Speaking in general terms we usually think of the ESV and NASB as literal translations whereas the NIV is a thought-for-thought translation. David Brunn, in his new book One Bible, Many Translations, offers numerous instances where translations advertised as “literal” translations don’t offer a literal translation even when one is available. In one of his many charts he compares the NIV, ESV, NASB and KJV with Hebrew figurative language. He singles out a couple examples and writes,
The New International Version (NIV) is usually the least literal of these four versions, but interestingly, the NIV translated some of these figures of speech more literally than the other versions did. For example, in Psalm 44:14, the NIV literally translated the phrase ‘shaking the head’ from Hebrew, but the NASB and ESV both changed it to ‘laughingstock.’ I am not questioning the way the NASB and ESV translated the phrase. I am only pointing out that sometimes literal versions like the NASB and ESV chose to use a meaning-based, thought-for-thought rendering even though a more literal, word-for-word translation was possible, as demonstrated by the NIV rendering.
“There is another feature of the NIV renderings that I find interesting. In some cases, the NIV translators found creative ways to communicate the meaning while including some aspects of the literal figure of speech. For example, in Ezekiel 20:5, the KJV literally translated the Hebrew words ‘I lifted up my hand.’ The NASB and ESV both replaced the original words with an interpretive restatement, ‘I swore.’ The NIV cleverly weaved both the literal figure (lifted hand) and its underlying meaning (swore) in the phrase ‘I swore with uplifted hand.’ In reality, the NIV likely paints a more accurate picture of this event than any of these other versions do, since the Hebrew people generally did lift up their right hand when they uttered an oath. In this case, the ESV and NASB translators again concluded that it is acceptable to interpret what the original words represent rather than reflecting the actual words. (55-56)