When Bible Translations Disappoint

When a translation disappoints you, do not be surprised. It is a fallen world.

There are no perfect translations. What we ought to seek is a good, consistent execution of a sound philosophy of translation. There is debate, of course, among Bible translators as to what that is but the ESV was adopted by many Reformed and evangelical folk because it promised to follow an “essentially literal” translation. In the latest revisions, however, it does not seem to be following that philosophy consistently.


Late modern Americans face a plethora of choices in English-language Bible translations: The King James Version (KJV), the American Standard Version (ASV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New International Version (NIV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the Living Bible (LB), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV) are just a few. For most of these are there are sub-sets and revisions of revisions (e.g., the NASB 95). The KJV (also known as the Authorized Version) has undergone multiple revisions since 1611 as have the others.

For most Americans, through the first half of the 20th century, the KJV was the English translation. The 1901 ASV had made a dent (and before that the Revised Version in the UK) and the 1946 RSV made another dent, particularly as it was adopted by the liberal mainline denominations. Among evangelicals, however, the KJV was probably the dominant translation until the 1970s, when the NASB published their complete translation. The 1970s saw a number of other translations including the LB (1971) and the NIV (1978). For many evangelicals, through the 1980s, the NIV became the preferred translation. It was adopted by many churches and by some denominations. Work on the ESV began in the early 1990s. Many evangelical and Reformed folk appreciated the NIV and the NASB but wanted a translation that was not quite as stiff as the NASB sometimes seemed and not quite as paraphrastic as the NIV too often seemed. Some of us were not comfortable either with the textual basis for the NJKV or with the translation philosophy. The ESV, which began as a revision of the RSV, first appeared in 2001. When the NIV translation committee signaled their intent to produce “inclusive language” versions of the NIV, thereby blurring the lines in Scripture between males and females, many evangelicals turned to the ESV.

As it was about in 2001, the question of which translation is before some of us again. Rachel Miller has recently published an essay explaining why she is going back to the NASB—she does not mention the NASB95. I have had some correspondence from others about Bible translations so it seems like a good time to revisit the question: what to do when Bible translations let us down? My short answer is: get used to it. The history of Bible translations, going back to the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Old Testament is that none of them are perfect. The Vulgate was the “standard Bible” of the medieval Western church.

In some ways, the KJV fulfilled the same function in the Anglophone world as the Vulgate did in the medieval church. It was the original standard Bible. It was challenged and replaced for the same reasons that the KJV was eventually unseated: dissatisfaction with the dominant translation. It had its problems but it was not as bad a translation as Reformation polemics sometimes suggested. Nevertheless, they were significant enough to warrant a new Latin version for use by Protestant professors, pastors, and students composed of Beza’s Latin New Testament and the Old Testament translation of Junius and Tremellius.  Pace defenders of the KJV, the modern flurry of translations did not begin in the 20th century. It began in the 16th century, when Protestants produced several including the Geneva Bible, among others. Arguably, one of the principal functions of the KJV was to marginalize the Geneva Bible because of its anti-tyrannical notes.

So, Christians have been seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures in translation since Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German in 1522 and Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1525. The current discussion arises, as Rachel explains, from the decision by the publisher of the ESV to introduce controversial changes to the text. Here is a chronological comparison of the translation of Genesis 3:16b. The most straightforward translation is “your desire will be for your husband.” The meaning is cryptic. It has been interpreted (as Sam Powell does) to mean that Eve will desire fellowship but will be rejected by her husband. The revised ESV translation interprets the phrase thus: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” As Sam explains, this interpretation/translation follows the work of Susan Foh.

Read More