6 Questions about the ESV Translation Philosophy

This article is part of the ESV 20th Anniversary series.

This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of the English Standard Version. In this article, you will hear the story from members of the Translation Oversight Committee, adapted from interviews at Tyndale House, Cambridge in 2016.

Q: What is a translation philosophy?

John C. Collins: A translation philosophy starts with the recognition that you have more than one language spoken by the people of the world, and so a translation philosophy is your approach to taking a communication that’s given in one language and bringing it over into a different language. In doing so, you have a lot of issues to address. You’re thinking about the effect of that particular communication in its original language on the original audience, and whether or not you can or should reproduce that effect on your target audience. How much should the words spoken in the original setting control the words you use in your translation? The answers to questions like that result in a variety of translation philosophies.

Q: What is the translation philosophy behind the ESV?

Dane Ortlund: In the ESV, three virtues converge in the translation philosophy. One is readability, the second is accuracy to the original text, and the third is elegance or dignity of expression. We believe that the ESV brings those three virtues together in as rich and meaningful a way as can be done in an English Bible today.

The ESV is in the classic stream of English Bible translations that seeks to take the original text of the Scripture and translate it in a word-for-word kind of way. In fact, William Tyndale—one of the early translators of the Bible in whose heritage we stand—coined 1,700 new words in his translation of the Bible—something that illustrates his concern to get the actual words of the original text of Scripture into English.

Q: What is the value of an essentially literal, word-for-word translation?

Clinton Arnold: One of the values is the very fact that there is less interpretation taking place. It puts more responsibility on the readers, but readers then can have confidence that they have an opportunity to read the Bible in as close a way as possible to the original text given the restraints and limitations of moving from one language into another. Granted, it might be more difficult to read at times because interpretation makes it less difficult to read, but the reader then has confidence that the interpretation is on their shoulders and hasn’t already been done for them.

Dane Ortlund: We’re trying to honor and bring out the nuance of every individual word in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. That doesn’t mean that we are always going to have one word for every one word in Hebrew and Greek. That’s impossible to do. But we are trying to reflect every word that’s in the original text in our English rendering.

Another way to express this translation philosophy is to call it essentially literal. That is, we’re trying to bring exactly what the original text said—to bring out the metaphors and the images of the original language. We don’t put them into modern-day language necessarily (though we want it to be intelligible), but rather seek to bring the reader into the world of the Bible—to summon the reader up into that universe, language, and discourse. Another way to express the translation philosophy of the ESV is to call it maximally transparent. We’re trying to be transparent for the English reader to what the original text said.

Q: How does the ESV seek to preserve the literary qualities of the Bible?

Leland Ryken: The Bible, in its original form, was a literary document. It is a literary anthology. So why do we want a literary Bible? Well, to do justice to what the writers of the Bible actually wrote.

We may ask, What is a literary Bible? Literature has two dimensions: form and content. And in regard to English Bible translation, we are talking about form, or what we might call style. So why would we want to do justice to the literary form? That’s just a way of transmitting what the original authors’ wrote.

I want to guard against the impression that literary style is just a kind of icing on the cake. Rather, it’s the vehicle through which the content comes to us—so there’s no content without the form. What constitutes literary form? Doing justice to the genres of the Bible. Not every English translation does that.

One of the immediate touchstones of whether a translation is literary or not is the poetry of the Bible. And to be true to the poetry of the Bible means to preserve concrete language, as one very important criterion. A literal translation preserves that concreteness. It gives us a poetic Bible when the Bible is poetic.

A quality that we might call elevation of style or dignity of style is another touchstone. The ESV reads admirably in public settings, but even in silent reading it has that dignity of style—something we might call a quality of excellence—that comes through.

Q: Why does the ESV take care to retain theological terms?

Frank Thielman: One of the things I like most about the ESV is the retention of these important words in systematic theology—like justification, propitiation, sanctification, and sanctify—that have been important over the course of many centuries. The older systematic theologians were always excellent students of Scripture, and so these words are thoughtfully chosen to reflect the meaning of Scripture and they have been part of the theological conversation of Christianity for many hundreds of years. To retain them when they are not unintelligible in modern English is very helpful to the student of Scripture and the student of systematic theology. I think the ESV does a real service by retaining many of these key theological terms. We might have to think about those words a little bit, but that’s not a bad thing—to thoughtfully consider them and appreciate the history of the interpretation and discussion of these words over the years.

Q: What is the intended legacy of the ESV translation?

Lane Dennis: We are very conscious that we stand in a historic stream of people that have been faithful and have gone before us—back to the church fathers, to the Reformation, to the Puritans, and to the whole revival legacy. We have inherited and carry forward what God has entrusted to us.

God called us to be his children, has entrusted his word to us, and has entrusted the gospel to us. To faithfully steward what he has given to us, we must walk by faith and not by sight. That is true of the translation work on the ESV that was entrusted to us and continues to be true as we carry the translation forward to the next generation—to build up the church and to share the gospel globally.

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