ESV – a breathtaking translation?

The ESV is becoming increasingly popular among evangelicals, and has been receiving lots of praise on various blogs recently (especially Adrian Warnock’s). I have been reading through it this year, and on the whole have been impressed, but I still think there is room for improvement. (see my comments on this post by Parableman for an example).

Earlier this week I read 2 Chronicles 9, and it highlighted one of my areas of concern. The commitment to literal translation is so strong, that unfamiliar idioms are used even when minor modifications would make the text immediately understandable to a much broader spectrum of readers.

For example, in 2 Chronicles 9:4, we are told that when the Queen of Sheba saw the wisdom and riches of Solomon, “there was no more breath in her”. This is a very awkward phrase, never used in conversational English, but there is actually a perfectly common idiom that expresses exactly the same sentiment – “it took her breath away”. I really can’t understand why the translators do not make this type of change, even if it moves from the strictly literal into the dynamic equivalence realm.

Interestingly, the NIV doesn’t go for this option either, preferring to say “she was overwhelmed”. I’m surprised that they have made this choice, as a number of paraphrases and literal translations have opted for “she was breathless” (NLT, CEV and NASB). HCSB and the Message are the only ones I came across that use what I consider to be the best option – “it took her breath away”.

The same chapter has a second example. In verse 31, it is said that Solomon “slept with his fathers”, meaning of course that he died. Sleeping with someone is a euphemism in English, but it does not mean dying. The NIV’s “rested with his fathers” keeps close to the Hebrew idiom while losing the unhelpful connotations. The commonly found “rest in peace” on gravestones testifies to our association of ‘resting’ with death.

I’m not suggesting that anyone will fail to understand the meaning of these two verses, but I don’t see why the principle of literal translation must be so rigidly adhered to in cases such as these, where similar idioms or euphemisms can be used. As Wink says, it is preferable to “emphasize readability over “literalness”.

5 thoughts on “ESV – a breathtaking translation?

  1. Mark Heath has a nice post about two examples from the ESV translation of II Chronicles 9. I agree with him on both points that the ESV made the wrong translation decision, but I don’t want to duplicate his post,…

  2. I found an interesting paper by D A Carson related to this topic. While he is directing his thoughts to a defence of the TNIV he actually brings out some very interesting discrepancies in the ESV.

    For example: Matthew 5:11-12, the ESV has changed “men” to “others” so that the verse now reads; “Blessed are you when others revile you …”.

    While Carson does not have a textual problem with this alteration he points out that such a change is similar to such made in the TNIV and the response from complementarians such as Grudem and Poythress would have been far stronger, condemning such a change as distorting the Word of God.

    Whether you agree with the TNIV or not, the paper is well worth a read for Carson’s brilliant insights.

    Link is found at:

    D x

  3. thanks for the link Dan
    I have been reading the TNIV a bit recently, and quite like it, although the repetitive “brothers and sisters” in some NT letters does start to sound a bit cumbersome – almost like someone going over the top to make a PC point.

  4. Pingback: My favourite Bible versions | wordandspirit

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