August 27, 2002


Category: Bible :: Permalink

Here is a helpful review of the English Standard Version by Kathleen Nielson. Nielson notes that the ESV has “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5 and 16:26. The benefit of the translation “the obedience of faith” is that it leaves the work of interpreting that phrase up to the reader, whereas many translations simply give the translators’ own interpretation. The NIV, for instance, has “the obedience that comes from faith” in Romans 1:5 and reworks 16:26 so that it reads “so that all nations might believe and obey him.”

Many translations, it appears, shy away from anything that might seem unclear or ambiguous on a first reading, which seems strange on the face of it: Why couldn’t Paul write something that you wouldn’t fully understand until you had read further in his letter? Should we assume that everything Paul wrote was immediately clear to his first readers so that they would never have to wrestle to figure out his arguments or what he meant by a phrase like “the obedience of faith”?

Nielson notes, as well, that the ESV has “the obedience of faith” in both Romans 1:5 and 16:26. One of my pet peeves with a lot of translations, a peeve I share with Nielson, is the inconsistency with which they translate certain phrases. Nobody reading Romans 1:5 and 16:26 in the NIV, for instance, would guess that Paul uses exactly the same phrase (“the obedience of faith”) at the beginning and end of his letter. But surely the repetition of that phrase is important, isn’t it?

Nielson also addresses the idea that the goal of translation is to produce a version of the Bible which is easy to read:

In one sense, the ESV might be accused of being more difficult than some other contemporary versions. Two responses come quickly to mind. First, this accusation of difficulty is not a problem with the translation; it is a problem with the Bible and with taking the time to read and study it. I remember the first time I taught Shakespeare. The play was King Lear, and one of the first questions from my first-year college students was: “Couldn’t we read this in a modernized version?” My answer was no, because I wanted them to read the words Shakespeare wrote, to understand them, learn from them, and delight in their beauty. By the end of that class, most of those students had taken in that play wholeheartedly, memorized parts of it, and enjoyed it thoroughly.The process did require a bit of work. Anything worthwhile does. For good reason the church has developed teachers and preachers and theologians, to help us dig into the riches of the inspired word of God. The ESV is certainly not difficult to the degree that Shakespeare is! It does, however, respect readers enough to give them the biblical text in all its demanding beauty.

Is there a perfect translation out there? No. (One of these days, though, I will have to check out the ESV.) But articles like this remind me why I spend time working through each passage I preach in the Greek or Hebrew instead of simply relying on an English translation.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:30 am | Discuss (0)

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