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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Here's what the ESV hullabaloo is about

Phil Almond of Almond Branch Ministries Int'l and host of the Spirit Formed Life blog and I have been having interesting exchanges in the comments section of a post I blogged on a few days ago. In one of my comments I said:
[the Living Bible, the NIV, and now] the ESV make the Bible even more evangelical than the original biblical texts already were.
Phil caught this, as I imagined some readers might, and asked the appropriate followup:
Wayne could you give some examples of where specifically this is true in the ESV?
I then replied:
Yes, I would be glad to do this, Phil, but it will take some time to gather the details. I started the process yesterday soon after I posted that comment which I figured would prompt followup questions such as yours, appropriately so.
I had hoped to begin a series of blog posts on this topic this afternoon, but before I started that, I spotted a post on Phil's blog asking So, What is All of this Hullabaloo About the ESV? I've decided first to respond to this important post and then to begin my other series. I'm tired right now, and it takes less energy for me to respond to someone else's comments than to do the necessary research to post quality blogs of my own. First, I want to thank Phil for posting his questions. They are good ones to ask and to be answered. I will do my best to answer them. And it is appropriate that I answer since the way Phil worded some of his post, I suspect that he was asking questions about comments I have made on this blog about the ESV. I'll try to be thorough (Uh oh! Warning: this could be another one of my lengthy ones!). Where I leave something out or misspeak, I hope that others will chime in and fill in what is missing or in error. I won't quote all of Phil's post, since it is nearly as long as some of mine become (!!), but I'll excerpt his questions and respond.

Phil said:
One frequently complained about issue with the ESV is this reverse negative thing.
Right, Phil. This has come up in some reviews of the ESV. You can see all the reviews of the ESV that I am aware of on my ESV links webpage.

Phil continued:
I believe it has to do with, for example, instead of saying, “ I do not like something” I say, “I like it not” or something like this.
Yes, you have correctly stated the difference, Phil.

Phil continued:
Now I admit that when I first took note of these reverse kinds of phrasings, I stumbled a bit, but this was very easily overcome, even for me. It was simply my making a mental adjustment and not a big deal. Even when I first read this phrasing, I had no trouble understanding what was being communicated in the text. So again, what is the big deal? So, you don’t prefer it, ok, that is alright with me, but it isn’t an issue for me, so again, what is the big deal?
Phil, I'm not sure that anyone has said that it is a big deal, myself included. I do have significant concerns about the ESV, however. And they are appropriate concerns for a Bible version which has been promoted so heavily as having "literary excellence." It is not a sign of literary excellence to use the old negative word order, an obsolete literary form which was displaced by the current form 250 years ago. The issue is not whether a reader like yourself can, with a little effort, come to understand what it means, but whether we are committed to translate into the heart language of a people, as did Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and many others. It has been shown time and time again that when a Bible translation uses the language of the people who are going to use that translation, they understand the translation better. Ultimately, there will then be more accurate communication of God's words to us. If we use obsolete syntax and vocabulary it takes greater effort to understand God's Word accurately. And there is something else, perhaps even more serious that occurs when we use obsolete language in a Bible version: It continues to reinforce the idea that so many unchurched people already have that the Bible is not relevant for them. If we use outdated language, it confirms people's mistaken idea that the Bible is an outdated book. The Bible was originally written to people thousands of years ago, in ancient languages, within cultural contexts different from ours. We can do nothing about those cultural contexts, if we are going to translate accurately. We must leave the cultural context of the Bible just as it is. But we do not leave the Bible as it was originally written in the ancient languages. If we did, only those who have studied Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek could understand it. We should not even leave the Bible in earlier stages of our own language, because many words have changed in meaning, some words are no longer used, there have been changes in syntax, etc. We CAN do something about language in translation. Specifically, it has always been the case that the reason for doing Bible translation is so that people who do not understand the ancient biblical languages can understand the Bible in their own language, their heart language. There is no benefit in using English from several hundreds years ago if we want a Bible to clearly and accurately communicate to speakers of English today. This does not mean that we translate into contemporary slang, like, you know, dude, this here book, like, it's from God, you know. And, like, if you don't listen up real good, and do what this book says, you gonna get fried! :-)

The matter of the reversed negatives is not a big deal to you, but it is a bigger deal to some people. I can assure you that it will be a big deal to the children who Crossway is hoping to reach with their children's edition of the ESV. These children will never have been taught reversed negatives in school. They will never had heard their parents speak reversed negatives unless their parents read to them extensively from the KJV which had reversed negatives because reversed negatives were still in widespread (although decreasing) usage in 1611 A.D. when the KJV was published. And it will be a big deal to non-christians who Crossway is trying to reach through its evangelistic version. Non-christians have even less exposure to reversed negatives unless they have studied classical English literature which has this older syntactic form.

Phil then said:
Making adjustments in our reading and or understandings regarding what we read is a common thing. I mean you cannot read as much as a lot of us do and not have to make adjustments in our thinking and perceptions to get at what the writers are saying, even in “good English”. We need to do this anyway, in studying the scriptures, I mean what is Hermeneutics all about, if not our having to make adjustments to truly understand the history, the culture, the writer and the language of the text.
You are right, Phil. But hermeneutics is NOT about trying to decipher obsolete vocabulary and syntax of our own language, only about the biblical languages. There is no reason why the ESV translation team needed to use any obsolete English in the ESV. Such language does not add anything to the beauty or accuracy of the ESV. And it goes against the marketing claims about the ESV, that it is written in English "with literary excellence, beauty, and readability." Use of obsolete vocabulary and syntax, both of which occur a large amount in the ESV, does not contribute to this "readability" claimed for the ESV. As for literary excellence, I do realize that some people consider obsolete English to be more beautiful and have greater literary excellence that contemporary good quality literary English. But I think most people do not have this opinion. Most people, I think, find greater readability in English literature which is written in contemporary syntax and vocabulary. Jesus spoke the language of his own people, which was called Aramaic. Jesus did not speak to them, for the most part, in classical Biblical Hebrew, which was, by his time, outdated, no longer understood well by most of the Jewish people. I think we should follow Jesus' example when translating the Bible to any example. We should use good quality current language, not slang, not passing colloquialisms, but language which is considered good quality by all speakers of a language, and which is understood by all speakers.

I think those are all the comments in Phil's post which would be relevant for me. I have not posted on the other topics in his post, which interested ones can read for themselves.

Phil, I have said it many times in the past, and I will say it again. And it harmonizes with your own legitimate plea in your conclusion:
I really like the ESV without apology, period.
My response is the same as it is every time I get to this part of my posts, "Good, Phil. I am glad for you that you have found a version that you like and that you can trust. May God bless your ministry using the ESV."

It is normal, yes, I think even proper, for people to review Bible versions. The ESV translation team themselves have been reviewing the ESV and have been revising it. They will continue to revise it. Why? Because it is a bad translation. No. Rather, because they want to make it better. And that is the desired ministry of this blog, to help make English Bibles better. I am a Bible translator myself, Phil. I can tell you that if we left our first efforts at translation into the Cheyenne language alone, the Cheyennes would not get nearly the accuracy and clarity and naturalness of language that they have today, because the translation has gone through many stages of revision, just as English translations do, and translations in many other languages. There is always room for improvement. Pointing out weaknesses or problems in a translation is a gift that is given to a translation team. Whenever a Cheyenne person suggested an improvement for the Cheyenne translation, I was grateful. It meant that God's Word in Cheyenne would become even more accurate, even more readable.

Phil, I respect your opinion, but I don't agree that there is a "hullabaloo" about the ESV. When I first started reading blogs a couple of months ago I began noticing bloggers enthusiastically commenting on the ESV. Having studied the ESV myself, I did not understand that reaction. So I thought it would be wise to speak out on the matter but to try to do it in a gracious way. It is normal for there to be debate and discussion about any English translation. This has happened with every English translation, including the KJV. The KJV was not widely accepted at first. It took awhile before it became a standard translation in churches. Even today, some people who have studied the history of English Bible translation believe that Tyndale's translation was probably a superior translation to the KJV. But King James wanted to a version which set better with his ideas and with the ideas of the Church of English. So he commissioned the revision of Tyndale's work which has come to be known as the KJV or the Authorized Version (authorized by King James).

There has been far more criticism for many more years about the NIV, as well as high praise for it (the same split among public opinion that we see today with reactions to the ESV). And there was much criticism of the Living Bible. I hope, Phil, that this post will help answer some of the important questions you ask in your blog post. If I have missed some or messed up some, please feel free to follow up. Until then, keep enjoying your ESV. No one is telling you to stop using it. No one is saying it is a bad translation. It is simply one among many English translations. It is getting some attention now because it is one of the new kids on the block and also because its team has made some strong claims about it which they post on their website. I believe some of these claims are not supported by the facts of how the ESV is actually translated. There is within me a strong sense of justice which calls out for me to speak up when I see claims which do not seem to be supported by facts. Maybe I should just keep quiet and not say anything. But the history of the Christian church and of growing in the Lord seems to me to include pointing out where there can be improvement. Improvement helps make things better. And yes, some of you will get tired of hearing me quote the T.V. advertisement, but, well, "better is better." :-)

Blessings, Phil,
and everyone else reading this,

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At Sun Jun 26, 05:50:00 PM, Blogger Phil (Col 1:27-28) said...

Thankyou Wayne for you willingness to engage the issues and concerns as passionately as you do. Even if we are not on the same page about the ESV, we are in the same family and this is the Good News!

Again thankyou and blessings in Christ Jesus!

At Sun Jun 26, 06:06:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

And thank you, also, Phil, for your gracious spirit. I am glad to be in God's family with you!!!


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