue more smoothly.

    One final point about the woman/wife translation issue – Greek uses the same word for both (similarly for man/husband). One of the problems that translators encounter is that the semantic fields (all the possible meanings that a word can take) of English words often differs from the semantic fields of Greek/Hebrew words. To look at one example that most people are familiar with, the word “love” in English has a much, much larger semantic field than the comparable set of Greek words. Similarly, the Greek word “doulos” has a larger semantic field than any of the comparable English words. “Doulos” can be viably translated as slave, bondservant or servant; a translator has to use interpretation whenever they take a word that has a large semantic field in one language and render it as a word with a smaller semantic field in another (yet another example is “pneuma” in Greek, which means both wind and spirit; this is the word used to refer to the Holy Spirit, the translation of which requires interpretation based on context). The aim of a formal equivalent translation isn’t to achieve one-to-one equivalence of original language words to English, but to, as far as possible, ensure that each contextual meaning of the same original word is translated by the same English word. The Greek word “gyne”, used in the passage you quote, is the same word Jesus uses for “wife” when he affirms the OT prohibition against divorce in Matthew 5:31-32, but also the word used to describe women in the general sense in cases like Matthew 14:21. “Gyne” has a larger semantic field than either “woman” or “wife” individually, so context needs to be used whenever it is translated. It doesn’t make it any less literal to choose a rendering that disagrees with other translations. Now, the ESV is not 100% literal by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it without error, but 1 Corinthians 11 is not a passage in which it departs from literal concordance (if you see the words “woman” or “wife” in the ESV NT, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s “gyne” being translated).


    1. I am addressing a single qualm I have with a common claim which is included in the ESV endorsements:
      ““I recommend the ESV as the best literal translation for Bible study in my hermeneutics class and in Bible study seminars. Congratulations on a job well done.”
      Dr. Grant R. Osborne
      Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Illinois)”
      The use if literal corresponds with common usage, I recognize the ideas of formal and dynamic equivalence as contained within the ESV preface, but those terms are also still fairly vague in actuality.
      I recognize the word can be both woman and wife. In fact this is noted in the ESV footnotes. This is why I call this an editorial decision to choose the minority reading while moving the majority reading to the margins. The fact is that this is the minority reading in the passage among all translations. I chose this passage because it is a largely academic dispute of common record. Additionally the ESV is inconsistent within the section itself because aner is not translated as husband. Some translations translate as husband/wife which is more acceptable and consistent than the ESVs man/wife which reflects ideological bias in translation
      The ESV itself is not so much a translation as it is a complementarian revision of the RSV and in that sense I think it looses out a bit in the formal equivalence department. I use the word literal because the ESV preface styles itself as “essentially literal” it also loses out on “archaic language brought to current usage.”
      I don’t disagree with anything you say and this post more addresses a common misconception among Christians who use the ESV and give it undue mentions of accuracy and “literalness.” I say this as a user of the ESV, because the ESV is a lot less awkward to read than the odd gender neutral constructions used in the NRSV and because the RSV is essentially out of print. I recognize the need for varying levels of paraphrase (as anyone who has studied a second language should know) and am happy that English has been blessed by an abundance of sound translations.


  2. Spot on! There’s basic dishonesty in the posturing of the ESV supporters, as if it’s a different species of translation, a different animal altogether, simply because it’s trumpeted to be “essentially literal”. If the ESV is essentially literal, so is the NIV, and so is the HCSB. It is simply a matter of degree. On a different tack, I think there’s much more to admire in the effort of a translation team that produced a totally fresh translation (not a revision), than in a hotchpotch committee of theologians (J I Packer sure is a splendid theologian, but what are his credentials as a translator? Same goes for Wayne Grudem or R C Sproul) who simply revised the RSV lightly and are not honest enough to state the fact either on the title page or on the copyright page of the ESV.


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