In my personal reading/study, right now I’m working my way through the letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude. I figured it would be a good way to continue to familiarize myself with the “new” NIV. I’ve been trying to spend a lot of time with that lately, in order to evaluate it. I know, I’m not doing a whole lot of Bible translation evaluations lately, but after having been so into that for several years, it’s kind of built into me. In fact, the only way to know how good a translation really is, is to use it a lot over a long period of time.
Well, as so often happens, while I was reading in the NIV, I got to wondering how certain passages were rendered in some other translations. I am fairly familiar with the passages in question, and it seemed to me there may have been something the NIV was missing, so I fell back on my trusty old NASBs, both the ’95 update and the old 1977 version. While the NASBs had what I was looking for, they seemed wordy and stilted. I also checked in the old NKJV, and while that also had the nuances I was looking for, its language is so old, and the manuscripts are not all they should be, so I have a really hard time spending much time with it.
I pulled out my nice Crossway ESV single-column reference Bible and put it in the mix. The language isn’t always the most up-to-date, and it’s obviously in the Tyndale tradition. It’s quite clearly based on the old Revised Standard Version, but without all the archaic Thees and Thous that were so common in the original RSV (I’m not sure if they were still in the last version they made.) You know the original RSV came out a long time ago, and back then they thought that a Bible had to sound like a Bible.
But the RSV has proven to be a solid foundation for the ESV. The RSV was well-respected for its accuracy, and while some scholars enjoy putting down the ESV today, the vast majority of what was there in the RSV is still there in the ESV. I find the ESV to generally be an easier translation to read and understand than the NASB, even the ’95 update. The sentence structure is certainly more proper and correct, because in the RSV they paid much closer attention to the style of the English they used, unlike the NASB, which is more concerned with translating sentence structure more like the original languages did it. I found when I was reading 1 and 2 Peter, the NASB read more like gobbledygook, difficult to read and even more difficult to understand. But when I read the same letters in the ESV, they were much smoother and more natural English. I am actually quite surprised that I am starting to use the ESV more and more these days.
I led a study of the Gospel of John a few years ago, and we had to end our class just as we were reaching John 17. Last week the study group I’m involved in right now decided the time has come to pick up where my class left off, at John 17, and I have agreed to participate in the class and help the class in understanding the last few chapters. I am still undecided what translation I will be bringing to the class; I won’t be leading it so I don’t have to be quite so careful what text and materials I use. I’m not even sure if I will want to be bringing a study Bible instead of a reference Bible, though at this time I think it will probably be a reference Bible. And for now, I’m seriously considering carrying the ESV to class…oddly enough! But that could change!
Darren Gruett said:
“[In the ESV] they paid much closer attention to the style of the English they used, unlike the NASB, which is more concerned with translating sentence structure more like the original languages did it.”
I think that is one of the best descriptions I have heard about this. I hear people all the time talk about the English used in the ESV, but I have always been a little unclear as to what they meant.
What about the English used in the NIV? How do you think it compares to the ESV?
Gary Zimmerli said:
I like to call the English in the ESV “classical” English, not meaning “Shakesperian” or “Elizabethan”, but rather more like it was taught back in the 1950s and 1960s. The NIV uses a more current version of English, much the way educated people today would speak, but without slang or cliches. They use the generic singular “they” quite a bit, and it usually isn’t noticeable, though sometimes I find it distracting.
I guess then that I would probably call the ESV’s English “classical” and the NIV’s “contemporary”.
Gary Zimmerli said:
As far as that goes, Darren, the ESV uses a larger vocabulary. You’re more likely to run across words you have to look up in a dictionary, though it’s still not particularly difficult. The NIV has shown a little tendency to dumb things down just a little bit, just enough to lose a little bit of the meaning and nuances of some passages. Obviously those nuances are minor enough that the translators felt very little was being lost, or they wouldn’t have done it.
Darren Gruett said:
Thanks for explaining that. I always wondered what people meant by “classical English.” In fact, I was always a little confused, especially when it came to the NASB. I figured that since it was an older translation that it too would be considered classical English. But now I understand the difference. I believe the following quote applies: “It is strong in Greek, but weak in English.”
You are certainly right about the vocabulary. That was one of the first things I noticed when I stopped using the NIV and switched to the NASB. But like you said, many of those things are little nuances in meaning, like the difference between saying, “I’m going to the store” versus “I’m running to the store.” They mean the same thing, but one has an air of haste to it.
I am fortunate to have exposure to a variety of translations. I use the NASB for my personal study, the ESV for a group study that I lead, and our church uses the NIV.
ElShaddai Edwards said:
If you want good classical, e.g. Oxford, English without the Yoda speak of the RSV/ESV, the REB and/or Jerusalem Bible are the translations to look at.
Gary Zimmerli said:
You know, ElShaddai, I hear that from you so often, I just might have to go out and find me one of those! 😉