The most popular translation among young, conservative evangelicals is most definitely the English Standard Version. I’ve read large portions of the ESV on multiple occasions, most recently because the NIV has been updated for 2011 and our elders are looking at different Bible translations. When I was in Chicago last week, Crossway (the publisher of the ESV) was the primary sponsor of the conference and was advertising their translation everywhere. As they have done with their website (www.esv.org), Crossway utilizes the testimonies of prominent preachers and church-leaders (DeYoung, Piper, and Chandler’s heads were floating over us at the Chicago convention center) to promote their translation. I respect these leaders and have learned so much from their work, and so I have tried to like to the ESV. But I must be honest. I just don’t.
As a pastor who values the Word of God and wants it to be accessible to those who are new to the faith and exploring Christianity, I simply can’t use it and recommend it to others. While I understand the translation committee’s commitment to “essential literalness,” they have adopted archaic language and poor English phraseology in their translation. As a seminary graduate who has spent considerable time in the Greek and Hebrew languages, I can assure you that NO translation is a completely word-for-word literal translation, even the NASB. The translators must change the order of the Hebrew and Greek words and add implied words in order for the sentences to make sense. We definitely want to hold on to the words of the original as inspired, but the whole point of the translation effort is to transfer the original words into words and phrases that mean the same thing in the new language. If the translation doesn’t make sense in the new language, then the translation is not effective or helpful. To illustrate my struggle with the English of the ESV, here’s a few of the strange phrases that show up in Exodus chapter 1 which make it difficult to understand…
1:5 “All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons.” When you want to communicate that there are 70 people in a group, do you say “there were seventy persons?. The HCSB says “the total number of Jacob’s descendants was 70.”
1:6 “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation.” The sentence obviously means that Joseph and his brothers and that generation died, but the sentence reads very awkwardly.
1:7 “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly.” Why put the phrase “increased greatly” in that order? Who talks that way in English? Doesn’t the sentence mean the same thing if worded as they “greatly increased?”
1:9 “Behold” I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time someone used the word “behold” in a conversation with me. The word is so out of date. Who talks that way today?
1:10 “lest they multiply.” See my critique of “behold” in verse 9. It applies to the word “lest” as well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word lest in all 31 years of my life.
1:16 “see them on the birthstool.” What is a birthstool? My spell-check in my word-processor thinks I have misspelled a word even writing it in this post.
1:16 “shall” Again, not a word that we use in modern English.
1:19 “Because…, for” The conjunctions don’t make sense in English prose. You don’t need both prepositions to make the point that the reason the Hebrew women were unique was their strength.
2:3 “basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch.” The description of Moses’ basket is almost incomprehensible. What is a bulrush and what is bitumen? The English doesn’t communicate effectively. Strangely enough, the footnote for bulrushes says “Hebrew papyrus reeds.” How strange is it that the word-for-word footnote is clearer than the actual text? The only rationale that makes sense in my mind for this translation is a commitment to continue the King James Version use of bulrushes.
I could go on and on. I hope my point is clear. While faithful to the original words, the ESV is not faithful to the English language. Ongoing translation work is important because receiving languages change. My struggle with the ESV stems from its apparent commitment to 19th-century English words and sentence construction. Our 21st-century readers deserve better.