Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Problem with the English Standard Version (ESV) and Theological Demagoguery

The problem with the English Standard Version (ESV) is not with the translation itself, but with the theological demagoguery that its advocates use to promote it and to discredit its competition.
This demagoguery involves thoughtless assertions that the more literal a translation is the better. Accordingly, dynamic equivalence is made suspect as the invention of liberal scholars. The intended conclusion of such demagoguery is that people who believe the Bible should stick with formal equivalent versions such as the ESV. These claims are faulty in so many ways, but in this post, I’ll just point out one.
ESV is marketed as having an eighth grade reading level. This in itself shows that ESV fails in its intended purpose to be formal equivalent. It intends to render all of the Bible at the same reading level, even though the Greek (and Hebrew) of some of the individual books and authors of the Bible are easier to read than others.
In the New Testament, the Greek style and vocabulary of John’s Gospel is so simple that an intermediate Greek reader can just about speed read it, while the Greek style and vocabulary of Luke-Acts and Hebrews is so complex that advanced Greek readers struggle mightily therein.
If ESV really felt that formal equivalency were a theological tenet rather than a pragmatic tool, the translators would have translated the easy to read Greek into easy to read English, while those Greek books which are more difficult to read would be translated into more advanced English. As it turns out, the reading levels for the ESV are about the same throughout the Bible. Thus, readers get no sense of the level of difficulty of the Greek behind the English translation.
Of course, the only reason why the publishers cast aside formal equivalence in regard to readability levels is because difficult-to-read Bibles don’t sell. A case in point would be the short-lived New English Bible which, for example, translated the lofty prose of Heb 1:3 as referring to Christ as the effulgence of God’s glory, the impress of his substance. Stuff like this doesn’t sell.
Ultimately, we need to cast aside the notion that translation methods reflect theological commitments. Rather, we should take advantage of the availability of so many very excellent translations, and use the best translation according to the occasion: use the right tool for the job.


JME said...

Great point.

I like the New English Bible. I can almost hear a British accent as I read it.

Jc_Freak: said...

The only place where I disagree with you Jim is a single sentence:
"Ultimately, we need to cast aside the notion that translation methods reflect theological commitments."

What's better is to recognize that no translation is based on theological commitments but all translations are influenced by them. To believe that the ESV is some how theologically pure because it uses formal equivalance is silly.

I also agree with you on your basic point. Paul's letters should be written on a 8th grade reading level while I always thought that Job would read by using iambic contamater (sp?) and Elizabethan English.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks, Jc_Freak.

I'll affirm that translations have theological commitments, but I'm not so sure that translation theories/methods are theologically oriented.

An inerrantist can as easily produce a dynamic equivalent translation as easily as a liberal can produce a literal, formal equivalent translation.