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Thursday, October 27, 2005

ESV wordings poll analysis - Part 1

A day or so ago we blogged giving the results of our poll surveying how visitors responded to wordings of 10 verses from an English version. We mentioned that the wordings were taken from the ESV. I put up this poll to empirically test a number of wordings in the ESV, a version which its translators and publisher promote as having "literary excellence." To my mind, if sufficient numbers of fluent English speakers regard wordings from a Bible version as not being "proper English," then that version, by definition, lacks literary excellence. Now, a poll of only 10 verses does not evaluate nearly enough of the ESV to draw any clear conclusions about whether or not the ESV actually has literary excellence or not. But I have studied enough of the ESV to know that there are hundreds, probably thousands, more sentences in it which are similar in quality to the 10 which we chose to be tested in the poll.

My own sense is that the ESV probably does have a literary quality which might be called "literary excellence" in some passages. But, overall, the ESV is one of the poorest English versions to be produced in the last 100 years. It is replete with renderings which use English words but they do not relate to each other according to the syntactic and lexical rules of English. Even the NASB, which many point out reads "woodenly," often has wordings which are better quality English than the ESV, even if they are wooden.

My impression is that the ESV was produced as a rush job, with very little attention paid to whether or not its sentences are actually good quality literary English or not. The ESV team appears to have simply taken the RSV text and basically revised it to make it more conservative theologically. A few other minor changes were made, but very few, if any, revisions were made to improve on the literary quality of the RSV.

In contrast, the translators of all other recent English versions have paid attention to English quality, translating afresh, rather than retaining an original English text, including Formal Equivalent versions HCSB, NRSV, NIV, ISV, and NET, not to mention Dynamic Equivalence translations, such as the NLT, TEV, CEV, GW, and NCV which, by nature, almost always have better quality, more natural English.

Let us now begin looking at some of the test sentences from the poll.

The wording which received the most votes (351) as being proper English was from Prov. 8:11:
Wisdom is better than jewels.
I agree with respondents that this wording is good English. It has, in my opinion, the best quality English of any of the 10 test sentences.

The sentence which received the next number of votes (212) is from Ps. 38:11:
Rebuke me not in your anger.
This is the one sentence where I disagree with the relatively large number of respondents who voted for it. First, though, let me say that this sentence sounds like pretty good English if a respondent is accustomed to obsolete English from older versions of the Bible. The wording is concise and those of us, like myself, who grew up on the KJV, understand immediately what the meaning of this sentence is. But understanding an English wording does not mean that it is good literary English, nor that it will be understood by other segments of the English speaking population.

ESV Ps. 38:11 is not worded in proper current literary English. It contains the obsolete negative inversion "rebuke me not" which was replaced by modern English negative word order in spoken and written English by 1740 A.D., except when a writer or speaker wished to sound "elegant," using the older word order. There simply is no reason why the translators of the RSV, let alone those of the ESV, should have used any of the negative inversion word orders in their translations. Fluent speakers and writers of English have naturally and normally used the obsolete negative word order for 200 years.

The second problem with the ESV wording of Ps. 38:11 is the unnatural syntax of "in your anger." Fluent speakers of English occasionally will speak or write of someone doing something "in anger." But, as far as I know, no one would ever include a pronoun, as in "in your anger."

Next, the prepositional phrase "in anger" is not the most natural way of expressing the intended meaning today. It is perfectly grammatical English; it just isn't as commonly used today as it might have been at one time, if it ever was commonly used. (My own suspicion when I see many "in" phrases in a Bible version is that there was a great deal of importing of biblical language dative syntax to English.)

If we want a Bible version to speak most accurately and clearly to fluent speakers today, a better way to express the meaning of Ps. 38:11 is:
Do not rebuke me when you are angry.
This wording would be what is called the closest natural equivalent in English to the original Hebrew text. There is no change of meaning using such a closest natural equivalent.

We will continue analyzing the remainder of the ESV poll test sentences in upcoming blog posts.

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At Thu Oct 27, 03:23:00 PM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Wayne, judging by how they vote with their dollars, the majority of fluent English speakers think Stephen King is a better novelist than one of my favorites, Barry Unsworth. I'd like to think that they're wrong, but if I agree to your notion that "literary excellence" is somehow linked to whether the majority thinks of a particular phrasing as "proper English," I suspect I won't have a leg to stand on. My own experience -- or perhaps my cynicism -- leads me to suspect that the ratio is inversed. The better it is, the fewer people there will be who approve.

When you say "literary excellence," you don't seem to have in mind what the ESV team is talking about -- or, to be honest, what fluent speakers of English the world over take that term to mean (though I have no polling date to back this up)! I imagine there are more average joes who equate "literary excellence" with terms like fancy, high-falutin' and inaccessible than "closest natural equivalent." Literary excellence and "speaking most accurately and clearly to fluent speakers today" are not the same thing in most people's book. The ESV doesn't claim to possess literary excellence in your sense. The value they posit derives from the translation's link to the KJV tradition, not its simple, workmanlike English.

The challenge translators attempting to stay within the KJV tradition face is similar to the one that confronts a poet trying to render someone else's verse into his own language. He knows there's a simple, obvious way of doing it. He doesn't eschew this option out of mere stupidity. Rather, he hopes to find some middle ground between clarity and poetry. He wants to do more than "speak most accurately and clearly to fluent speakers today." Now, you don't have to agree that this is a worthwhile enterprise. The Bible isn't poetry after all -- except for the parts that are. Personally, I'm grateful that there are translators not interested in this kind of work, and I'm equally grateful there are others who are.

At Thu Oct 27, 04:07:00 PM, Blogger Phil (Col 1:27-28) said...

Wayne, I have always understood that you have not liked the ESV. What I have not understood is why you have spent so much time and energy writting about it and picking it apart. Of all of the translations out there you seem to have focused your attention very heavily on this one of many translations. It seems more like a campaign than general interest.

Blessings in Christ Jesus!

At Thu Oct 27, 04:30:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Wayne, I have always understood that you have not liked the ESV. What I have not understood is why you have spent so much time and energy writting about it and picking it apart. Of all of the translations out there you seem to have focused your attention very heavily on this one of many translations. It seems more like a campaign than general interest.

Phil, feel free to examine my entries in the Bible version evaluations sections of this blog. I honestly try to be fair and objective with all versions.

One of the reasons I have given energy to evaluating the ESV recently is that there have been a number of unsupported claims about it. The ESV was a salient topic of blogging at the time when I began blogging earlier this year. A nubmer of the comments made by other bloggers about the ESV were subjective, not based on careful, exhaustive analysis of the quality of English which the ESV actually has. It has always bothered me when people make claims which lack empirical support. I guess I'm a moralizer in this regard.

I treat the TNIV the same, btw. I communicate by email with the TNIV translators and help them work with wordings which are not good English. I have sent them a huge number of messages and they are filing them for careful consideration. They welcome this input. Different people have different interests and gifts. My interests and gifting are linguistic. I want to use these gifts to further God's work, never to be destructive, but to hope that my efforts can result in improvement. Already the ESV team has responded positively to a number of my suggestions and incorporated them during the revision process.

I did the same with the NET Bible. I submitted a huge number of examples to them from their translation where the English was not good. They invited such input from linguists and English specialists. And they later thanked me on their website for my extensive input, a high percentage of which they agreed with and used to revise the NET Bible.

The purpose of this blog is very specific, to try to come up with ideas for improving English Bible versions, any English Bible version.

I invite you to participate in the process, if you have an interest in the quality of English Bible versions. Working together we can help Bible translators produce better Bibles.

I will be blogging on problems I have found in the TNIV, just as I have blogged about problems in some other versions. Right now the focus is on the ESV, partly because its publisher claims so strongly that it has "literary excellence" when every definition I know, as a professional, of literary excellence questions the claim about the ESV.

At Thu Oct 27, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark wrote:

Literary excellence and "speaking most accurately and clearly to fluent speakers today" are not the same thing in most people's book.

I appreciate your careful response, Mark. Of course, I have never defined literary excellence as "speaking most accurately and clearly to fluent speakers today." I have discussed various components of literary excellence in previous posts and it is, as I think you would agree, a complex notion, with a number of different facets. I have repeatedly stated that literary excellence stands on the shoulders of language which follows the syntactic and lexical rules of a language. I have also stated repeatedly that good creative writers will bend the rules some, as part of literary (and poetic) license, to create various literary effects, many of which are pleasant for readers willing to wrestle with the outside-the-box wordings.

Neither translation accuracy nor clarity are primary facets of what literary excellence is comprised of. I'm sorry if any of my posts have led anyone to any other idea about this.

Again, every language has rules. If languages didn't we would not be able to communicate with each other verbally. You and I are following essentially the same rules of syntax and lexical usage in our current exchange. No author writes gobbledy gook. Jabberwocky was a fun piece, but it is not the norm for literary excellence.

Within the boundaries of the rules of a language, there is a huge amount of room for linguistic creativity. Good authors are linguistically creative, but they don't write the way the ESV is worded. The best authors sometimes win literary prizes, such a the Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer. The ESV never could because so many of its sentences use English words put together in non-English ways. I am not simply making this up. I have compiled lists of strange sentences in the ESV.

The ESV likely had good exegetes on its team. But it lacked English language professionals who could help the exegetes produce good literary English. Trying to emulate the sound of the KJV does not make a contemporary piece have literary excellence. On the other hand, neither does using the latest linguistic fads or slang.

I really don't think we're that far apart in what our understanding of literary excellence is.

I have yet to hear anyone give me a compilation of sentences in the ESV which they, or better yet, most peope, would consider to have literary excellence. I would welcome such a list. If we had one, we would know better how close or divergent are our views on what constitutes literary excellence.

If we want to read Bible versions with literary excellence, we need to turn to translations such as the REB, J.B. Phillips, and, to some extent, the Jerusalem Bible.

I know of no English scholars who would consider the English of the ESV to have literary excellence. But I would be happy to meet any who do and hear from them the empirical evidence from the ESV which reflects literary excellence.

The more I have heard others claim that the ESV has literary excellence and the more I have noted who they are and what they experience is with different Bible translation traditions, the more I have concluded that the claim for literary excellence in the ESV is very subjective. Dr. Ryken prefers a certain literary sound to Bibles. He has every right to his preference. But to generalize from his personal preference and assume that others will agree with him that the ESV has literary excellence is logically questionable.

And the same goes for any other version which claims to be "the most accurate and readable" or whatever. I know of two recent ones which claimed no their websites to be "the most accurate and readable." They were neither although those who produced them believed them to be so. Believing and having the weight of literary timelessness and widespread recognition of quality are different matters. Shakespeare is recognized by most who seriously interact with that corpus as having literary excellence. And I agree with that assessment. Shakespeare was a gifted writer. It is no wonder that today we still quote phrases from what he wrote (sometimes assuming that they came from Bible!).

At Thu Oct 27, 04:56:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I share Mark's uncertainty over what you mean by "literary excellence". Indeed you don't seem to have any one definition but refer to "every definition I know, as a professional, of literary excellence". Mark has a good point that the ESV translators were aiming to stay within the KJV tradition, and immodestly claimed excellence in hitting their target. For it seems that some people assume, almost by definition, that KJV is a perfect example of literary excellence.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that literary excellence is decided by majority vote. Wayne's surveys are not intended to determine whether ESV should be given some literary excellence award, but only as a survey of various opinions. Neither is Wayne is going to change his mind about "Rebuke me not in your anger" not being good English just because the majority have said that it is.

At Fri Oct 28, 06:55:00 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Wayne, I was being a bit facetious about the link between polling and literary excellence. I realize, obviously, that you don't think there's a one-to-one correlation. I'm like the kid in the back of the classroom who looks for chances to play the gadfly. I appreciate your reply and the further information you've posted on the topic of literary excellence.

I have a lingering question. If the ESV is a light revision of the RSV, then wouldn't it be worthwhile to know how many of the clunky renderings you've identified are new to the ESV, as opposed to those retained from the RSV? You're probably already planning to address this (if you haven't already), but if not, could you add it to your list? I looked up the phrases from the poll and found some interesting results:

In the case of Psalm 38:1 (not 11), the only revision the ESV translators introduce is to change the RSV's 'thy' (retained from the KJV) to 'your.' So Ryken et. al. didn't employ the negative inversion; they simply didn't change it.

In Proverbs 28:1 -- "The righteous are bold as a lion" -- the wording of the ESV, the RSV and the KJV are identical. The NRSV updates it to "as bold as."

In Psalm 55:3, the ESV changes the RSV's "bring" to "drop," the the KJV reads "they cast iniquity upon me." (The NRSV follows the RSV here -- I'd be interested to know what prompted the ESV's "drop.")

In Psalm 21:18, the ESV follows the RSV exactly (as does the NRSV). Interestingly, the KJV's "shall be a ransom" seems to eliminate the sense of non-agreement in the RSV/ESV/NRSV reading.

Your phrase "Jerusalem's people are a gladness" seems to be derived from Isaiah 65:18, where the ESV dubs the people a "gladness" as opposed to the RSV's "joy" (which follows the KJV precisely) and the NRSV's "delight." The ESV's reading seems to have been 'forced' on them for choosing "joy" as a replacement for "rejoicing" in the preceding line -- the NRSV's solution is more elegant.

In Genesis 27:45, the ESV follows the NRSV's update of the RSV word-for-word, substituing "bring" for "fetch" (which the RSV retained from the KJV). In the NRSV, the line reads: "...then I will send, and bring you back from there." The ESV reading lacks the comma.

In Proverbs 9:12, the ESV follows the RSV exactly, as does the NRSV.

In Proverbs 24:22, the ESV's "disaster from them will rise suddenly" follows the RSV word-for-word, while the NRSV smooths the word order: "disaster comes from them suddenly."

In Ecclesiastes 9:8, the ESV follows the RSV's wording precisely, while the NRSV renders it " not let be lacking on your head," which reverses the negative inversion but retains "be lacking." With allowances for archaism, the KJV's "let thy head lack no ointment" seems more straightforward.

What this suggests to me is that, with some exceptions, the "sins" against modern usage in the ESV are the result of readings it retains from the RSV -- or even the KJV. Given all this, Wayne, would you agree that your case against the ESV is essentially that it is a light revision of the RSV when it ought to have revised more heavily, or started from scratch?

At Fri Oct 28, 08:53:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark asked: Given all this, Wayne, would you agree that your case against the ESV is essentially that it is a light revision of the RSV when it ought to have revised more heavily, or started from scratch?

Yes, absolutely, Mark. The RSV is really the translation to blame for the poor English. The ESV team is to blame for not revising to better English. I critique the ESV as much as I do partly because it is advertized so strongly as having literary excellence. To me, having so much strange English would contradict a claim of literary excellence. I have frequently mentioned that the ESV only very lightly revised the English of the RSV. In a recent post I suggest that the ESV was a "rush job." Usually a good English translation takes quite a fe years to produce. If we look at the timeline for the ESV, it was produced very quickly, too quickly, IMO. It needed English scholars on the team who could have brought the ESV up to current standards for good literary quality. I know that there will be revisions to the ESV which will improved its literary quality. My concern is that I don't think the ESV team, as a whole, recognizes how great the need is for improved English and so they have not hired the needed English scholars to help them do as much revision as is needed. The ESV has the potential of being a widely used, effective translation. But it needs to be in better English today, especially since there are already so many English versions which have better English (and we don't have to include Dynamic Equivalent translations for comparison; it's enough to look at better English in Formal Equivalent translations which have come out recently).


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