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This morning I discovered a reader commented on one of my most popular posts, ESV vs. NASB? with a question that deserves a response. He writes,

To date, I exclusively use the ESV. However, my pastor reads from the NASB and I am wondering how the accuracy compares between the two translations. I just discovered that the NASB is a literal translation and is considered by some to be more accurate than the ESV. Is this true or untrue? Why? I take translation accuracy very seriously, even at the expense of readability.

First of all, I don’t think I’m going to be able to tell you a whole lot more than I said in the original post. I’m not really an expert, I just know what I like and what works for me.

However, there are a few things that I can point out. I do believe the NASB to be more literally accurate than the ESV; if you’ve looked at translation charts, you can easily see that, while being fairly close to each other, the charts show the NASB to be more literal.

But from my own experience, the ESV is written with a more classical-style English, mainly because it is a revision of the old Revised Standard Version, which was done back when they simply did Bibles that way. They wrote in formal English, at that time including all the “thees” and “thous”. They wrote in a style that was more normal for the 1700s and 1800s, not the way we speak today. And when the good people at Crossway decided to revise the RSV to make the ESV, they really didn’t change it very much. So basically what you have is a “new” translation that is actually an old, slightly revised translation, However, the RSV was, and still is, a pretty accurate, literal translation, and so the ESV is, too!

But you are more concerned with the literal accuracy than how easy the translation is to read, and I think that gets you straight into the NASB. You will see many scholars and other commentators complain about the “woodenness” of the NASB. That is true. It is wooden, compared to most other translations, because the translators were more concerned with trying to retain the word order of the original languages, while still making it understandable in English. So you occasionally find odd word orders, which usually don’t cause problems when reading silently and studying, but which may cause your tongue to become twisted if you try and read out loud.

Idioms are also retained when they make sense in English, but that really doesn’t happen very often. The most obvious one I can think of is the “they can’t…can they?” Greek idiom we find in the New Testament. For example:

45The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?”

46The officers answered, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.”

47The Pharisees then answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you?

48″No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?

49″But this crowd which does not know the Law is accursed.”

50Nicodemus (he who came to Him before, being one of them) said to them,

51″Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?”

52They answered him, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”
John 7:45-52 NASB

Rarely will you find this idiom translated this way in other translations. To me, it just gives me a better picture of how they spoke then in the Greek language.

Now I am only really familiar with the 1995 update of the NASB. The older NASB is probably more literally accurate, because the 1995 update smoothed over the translation a bit to make it easier to read, so you may actually prefer to use the 1977 NASB.

I hope I may have given you an intelligible answer to your question, Todd. Honestly, I prefer the NASB over the ESV by a wide margin, but I know the ESV is also a fine version and worthy of use. Let me know if I can answer any more questions, and some of my readers here can probably answer them better than I can.

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