• Paul Byrd

A Defense of the ESV as a Good Translation

Throughout history there have been many translations of the Bible. There have also been about as many opinions on how to translate the Bible as were translators; however, translation theories have all fallen into one of three categories: formal equivalence, functional equivalence, or free translation. In every case, when translating languages - be it ancient or modern, there exists differences in word equivalence as well as grammatical rules. These differences pose some questions and conundrums for the translators to overcome. Whereas a strict literal translation is sometimes impossible due to these barriers, an essentially literal approach still makes the most sense to adhere to. This is called “formal equivalence” or “essentially literal”. This theory of translation seeks to maintain the nuances of the original author’s message. The focus on the “word-for-word” takes careful consideration of word choice, meaning, and grammar, leaving the original meaning intact for the exegesis of the modern reader.


The second approach or category of translation inherits the translator’s knowledge to a greater degree over the strict translation of the text. This is called “functional equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence”. Sometimes called a “thought-for-thought” translation, the translator tries more to explain the author’s intent through their understanding and personal exegesis of the original text. This theory of translation runs into issues at times due to the translator’s theological and cultural agenda imprinted into their translation.


While the two aforementioned theories of translation are generally always done by a committee of theologians, the third type is many times done by an individual. This is called “free translation” and is considered a paraphrase of the text. One such translation, The Message, doesn't necessarily consider itself a translation due the fact that it doesn't hold to any direct correlation to the original text at all. It is written in paragraph form with blocks of verses put together - trying to simply convey the “idea” of the original.


Another factor of translational accuracy is the “historical distance”. While some translations are a direct translation from the original text, there are cases when a translation may be made from a text that is not the original. In this case an error could have been made by an earlier translator that the new translator is carrying over into the new receptor language.


The English Standard Version (ESV) is a formal equivalence translation that was first completed in 2001. The translation was begun using the 1971 RSV as a base text, then comparing that to the original language for accuracy of meaning an importance of literacy. While some of the language in the translation may seem archaic to certain readers, the ESV team boasts a proud heritage that traces its heritage to William Tyndale's first English translation in 1526. The translators felt the originality of the English language was as important to the preserve in some cases as the meaning of modern man.


The ESV does an excellent job of staying true to the original language and translational heritage as well as maintaining a readability for modern consumers. Compared to the New Living Translation, a loose functional translation, the differences are clear. For example, if you look at I Corinthians 13:6:

ESV: it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

NLT: it does not rejoice about injustices but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.

The translators obviously took liberties with the text and integrated cultural agenda into their meaning, changing it from the original. As a translation that “has sought to be ‘as literal as possible’ while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence”, the ESV will certainly be a standard translation for years to come.

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