54. A Call for a Complementary view of Bible Versions

As a missionary involved in Bible translation for the past 18 years, I was disappointed with the tone of the article “‘Packer’s Bible’ now bestseller” appearing in the BC Christian News, August 2007 Vol 27 #8. During the course of celebrating the growth in sales of the English Standard Verson (ESV) – a welcome addition to a number of excellent formal translations such as the NRSV and the NASB – disparaging and unhelpful remarks were made against other translations and translation philosophies (such as the “meaning based” philosophy that lies behind those invaluable translations that provide the spiritually hungry reader with “what was meant”).

This unfortunate perspective was carried on in a sidebar entitled “’Dueling’ Translations” in which three Bible verses were presented from a variety of Bible versions. This negative and combative attitude not only confuses the average Christian and creates unnecessary divisions over minor issues, but it undermines the benefits we can gain from the multitude of translations available to us.

I trust that there is a more humble and gracious attitude on the part of the scholars who worked on the ESV than is reflected in this article and that they promote their translation as one attempt within a library of valuable and helpful translations. Rather than claiming pre-eminence for one translation (a dubious claim at best), the church is better served when such articles recognize the complementary nature of translations which together reveal a depth of meaning and nuance of the original in a way that is not possible through one single translation.

A few misleading statements warrant comment. Dr Packer is quoted as asserting that “other modern translations … deviate from what was said in several thousand places.” This implies that the other translations have erred or deliberately misled the Bible reader to the extent that their translation is a distortion of God’s word. Not only is such a claim disrespectful to equally dedicated and educated scholars, but it is harmful to those who depend on those translations in their daily walk with God. Rather than assuming that translation choices are a “deviation,” a more realistic perspective is that the variety of expressions of the original text provide a broader and deeper understanding of the message.

Dr Packer is also quoted as saying that other translations present “what was meant but not what was said.” This statement is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, it implies that the ESV provides “what was said.” However, this is not possible since what was originally “said” was given in another language. In order to provide “what was said,” one must refuse to translate and read the original text as it was written in Greek or Hebrew. Second, if a translation does not communicate the meaning of the original within the forms and concepts of the receptor language, then the translation has failed in its task. All English translations, including the ESV, must take “what was said” in the original language and rephrase it with English forms and words that provide an equivalent meaning. It is precisely this interpretive task that describes the work of translation. One difference between formal (such as the ESV) and meaning based (such as the CEV and TEV) translations is that the former takes great pains to mimic the idiom, concepts and structure of the original language with less concern for clarity, while the latter sacrifices the form of the original language in order to provide the meaning of the text in ways that communicate clearly to the modern reader. Both translation philosophies are to be valued and are complementary, rather than in opposition to each other.

According to the article the ESV website claims that “thought-for-thought translations” are “of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture.” This apparent attempt to disparage meaning based translations is a sword that cuts both ways. Translation is impossible without interpretation. Why use “60 scholars who were expert in individual books,” if their interpretive expertise was not required in a “word for word” translation? And where is the proof that these scholars are less influenced by contemporary culture than the scholars of other translations? Is the “deliberate attempt” to use simple words and make the text “dance along,” not based on the needs of the readers who live in the “contemporary culture”? Moreover, Bible translation is a movement of meaning from an ancient language to a modern one and thus must use the forms and concepts of contemporary culture in order to communicate. To pretend that the ESV is somehow a purer or more “transparent” translation than the rest is fallacious as the scholars of necessity engaged in an interpretive process to provide the meaning of the text for the contemporary culture. That is the nature of translation.

The ESV is undoubtedly as carefully constructed a formal translation as modern scholarship allows. But this does not put it into a category above other translations. Rather it is a welcome addition to other equally valuable translations. When this fact is realized, then the benefit of the ESV can be realized as it is used in conjunction with other translations. This can be appreciated by a quick perusal of the “‘Dueling’ translations” sidebar. A better title would have been “Complementary translations” for each of the translations provided a different nuance and perspective of the original that was helpful for the serious student of God’s word. One example can be seen in a phrase taken from Gen 5:2.

  • ESV: “…named them Man…”
  • KJV: “…called their name Adam,…”
  • NIV: “…he called them ‘man.’”
  • NLT: “…called them ‘human.’”
  • Message: “…blessed them and called them ‘human’”
  • TNIV: “… he called them ‘human beings’”

The unusual form of capitalized “Man” in the ESV (indicating a particular interpretation of the Hebrew word “adam”) is clarified in the meaning based and inclusive translations as “human” or “human beings.” The KJV adds a helpful nuance by transliterating the Hebrew word “adam” which alerts the English reader that this is the same word as the name “Adam.” Taken together, these translations should not be viewed as “dueling,” but as positive contributions that expand the reader’s understanding of the original meaning of the text. I trust that the promoters of the ESV will choose the humble and productive approach of encouraging English speakers to take advantage of the wealth of translations we have available to us.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development