Keeping Step with History’s Great Translations

We chose the English Standard Version (ESV) as the text of the study bible because of the combination of its accuracy and its literary qualities. The ESV stands in the tradition of translation begun by William Tyndale in 1526 and continued by the King James Version (1611), the Revised Version (1885), the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1952, 1971), and the New King James Version (1983). The goal of translations in this tradition has been faithfulness to the language of the original texts as well as dignified beauty in the English translation.

Literal Translation

The translators of the ESV followed an essentially literal philosophy of translation. This philosophy aims to translate the precise words of the original text while also taking into consideration differences between the source language and the target language. The intent is to maintain as much as possible the structure of the original text, allowing the reader to discern the distinct styles of the different biblical authors while also retaining maximum clarity. This provides a translation that is transparent to the original text—allowing modern readers to read what the original author wrote.

Dynamic Equivalence Translation

In the middle of the twentieth century another philosophy of translation rose to prominence, a philosophy commonly referred to as "dynamic equivalence." Dynamic equivalence emphasizes the reader rather than the words of the original text. If something in the original text may be too difficult or obscure for the modern reader, the original text is translated with words or phrases intended to communicate the same general concept—a dynamic equivalent. Sometimes this is described as thought-for-thought translation as opposed to an essentially literal word-for-word type of translation. Most recent English Bible translations use dynamic equivalence. A list of these popular translations would include the Good News Bible (1976), the New International Version (1978), the Revised English Bible (1989), the New Living Translation (1996), and Today's New International Version (2005).

One of the fundamental disadvantages of dynamic equivalence translation is that it blurs the line between translation and commentary. Because the books of the Bible are ancient texts there are obscure idioms, customs, and words found in them. The same is true of any ancient text. Essentially literal translations attempt to translate what the author actually wrote and either explain a difficult word or phrase in a footnote or leave such explanations to commentators. Dynamic equivalence translations generally attempt to remove any such difficulties from the text by offering what the translators believe to be a more understandable modern English equivalent. This, by its very nature, however, often involves more subjective interpretation than translation. It also tends to remove any objective controls on the translators. If faithfulness to the words of the original text is rejected as the primary goal of translation, there are no reliable controls. Each translation committee determines for itself the degree to which a translation may depart from the words of the original text. The result is predictably confusing.

Translation Styles Compared

In his book The Word of God in English (pp. 81–82), Leland Ryken provides a helpful illustration of this problem by listing various translations of the middle part of 1 Thessalonians 1:3. First, he provides four translations that follow an essentially literal philosophy of translation:

"... your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ..." (KJV).
"...your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (RSV).
"...your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (NASB).
"...your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (ESV).

Because these translations follow an essentially literal philosophy of translations, their translations of the original text are almost identical, and the reader knows what the original author actually wrote. By way of contrast, we may compare the way in which dynamic equivalent translations translate the same text:

"...your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (NIV, TNIV).
"...how you put your faith into practice, how your love made you work so hard, and how your hope in our Lord Jesus Christ is firm" (GNB).
"...your faithful work, your loving deeds, and your continual anticipation of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ" (NLT).
"...your faith and loving work and...your firm hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (CEV).

Not only are these translations strikingly different from the essentially literal translations, they are also strikingly different from each other. All of these translations insert explanatory words or phrases that are not found in the original text. Some completely replace the original phrases with their subjective interpretations. The line between translation and interpretation becomes hopelessly blurred, and the reader is left uncertain of what the original author wrote.

Understanding the problems caused by dynamic equivalence, the translators of the ESV chose to provide an essentially literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. Also, just as the translators who worked on the King James Version worked from existing English translations, the translators of the ESV used an existing translation (the Revised Standard Version ) as a stylistic starting point as they translated the Hebrew and Greek texts. The Revised Standard Version (1971) is a revision of the American Standard Version (1901), which itself is a revision of the King James Version of 1611. The ESV, with its faithfulness to the original texts and high literary quality, is one of the best available contemporary English translations of the Bible. It is for this reason that Ligonier Ministries encourages its use.