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.
Categories: ESV, literary quality, natural English