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Koine English for Koine Greek
by Mark Strauss
I have to admit, I’m a bit of an iconoclast. Nothing drives me crazy more than smug satisfaction or blind acceptance by those who are convinced they are right about something, but have never really examined it carefully. I challenge my students (and my children!) to be critical thinkers, to test everything with their minds as well as their hearts. I also have a mischievous streak, which can be dangerous when combined with iconoclasm. So when I kept reading over-the-top endorsements of the English Standard Version (ESV), and statements from certain Christian gatekeepers about its "unparalleled English style" and "meticulous accuracy," I felt a response was warranted. The ESV was being made to sound like the Second Coming of the KJV.
This is why I wrote the (somewhat controversial) paper, "Why the English Standard Version (ESV) should not become the Standard English Version. How to make a good translation much better."
(Download it here: Download ImprovingESV(2) )
It was meant to be a call for a critical evaluation not only of the ESV, but of Bible translation philosophy in general. My thesis is twofold: (1) First, that translations from across the translation spectrum are helpful tools for students of the Word. Functional equivalent versions (NLT, NCV, etc.) are helpful for communicating clearly, naturally and accurately the meaning of the text. Formal equivalent (or "literal") versions (NKJV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, etc.) help to reflect formal features of a language like metaphors, idioms, word-plays, allusions, ambiguities and structural markers. Mediating versions, which lie somewhere in the middle (NIV, TNIV, HCSB, NET, REB), are a nice balance, retaining more formal features than functional equivalent versions but with more clarity than literal ones. These issues are addressed in greater detail with Gordon Fee in our book, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 2007). The ESV is a useful tool within this spectrum. But is it the perfect balance of readability and accuracy? This is best discerned by comparing it with other versions. This is what the paper does.
(2) My second point is the more controversial one (at least for some people). It is that "literal" does not necessarily mean "accurate." Anyone who has ever learned a second language quickly learns that trying to be literal often results in awkward, obscure or inaccurate language. This is because languages differ from each other.
I am not saying that we should dumb-down or oversimplify our Bible translations (though there is a place for simplified versions for those with rudimentary reading skills). Our primary goal, rather, should be to produce the meaning the original authors intended, translated as close to the same style and register (reading level) as the original author. In other words, we need to translate Koine Greek into Koine English. For a book like Hebrews, this means using a higher literary style that retains technical terms and OT allusions, but that still sounds like good idiomatic English, not some strange hybrid of Greek and English. Rougher Semitic Greek (e.g. Mark’s Gospel) should be translated into rougher Semitic English.
In the paper I’m simply encouraging people to ask the same questions of their Bible versions that that they would ask of anything translated from another language: (1) Does this translation make sense? (2) If comprehensible, is it obscure, awkward or non-standard English? Would anyone speaking or writing English actually say this? The Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative Word and it demands our greatest reverence and deepest study. This means not only exegeting the text to determine its original meaning, but also carefully determining how best to communicate that meaning, style and register into normal, idiomatic English. I want the modern reader to hear the text in the same way the original readers heard it.
Years ago D. A. Carson wrote an excellent little book debunking the "King James only" view, with the subtitle A Plea for Realism. Though I would not pretend to be in a scholarly league with Carson, my goal was similar. Perhaps I should have named the paper, "The ESV and Bible translation. A Plea for Realism."
Mark Strauss (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. He has written numerous articles and books including: The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts, Four Portraits: One Jesus, The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy, and Luke in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary series.
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