Mark 13, the ESV, and Essentially Literal Translation

A primary feature of the ESV is its claim to be an “essentially literal” translation. It states, “Within this framework we have sought to be ‘as literal as possible’ while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence. Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original.” (From the Preface p. viii)

In The Word of God in English Leland Ryken rightly argues that “Biblical authors will sometimes repeat a word or phrase in order to emphasize it, or to make it clear that they are still talking about the same subject.” (p.308) He says the ESV is superior to other translations in being consistent about this translation practice. (See his complete discussion on pages 308-17.) He faults the NIV and the TEV in particular on their translation of the Greek word for abide in John 15. He argues that a variation in translation loses something and therefore the reader does not have a transparent view to the Greek underneath the English translation. Had the NIV and TEV been consistent in their translations it “would have led to a more accurate communication.” (311) Mind you, of the seven occurrences of this Greek word in John 15 the NIV only varies once (in verse 16). This single change, Ryken, says is “almost as good” as the ESV.

This brings to me to my reading of Mark 13. In Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man Robert Stein argues that 13:5-23 forms a “unified whole” in part because of the repetition of the Greek word blepete (13:5, 9, 23). (p. 71) Here’s a sample of how it is translated by other English versions in the order as it appears in the chapter (5, 9, and 23). Notice that the translation that purports to be the most literal, the NASB, translates it three different ways.

ESV – “See,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

NIV – “Watch out,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

HCSB – “Watch out,” “be on your guard,” “must watch”

NRSV – “beware,” “beware,” “be alert”

NET – “watch out,” “watch out,” “be careful”

NAB/NABRE – “See,” “watch out,” “be watchful”

NASB – “See,” “be on your guard,” “take heed”

New Jerusalem Bible – “take care,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

REB – “be on your guard,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

RSV – “take heed,” “take heed,” “take heed”

KJV – “take heed,” “take heed,” “take ye heed”

Lexham English Bible – “watch out, “watch out,” “watch out”

ASV – “take heed,” “take ye heed,” “take ye heed”

These last five translations show that it is possible to translate the word with the same English word or phrase. So what is it about this passage that made the ESV translators alter the RSVs “essentially literal” translation to a less literal translation (as understood by Ryken and others)? Both are “permitted” by plain English. Both maintain “clarity of expression.” I don’t see how one is more literarily excellent over the other. This is just one example of where the advertising of a translation does not match its actual practice.

Whether you agree or disagree with Stein about the unity of the passage the ESV fails to do what it tells its readers it will do—translate the same Greek word with the same English word. (For a book that highlights this divergence between Bible advertising and actual practice see One Bible, Many Versions by Dave Brunn.)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to Mark 13, the ESV, and Essentially Literal Translation

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