Lately, I’ve become interested in the English Standard Version translation of the Bible. I was raised on the New International Version, which I do value for its highly readable syntactical structure, and because I like the fact that when it was published in 1978, it was a completely new translation, fresh from the Greek and Hebrew, and did not rely on traditional wordings from archaic translations like the KJV. The ESV (released in 2001) is even newer than the NIV, but unlike the NIV, it stands in a lineage of translations starting with the 1611 KJV. Unlike even the NKJV, which is merely a lexical update to the 1611 wordings, the ESV is the latest in a tradition of new editions of the KJV text, which with each revision (RV, NAS, RSV) have revisited the Greek and Hebrew, while evaluating the clarity of the text to modern English readers. In this way, the ESV is sort of distilled, and as an academic, I’m attracted to that kind of “edited” approach.
But I was still skeptical of any translation that followed in the tradition of the KJV, which was initially translated with some techniques that I find questionable, such as the use of the Latin Vulgate as a partial source (alongside the Greek and Hebrew), making it a sort of tertiary translation. But I was also skeptical of the NIV, which uses a kind of “idea for idea” (rather than “word for word”) translation philosophy that, while making sentences more colloquial, has huge potential for being influenced by the ideological bias of the translators. The ESV is more literal, and is thus less prone to bias, but lacks a certain stylistic candor that endears the NIV.
So, I decided to compare a few New Testament passages to each other, and to the original Greek, and was shocked by what I found. I largely chose passages at random, looking mainly at passages that came to mind as well-known or ones that have strongly traditional wording in English (the Lord’s Prayer, for example).
Take a look at Luke 1:46-55 (commonly called “Magnificat”). It is Mary’s reaction to the Annunciation. The opening phrase reads
NIV: “my soul glorifies the Lord.”
The traditional wording used in countless songs and recitations is
KJV: “my soul doth magnify the Lord,”
which sounds quite archaic to someone unfamiliar with the tradition. A compromise is found with
ESV: “my soul magnifies the Lord.”
Now let’s look at the Greek. The phrase reads
“megalunei he psuche mou ton kurion,”
which translates literally to “magnifying (is) the soul of me, the Lord." The word in question here is “megalunei,” which is translated as “magnifies” in the ESV tradition, but as “glorifies,” in the NIV, which means something decidedly different. Even more problematically, the word usually translated as “glorifies” in the NIV and other places is “doxasei” (or other forms of “dox-” where we get words like “doxology”). To me, both theologically and literarily speaking, to “magnify” means something very different than “glorify,” yet the NIV translators apparently chose not to say “magnify” because the precise meaning might seem ambiguous(?), but to me the ambiguity of what it means to allow one’s soul to “magnify the Lord” is part of what makes the passage beautiful, and theologically significant (what is Mary’s role as a Saint? What is it about her unique position in the gospel that magnifies God? These are important things to consider).
Take another part of the Magnificat, where the lack of literal translation is more obviously problematic. v.51:
NIV: “he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” but
ESV: “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
While the ESV (and likewise, the traditional KJV) mentions the word “heart,” the NIV translates this as “inmost.” The Greek word is “kardias,” where modern English inherits terms like “cardio,” which are (obviously) related to more than just “inmost” things. To re-word this is to move into paraphrase territory, which is my primary reason for shunning almost all other Bible translations (New Living Translation, Common English Bible, GOD’S WORD, The Message, need I say more?)
So far, I’ve been extremely satisfied with the way ESV approaches the marriage of literal and idiomatic translations. The general word-order and the words themselves seem quite well-chosen, and for parts that are exceptionally difficult to convert to clearly-worded English, the text is very well-footnoted, sometimes giving upwards of four or five alternate wordings depending on conflicting manuscripts or conflicting philosophies between members of the translation team. Most importantly, the plain presentation of the words leaves plenty of room for interpretation—to me, a hallmark of Biblical reading, and something which I fear I might unknowingly hinder when using NIV.