A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible? They Must Be Joking

Crossway recently announced that, after 17 years of cumulative work in establishing a near-perfect English translation of the Bible, a final edition, or Permanent Text, of the English Standard Version was achieved in the summer of 2016. In fact, the ESV translators did not even translate most of the ESV, and hence did not even need to develop a robust translation philosophy for their translation, as the ESV is based on the RSV (Crossway apparently bought the copyright). The ESV “translators” have simply “corrected” or made the RSV to conform to their particular translational or theological agenda (is it legitimate to call a translation one’s own if over 90% of it was done by someone else, simply by buying the copyright? What if an author bought the copyright of a book by another author, changed less than 10% of it and then put his or her own name on it as author? Recent discussion over the use of other people’s material makes this an interesting question to raise).

Nevertheless, this decision to fossilize the ESV means that no future edition of the ESV will be made, much like the King James Version was solidified in 1769 (after 150 years of use and correction, not 17 years as with the ESV). Of course, we know that followers of the KJV Only movement have contributed greatly to biblical scholarship, especially in the area of textual criticism, so this must be a good idea, right? While the ESV oversight committee and the people at Crossway have the right to make any decision they so desire, there are some serious flaws and concerns that underlie such a decision.

First relates to the possibility of an “accurate” translation. The fact is that no two languages are exactly alike, so a translation is always going to miss (even if a little of) something. As the saying goes, traduttore traditore, which is Italian for “translator traitor.” But even in that statement, the pun is lost in the English translation! Anyone who is multilingual knows that there are certain sayings, even words, in one language that just do not translate perfectly into the other language; some call it the property of untranslatability. But it is apparent that “literal word for word” translators are not really aware of this fact. They seem to treat Greek like some secret code that requires translating into English. But let’s be clear, just because a translation doesn’t perfectly convey the original words of Scripture (can any translation?) does not mean it is not a good translation. It just means we should, if we want to be accurate, be realistic about the limitations of any translation.

Second, and related to the first point, this decision betrays a wrong understanding or lack of understanding of how languages work. The problem with a “literal word for word” translation (for at least the part that was done by the ESV people) is that it by necessity views all languages as working essentially the same, as if each language has the same system, just different corresponding lexical items. Such a position, then, views translation like a plug-and-play type of activity; there is a right translation and a wrong translation. Of course there are wrong translations, but there may be several ways of translating a particular phrase or clause. For example, it is typical in Korean, when eating a meal as a guest at someone’s house, to say jal muk get sum ni da, which translated (using a “literal word for word” translation approach) would be I will eat well. Say that the next time you are invited over for dinner somewhere! (You might get a weird look.) What that phrase really means is an expression of thanks for the food, which is conventional in Korean but awkward in English. Consider also the German word Ohrwurm, which literally is earworm in English. But it really refers to when you have a song stuck in your head, like a worm has wriggled itself into your brain through your ear. Try telling someone that you have an earworm in English and see if they get it. The ESV committee really needs to reconsider whether their claim to a “literal word-for-word” approach accurately reflects how languages work. We don’t think it does.

Third is an inappropriate, and even hubristic, misappropriation of 1 Tim 6:20, “guard the deposit entrusted to you.” They state that they were given the responsibility (by God) “to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.” Wait, what? The very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible? First of all, Paul was speaking to Timothy in this passage (context anyone?). The “deposit” is not a reference to Scripture (certainly not a reference to the ESV!) but a broad and general statement for Timothy to guard whatever was given to him, such as the doctrines that Paul taught him for the development of the early church—not to the ESV people to protect their English translation (without any theological or political agenda, mind you). For the ESV committee to apply this Scripture to themselves implies that they believe God has given them the special responsibility to “protect” and “guard” this infallible and superior translation. Sounds like KJV Only. Sounds elitist. Sounds like a power move, using God’s name to gain support of naïve and gullible people. Shame on them for using manipulative language like that. Or perhaps we should mark 2016 as the year in which God gave for a second time the inerrant English Word of God, and we have the people in the ESV oversight committee and Crossway to thank.

Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.

It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon

Advertisements

55 thoughts on “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible? They Must Be Joking

  1. Pingback: A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible? They Must Be Joking — DOMAIN THIRTY-THREE | Talmidimblogging

  2. David and Stan,
    I certainly agree with the observations you made above! In addition, I would mention that the ESV committee must also believe that the Greek Text that underlies their translation is the same exact text as the autographs. Otherwise, how could they claim a permanent translation has been achieved. I am convinced that we have the original text within the existing known manuscripts, but not that any published Greek text is perfect. I wonder if their adherents will claim something similar to the KJV Only group, ‘where the manuscripts and the ESV Greek disagree; the ESV Greek is original.’

    Tim

    Liked by 1 person

    • James,

      That wasn’t the original point; the point was identifying the underlying subtext behind the decision. I’m not really interested in getting into the nuances of translations, as I mentioned above, all translations lose something. Thanks for the comment anyways.

      — Dave

      Like

  3. I enjoy your article, thanks for posting 😀
    I read from several translations and ESV is probably the last one on the list. My preferred translations are: NIV 2011, HCSB, NET, NLT 2015, and NRSV

    Like

  4. Pingback: The ESV’s bizzare decision to never make (textual) decisions again – paul Moldovan

  5. Pingback: Translations – kensleyanne

  6. Pingback: Why the ESV Translation Changes Matter: Two Things to Consider | Word & Craft

  7. Is there no benefit to ending a particular translation and having it continue? The NIV has brought an end to the 1984 for what is called new and improved 2011. Personally I preferred the 1984 and now you can’t get it anymore.

    There is much truth to what you have said concerning translation but I am left wondering if your article could have been a better example to us students of Greek if it were a touch more gracious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that example of the NIV 1984 and NIV 2011 is not quite fitting, since it is *still* the NIV. You have others, such as the TNIV or the NIrV, which are different, but the NIV 2011 is still the NIV. Perhaps there is merit in leaving a translation as is, but you don’t have to announce it publicly as if it is the new standard in comparison to the KJV. On the other side, sure, having a translation come out with a new edition every few years can be annoying, but that’s a different topic.
      We thought the decision warranted the harsh response. Sorry if you don’t like it, but we put a lot of thought into it, and we stick by what we said. Thanks for your comment.
      — Dave

      Like

  8. Isn’t this more about marketing than about scholarship anyway? I think what they’re trying to avoid is the handwringing that happened when the NIV 1984 was pulled out of circulation. People memorized verses in that translation and then mourned its disappearance. I think consumers want some assurances that the translation they are memorizing isn’t going to be changed every couple of years. I don’t think this implies that no further progress is envisioned; after the permanent KJV we had the NKJV etc.

    Like

    • Paul,
      You’re probably right, it is more about marketing and promoting than scholarship. But the way it was announced, at least on the publisher’s website, does not reflect that reason you gave. If you notice the final changes, the theological agenda is pretty clear. Thanks for the comment.
      — Dave

      Like

      • Does any translation happen apart from bias? When I graduated from Mac I was given a copy of the TNIV to evaluate and the changes I saw there looked pretty “biased” to me. Words have a semantic range, as Dr. Porter used to tell me frequently, which means all translation involves choice. I’m not bothered by that, provided the translators explain their choices. This only proves why pastors need to do their own homework. Consider this controversy some free advertisement for taking Greek in seminary!

        Like

      • Paul,
        Sure, probably all translations have more or less of a bias than others. Some are worse than others. That’s the point, and that’s why translations always lose something in the process–our original point. So for a committee to make a decision that *this* is the Permanent Text (yes capitals were used by them) seems erroneous and presumptuous on so many levels.
        And I agree with your advertisement! Thanks for the additional comment.
        — Dave

        Like

  9. I suspect what happened was Crossway wanted to make these few translational changes, yet at the same time did not want to communicate to ESV readers that they were going to be making frequent updates. Hence the supposed reassurance of “Permanent.”

    However, Crossway missed out on a teachable moment for their readers, that Bible translations are not static, nor should be; there will always be improvements in the text and its translations. And that is a good thing.

    Like

  10. Personally, I’m fine with their decision. it just seems like a philosophical choice to end the translation, rather than revise it ad infinitum. For the sake of consistency in the church, I think it may be a good decision. Too many translational changes leaves the average Christian with questions about stability of the biblical text. This isn’t to say that there can’t be an NESV in a number of years, much the same way that we have the NKJV. It’s just saying that the next time this is revised, it will be such a substantial revision that it will be a new translation.

    Like

    • Nathanael,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I would respond by saying that there will *never* be a consistent–nor should there–translation of the Bible, and that having multiple translations balances things out. We are better off teaching our people about textual history rather than leave them in naivety. As far as a possiblity of an NESV goes, woudn’t that be inconsistent with having a consistent translation?
      But thanks for your response and hope So Cal is treating you well.
      — Dave

      Like

  11. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 9/16/16- Jesus as false prophet?, Irenaeus, ESV, and more! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

  12. While I get the intent of the “Ohrwurm” example, it is does not work as an example because (again, given the rapidly changing state of the English language) “earworm” is now a calque understood by many younger speakers.

    Like

    • Jeff,
      I appreciate the feedback. You may be right in your context, but not in my experience. But even if you’re right, it’s just an example, and I could probably find another examples that prove the initial point. But thanks for your interaction.
      — Dave

      Like

  13. Pingback: Why the ESV Translation Changes Matter: Two Things to Consider | Word & Craft

  14. Interesting read. A couple of thoughts to consider:

    1.) It seems you are quick to ascribe motive to the actions of the ESV translation oversight committee. This is poor arguing. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_motive) You cannot know their motivation. “Smacking of incredible arrogance” can be just as quickly ascribed your blog post as it can to committee’s decision to create a permanent edition.

    2.) Your overly simplistic critique of the ESV translation team seems to lack a basic level of respect for fellow scholars. Do you really believe the committee is incapable of grasping your analogy of the Korean phrase? If not, why use it?

    3.) I think your argument would be stronger if you showed vivid examples of why a ‘word-for-word’ translation doesn’t worked. (ex: Mark 1:2 “I send my messenger before your face.”) Instead, it seems to taken the lazy option and simply attacked the character of the committee (remember, you said they ‘smack’ of “arrogance”).

    Like

    • Dustin,
      I appreciate your thoughts and for taking the time to interact with us. Here are my responses:
      1) Certain motivations are quite clear by their actions. By announcing that they have done the work of translation and have arrived at a Permanent Text (even just that term itself in capitals means something), and making a comparison to the KJV, they are communicating, as we have said already above, that they have arrived at the best and most superior translation. Doesn’t that sound arrogant to you? It’s one thing to leave something as is without an official (hubristic) announcement. It’s quite another to solidify something in comparison to the KJV and make a big announcement about it.
      2) I’m not sure how my critique of a “literal word for word” translation approach is overly simplistic. I think anyone who espouses that approach understands languages very differently than we do. They, by definition of their approach, see all languages as essentially the same, and you need only to substitute the “right” words–the same word mind you in every case–and change the word order around. That’s NOT how languages and translations work–you’ll understand if you’ve ever been in a multilingual context.
      3) Our argument might be stronger if we did have more examples, but how many examples would suffice? It is what it is, and I’m fine with how it is. Also, you might want to retract calling us lazy, or at least that we’ve taken a lazy option.
      It’s pretty clear you’re a fan of the ESV and that you do not like our post. That’s fine. But if you think we should be held to a standard, shouldn’t you hold yourself to that same standard?
      — Dave

      Like

      • You keep saying this – “they are communicating, as we have said already above, that they have arrived at the best and most superior translation” – and you treat it as a truism, while I am hard-pressed to see how you come to that conclusion. Nothing in their statement intimates at that opinion of their work, and the act of freezing it does not demand this interpretation either. There are of course other motives that could be possible. An aging board of decision makers, Packer’s blindness, a desire to divert attention/resources to other activities, a real feeling that this ESV is the best ESV (not the best translation, full stop, as you have suggested) or (gasp) an arbitrary desire to freeze it…these are all reasonable enough motives and much more charitable guesses at them. You may disagree with even those motives, but they would not be reason enough to doubt the board’s character and to describe its members as sinful. The motive seems quite clear to you while the actual statement given by Crossway provides no evidence, as I see it, for your interpretation. Given their profound work and service to the church, don’t you think you should be a bit more graceful in your presumptions?

        Like

      • Nic,
        If you don’t see our reasons, you should probably read the post again. You’re right, there may be other motives perhaps, but the tone and wording of the announcement on Crossway’s website leads us to conclude what we do. Again… calling it a “Permanent Text” and comparing it to the KJV is pretty hubristic. If you don’t see it, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do for you.
        Also, there was no mention of Packer in the announcement, so I can’t conclude the reason for the Permanent Text had anything to do with him. And who knows if he was even involved in the decision?
        Sorry you don’t like what we have to say, but we still stand by it.
        — Dave

        Like

  15. Certainty is a small warm cocoon that feels so good, until we realize how it cuts off learning, dialogue, relationship, and creativity. Courage is to break free of this small dark place, shine our soft underbelly to the world, and say, “I don’t know.”
    (Sarah J Tracey blog “Certainty: The Fool’s Drug of Choice”)

    Why are Christians so addicted to certainty? Just when we think we ‘know’, the world around us changes. Language is constantly changing, so when anyone puts the words ‘final’ and ‘translation’ in the one sentence, they ask for trouble. Jesus is the Word of God that is unchanging. Vocabulary, grammar and conjugations are our efforts to express our understanding of Him (in a Bible context). Heaven help us if we think that process will ever end!

    Like

    • Bron,
      We ask our commenters to leave their full names and contact info of some sort, but I liked your comment so I’m breaking that rule (see our Purpose page). But if you could leave that, just so it’s fair all around, that’d be great.
      You’re absolutely right, and my take is that many Christians (or people in general) are broken people, many who come from unstable backgrounds. So we crave stability, and therefore we run to God who is the most Stable–unchanging, as you said. That’s all right and just. But the problem is that we want, or rather need, *everything* to be stable then, and we feel insecure without a more or less sense of certainty about everything–hence why we are still asking the erroneous question “what’s God will and plan for my life.”
      You’re right–there’s something deeper going on here than simply a decision to stop editing a Bible translation.
      Thanks for that insightful comment.
      — Dave

      Like

      • My apologies for the sign in name Dave,I didn’t see any request for full names, and my email is there. Bron Forman in rural Australia.
        I totally agree with your ‘take’. It is something that can’t be seen until one steps away from it all and views the whole scene objectively. For myself, it could also be a first/second part of life thing too (reading Richard Rohr on that). Thank God He has grace and salvation for the broken, insecure and unstable. Not many of us escape being there at some stage. But as we grow, ‘getting it right’ just doesn’t seem to matter quite so much.
        Thanks for your gracious reply.

        Like

      • Bron,
        Thanks again for taking time to respond. I agree, we probably won’t ever escape being broken, insecure, and unstable; after all, we’re still human. But as we grow into maturity, we would hope that we would also grow in our discernment and spiritual thinking of issues. Thanks for your contribution on this topic. All the best.
        — Dave

        Like

  16. I’m not as familiar with the ins and outs of this decision and discussion as my colleague Dr. Porter, but I do wonder if finalizing the ESV just isn’t that serious a declaration about the absolute quality of the translation (though I admit that comparison with the long-running [but still terribly flawed, as all ESV translators know!] KJV might strike the reader as a bit presumptuous). It seems that all translations have to come to a place of stability (a “fixing”) at a certain point. I know the conversations we’ve had on the CEB board about how long we can go on correcting the translation (and thus creating multiple CEBs in any given congregation, frustrating the groups who use this translation). The fixing of the “ESV” does not preclude, nor would I be at all surprised to see, an “RESV” in 2030 being sold alongside it.

    Like

    • David,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that most translations do sort of end up needing or having less editions or “corrections” at a certain point, probably the longer it has been around. But it’s the tone and language of the announcement that leads us to conclude what we did. Did you read the announcement on Crossway’s website? I don’t see how most people–unless one is unconditionally a proponent of the ESV–do not read the hubris surrounding the decision. But I appreciate your perspective.
      — Dave

      Like

  17. This is perhaps the worst assessment of the reasons why the ESV translation was frozen. All I read was a list of straw man statements. You could say all those things about any translation, including the KJV. But the points you bring up are not given in Christian grace, nor do they jive with sound reasons expressed by others, except the most antagonistic forces to the ESV as a translation.

    Like

    • Kirby,
      You are certainly entitled to your opinion. But you seemed to have missed most, if not all, of our points, as if you didn’t even read the post–specifically about the possibility of an accurate translation, the misunderstanding of how language works, and the misappropriation of 1 Tim 6:20 (maybe you just read the last part).
      I also disagree, the KJV is vastly different from the ESV, especially–as we note above–in the fact that the KJV took 150 years of revisions before “freezing,” as compared to the 17 of the ESV. Have you even seen the latest changes? If so, you agree with them? And I don’t know of any other translation that has made such an announcement of their English version. Do you know of others?
      Kirby, you seem to be a reverend, so as a mature believer, you should know that there are certain contexts in which grace is appropriate as a response, and other contexts in which critical assessment is appropriate. We think the latter applies in this case.
      But thanks for taking time to comment on our blog.
      — Dave

      Like

    • That link does not work. Also, I have to remind people, but we request that our commenters identify themselves with full names and contact info, for fairness and disclosure. Thanks.
      — Dave

      Like

      • It works now. I think that the ESV Committee and Crossway’s recent reversal of their decision speaks for itself. Not sure how much influence Packer had on that initial decision. Probably little to none. Jacobs should realize that, and that our blog was not addressing him as a person or theologian. Not sure where he got that from. I have the utmost respect for Packer, and his book Knowing God has made a huge impact in my life, as well as countless many others, so Jacobs is defending someone who needs no defense…
        Can’t speak for myself, although I have been involved in church ministry my whole life, but Stan has for sure served the church–including the academy–for a long time. Does he not realize Stan is one of the major figures in Greek grammar and linguistics?
        Also, you only show your first initial, not full name.
        — Dave

        Like

      • Sorry, I’m confused about your name policy and don’t mean to offend. How about going with spirit over letter of law? J Kinlaw is not a pseudonym. (There’s a bit of historical precedent for initials identifying folks. Cultural norms vary as well. Plus, my surname is rare; if you’d like more info you can request my email address). More importantly, Your read of AJ is my own: thanks for replying.

        Like

  18. Pingback: About that Desire: Eve and the ESV Bible Controversy – WIT

  19. Pingback: About that Desire: Eve and ESV Bible Controversy – WIT

  20. Pingback: Bible Translation as Political Power Move: Social Location and the ESV – Theological Graffiti

  21. Why is it everyone here acts as if a constantly updating translation is the norm? This is a symptom of the liberalism which threatens all truth: to act as if a fairly new methodology is the de facto standard when in the face of history and tradition it is, in fact, quite radical.

    Yes, it’s true! Translations are imperfect. But guess what? That means every new attempt at translation will also be imperfect. With every new change human beings introduce new flaws. Many of these flaws are merely changes in interpretive opinion. At some point it is wisdom to accept the flaws that are irrelevant in exchange for the greater benefit of stability. Truly, there are few greater stumbling blocks to new members of the faith than the complications of it, and constant changes do not simplify matters; they confound them!

    Let us all be reminded that the common english translations are first and foremost to be intended for the lay person, not for the purposes of linguists who might be better served by continually updated texts.

    Like

    • John,
      Thanks for the comment. Modifying translations has been going on since the early church (e.g. Jerome and the Vulgate with Latin), so there is nothing new in this and it is in fact the tradition and norm. That’s what makes it surprising if someone thinks they have achieved some point of not needing further revision, and that was the point of our post. Thanks for reading.
      — Dave

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s