When Bible Translations Disappoint

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.

The challenge we is not whether translations interpret the text. As one who spends a good deal of time translating and editing translations (see the Classic Reformed Theology series) it is clear to me that there is no translator who does not interpret. The real question is a matter of art or degree. When a text is inherently ambiguous, as Genesis 3:16b is, should the translator try to clean it up for the English reader or leave it ambiguous? I am arguing for the latter choice. If a publisher wants to add footnotes mentioning other options, that is perfectly acceptable. My old friend Warren Embree, who was using the NASB at the time, complained loudly (as he is wont to do) about the publisher’s practice of adding a note to a translation: “lit. x and y.” Quite reasonably, it seems to me, Warren complained that if the text may be rendered literally “x and y” then do so and leave the explanation of the text to the reader and/or preacher.

In short, sometimes translators create problems by doing too much to make the Bible accessible to the reader. The translator should accept the limitations inherent to the job. Sometimes translators become deeply convinced of the correctness of a theological explanation of the verse and it unduly influences the translation. That may be the case with the ESV’s revision of Genesis 3:16b and it certainly seems to be the case in the choice to render “only begotten” (μονογενοῦς) in John 1:14 and 1:18 (μονογενὴς) as “one and only” (NIV) or “only” (ESV). There are good linguistic reasons for following Tyndale (1525) the Geneva Bible (1559) by using “only begotten.” In the years since the NIV’s decision to revise “only begotten” to “one and only” that choice now seems faddish.

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.

What to do? The problems inherent in translating a text from one language to another were among the things motivating confessional Protestants in the Reformation to found schools to educate pastors and to produce a learned clergy. That vision of pastoral ministry has often been a tough sell in the USA, where pragmatism and busy-ness tends to trump study and learning. In Westminster Confession 1.8 we see how much the early Reformed valued the original languages:

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

The Scriptures in the original languages are the final court of appeal. Thus, we need ministers who can actually read the original languages. Ignorance of the original languages is a great impediment here. The second part of the answer then is to learn the original languages. It appears that some seminaries are moving away from this high calling just at the time when we need it most but there are still schools where the languages are carefully taught. At my school, students are not permitted to use their English Bibles in their middler (second year) theology exams. They only permitted to use their Hebrew and Greek texts. It is a challenge but it can be done.

Pastor, I understand that you are busy and that your congregation may not value time in the study for you. Thus, it must be a priority to convince them that your first calling is to preach God’s Word and to do that well you need to know (or refresh yourself in) Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Bible software is wonderful but it is no substitute for knowing the languages. How will you know if the programmer made a mistake? It happens.

As I argued in 2002 (see below) I am arguing today: the plethora of translations is a good thing. It is an opportunity to learn from others and to be more faithful. There have never been any perfect translations but we are blessed with many good ones. When a translation disappoints you, do not be surprised. It is a fallen world. Make sure your pastor learns (or refreshes his) Hebrew and Greek. If that is not enough, I know where you can learn the biblical languages from real experts.

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  1. In my own reading, I’ve noticed that both Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) and Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) regularly corrected the KJV while preaching, especially once the English Revised Version was published in 1881. Maclaren, especially, was quite consistent in doing this. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) thought that congregations should be “educated up” to the KJV. Yet, I once heard one of his sermons in which he had to stop and correct (or at least give a detailed explantion) the KJV at least three times. (Part of the problem with the KJV is that William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament was brought into the KJV almost in its entirely – and Tyndale’s translation language was almost a hundred years old *then*!

    But, as you say, all translations have their problems; no translation is perfect. For me, I like the ESV and have used it almost since it was first published 16 years ago. At my age (64), I doubt if I’ll be changing translations again.

  2. I currently use the ESV. But if all English-speaking Christians would go to the same version, so we could speak the same language, I’d be very open to it. I’d go to the KJV in a second for that reason.

  3. Bible translations always cause a lot of noise, relative to other topics. One of the reasons I didn’t seem to mind when they claimed the 2016 permanent text for the ESV(they quickly changed course though). Then you can know exactly what your dealing with(shortfalls and all ), and you don’t have to worry about it whenever you go to buy new bibles and such. Maybe that’s why some people continue to use the NKJV and KJV yet. I also nocticed other strange language that none of the other major translations use, even ones like NIV and NLT

  4. I once ran into a “KJV 1611, only” type fellow and asked him how he hoped to witness (mission) to peoples in foreign countries (e.g., Africa) if that was the only acceptable translation, given its use of the Medieval English of the time. IOW, into which of their languages do you translate the scriptures and how do you get them to understand any of the peculiar idioms of particular version (given their respective cultures)? His response was that it was simple: first you teach them to understand Medieval English, then you get them to read the KJV 1611 bible.

    Huh? What’s wrong with that picture??

    • Haha I know what you mean, I am part of a denomination, where half the churches use the KJV and other half uses the NKJV. Every once in a while we get a KJV minister. And when a visiting minister starts reading and it’s the KJV, my wife(Brazilian) she has no idea what is being read. She’s completely lost. It’s weird cause the ministers read like that, but when they go to there sermon, they preach completely normal modern English again. The whole thing always strikes me as goofy.

    • Come on, KJV is not medieval English. KJV is modern English, specifically Early Modern English, as indeed were all the previous printed versions back to Tyndale in the 1520s.

      As Dr Clark states, it was the dominant version in use in evangelical churches forty years ago. I accept that it is now more challenging for a person whose mother tongue is not English, but it is still in regular use, and easily understood, which could never be said for ‘Medieval English’, such as in found in Wyclif’s Bible, though even that (Late Middle English) is not that difficult for one whose mother tongue is English.

      • Kevin,

        The K JV is not modern uy any reasonable standard. It was archaic by the end of the 19th century. As one who has preached and taught catechism for more than 30 years I can tell you that very few Americans, without specialized training, are capable of understanding Jacobean English.

        When Luther and Tyndale made their translations, they did not use archaic German or English. More importantly, when the writers of scripture wrote, they wrote in contemporary language.

        It is odd to see Protestants using the very same arguments in defense of the K JV that Romanists used to defend the continued use of the Vulgate against The translations made by Luther and Tyndale et al.

        We need to continue to do, in our time, what Luther and Tyndale did in theirs.

  5. The issue is two fold.
    Text and translation.

    The argument for the Textus Receptus underlying all the Reformation translations is precisely that of WCF 1:8. God providentially preserved faithful copies of the original manuscripts and the church has always had access to them rather than being dependent on a couple of older critical manuscripts recently discovered that don’t agree all that well with themselves. So what we end up with is eclecticism. Not a majority text, not a traditional text, not a historical text, but a critical text based on picking and choosing by the experts. Not the church. (See below.)

    Two, the AV was the last and the cream of the English Reformation translations partaking largely of the Tyndale and Geneva, but also the Bishop’s and the Douay. It is also the basis for the Reformation’s English confessions and exegesis. One is simply ignorant of their heritage if they ignore it. Is it inspired on the same basis as the Greek and Hebrew texts? Not a chance. But it carried the day in its day and we have yet to see the like among the modern translations.

    The NIV to add insult to injury jettisoned not only the Reformation text, but also the ‘word for word’ principle in translation in favor of dynamic equivalence or ‘thought for thought’. In other words, so much for the “Word” of God.

    Which leads to yet another problem. None of the modern translations are an ecclesiastical translation such as the AV or the Dutch States General. Which means market profit seems to drive the show; at least with the NIV and now arguably the ESV. New translations mean new study bibles, commentaries etc.

    What’s the answer? Dunno, but the AV is not a bad start. Ditto the recent Cambridge Paragraph edition of the AV. The Authorized is not the last word nor was it meant to be per se, but that said, the modern versions are hardly the slam dunk they are made out to be. Like it or not, there are some things in Scripture that are hard of understanding, if not spiritual and no amount of dumbing down of the text is going to really solve that problem. More familiarity with Scripture period is what is needful, not newer and better translations by the hour.

    In short if the modern American P&R church is so illiterate that it can’t take a stab at the AV we’re a lot further down the road than we think we are. That, if not that yes, all the translations have their problems, as well their excellencies. Which includes the AV.

    (Yeah, it’s a combox, but just like the modern take on the RPW, there’s room for some clarification on translations. Thank you.)

    • I think it’s interesting that, after its publication in 1611, it took about half a century for the KJV to catch on among Christians. Most believers at the time were quite happy with their Geneva Bibles. But, catch on it did. (I’m sure you knew this already.)

  6. Thank you Mr. Clark for this article. What isn’t stated is why Mrs. Miller is dropping the ESV: Wayne Grudem, et al are apparently playing gender politics with the translation. It would seem to strengthen Grudem’s contentions about the subordination of women to change the translation of Genesis 3:16 to read that the woman was going to be contrary to the man instead of saying the woman would desire the man.
    I understand Mrs. Miller’s concerns and think the change to the ESV to be unnecessarily provocative. I also appreciate Mr. Clark’s views of the plethora of translations out there. I will use a combination of older NIV/ESV and KJV for my own scripture reading.

    • My URC church uses ESV, but at home we read the AV with a reformed study bible for reference. It’s a faithful translation, and reading the AV helps my children expand their understanding of the foundations of modern English

    • Wayne Grudem was playing gender politics in the ESV from the beginning of the ESV project, look a few verses earlier, Genesis 3:6 : ‘and she also gave some to her husband who was with her’. There is no ‘who was’ in the Hebrew, and this intrusion, also in NIV, suggests that Adam was present at the tree when Eve was tempted. All the Hebrew means is that Adam ate as well as Eve: her giving to Adam was not necessarily at the tree, with the serpent. If he was with the serpent then he would have heard the discourse, but God says that he hearkened to the the voice of his wife, not that of the serpent: only she was deceived. From this overzealous ESV ‘interpretation’ Grudem et al then seek to build a subordinationist doctrine, but the foundation is insecure.

  7. Having at hand a plethora of bad English translations only creates confusion and disputation, and asking the average layman to fully learn the original languages is contrary to the intent of Reformers like Tyndale. But with today’s electronic devices, it’s not that complicated. Take your example of Genesis 3:16. The topic is the curse as a result of sin and disorder, so the text made no sense when I read it in the KJV and ESV. I quickly clicked over to Strong’s which explained that the word (‘el) connotes “according to rule”, or “after”, and then I noticed that the Geneva says “subject to”. Notwithstanding that scholars remained conflicted and confused, I was convinced that I understood the true meaning. Although Warren Embree, (whom I knew 40+ years ago) might not agree, when the text makes perfect sense using a readily available resource, just use it. A principle of the Reformed Faith is that it’s not just for the cognoscenti (trained pastors) to understand God’s Word, but rather for all God’s people with no intermediary. Some translations may want to obscure. Others may want to interpret and “clean up” the text for the modern English reader. But if you want to cut through their good intentions, it’s just a matter of using tools that already exist in the native tongue on devices that by God’s mercy we already own.

  8. 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.

    Wait, what? I thought there was just “the” ESV. What is the revision history of the ESV?

    • RubeRad,

      I count seven ESV varieties. The ESV first came out in 2001. An anglicized (i.e., British) edition first came out in 2002 (it’s been revised in 2008 and 2014). The first revision of the ESV came out in 2007. Oxford published the deuterocanon (apocrypha) in 2009; I have pestered Crossway about adding it to the ESV site and app and have got nowhere, but I digress. A revision came out in 2011. In 2013 the Gideons released a small revision that brought the ESV closer to the Textus Receptus (about 50 changes were made in the New Testament). And there is the revision that came out last year.

      To summarize:

      2001 First edition
      2002 British edition
      2007 revision
      2008 British revision
      2009 deuterocanon (apocrypha)
      2011 revision
      2013 Gideon edition
      2014 British revision?
      2016 revision

      I’m unsure on the British dates. I could be wrong on some of the others.

  9. While I know that it is a quality translation and worthy of being consulted, I find the ESV to be a disappointment. In the P&R world, I sit in the minority in my preference for the NIV 2011. I am 42 years old and I cringe when I hear the ESV’s archaic language. Because it was a revision of the RSV it has retained quite a bit of British variant phrases that I think obscure the meaning for the ordinary reader/hearer. I prefer accuracy and clarity and I believe you get that in the NIV more than the ESV. I do concede that the NIV has short comings but many of them could be fixed with a footnote.

    This link from a paper presented at the ETS in 2008 does a good job summarizing many of the weaknesses of the ESV that trouble me.

    I do not know if these concerns were considered and incorporated into the latest ESV update or not.


    • MJ
      As someone who still has his tattered and well worn copy of the 1978 NIV lying around the house, I always considered RP Martin’s Accuracy of Translation and the NIV to be damning indictment.

      If the formal equivalence principle or “word for word” is the rule in translation and dynamic equivalence or “thought for thought” is the exception – not the other way around – the NIV in principle leaves something very much to be desired. The doctrine of verbal inspiration is not something the church can afford to sacrifice on the altar of dynamic equivalence for the sake of more modern and up to date version of Scripture.


      • Bob,

        “Word for word,” or something close to it, might be possible when translating between Greek and Latin but it’s not always possible between Hebrew/Greek and English. Iain is much more competent than I to speak about moving from Hebrew to English but my experience is that sometimes it’s possible and sometimes it isn’t. Translating is an art, not a science. There’s a significant degree of subjectivity.

        Bear in mind that the NT writers used the Septuagint, which, as I noted above, is a fairly loose translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. They quote them as God’s Word. We should not have a higher standard for translations than the Apostles did.

        I cannot see a case for going back to the AV/KJV. As one writer said (I don’t recall who) it did a great job when it followed Tyndale but where they deviated from Tyndale, not so much. I do not understand why folk want to go back to the AV/KJV and not the Geneva Bible. If weren’t going back to an antique translation, then the Geneva should be our target since it was our translation.


        As to the importance of Greek and Hebrew, I’m with the Westminster Divines.


        I think you can find a history of revisions at the ESV website. Yes, it’s been revised since it was first published. The most recent revisions are the most controversial.

    • I’ve not read. Will have to pick it up. Have you read the NIV 2011? Have you read How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth? Here is a link to a blogger who recommends the book and its approach. I’m not persuaded that the doctrine of verbal inspiration is threatened by functional equivalence but I understand how some think that it is. Even the vaunted (in P&R circles) ESV does not translate word for word in every passage….does it?


  10. As one of the translators for the HCSB and part of the oversight committee for the revision which is about to appear as the CSB (Christian Standard Bible), may I commend that version as an alternative for people who want something more literal than the NIV but without the quirky archaicisms of the ESV? Since I don’t ever say to my wife “Behold, I was at the store today and the maiden behind the counter said…”, I don’t think a good translation of ordinary Hebrew should either.

    I would also add that in our committee we regularly chose the translation that left interpretive options as open as the original, even if we had our own private ideas of what a verse meant. It was a key part of our reasoning for removing the capitalization of divine pronouns in the earlier edition (since in some cases it is not clear whether the pronoun refers to God or not).

    • So nice to have someone, especially someone as esteemed as Dr. Duguid, to acknowledge the annoyance of the ESV’s “quirky archaisms”.

      Looks like the CSB (dropping the word Holman so as to appeal beyond the Baptist realm) will introduce a new translation philosophy that I have never heard of. We’ve had Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalent and now we will have “Optimal Equivalence”. From the website question about translation philosophy:

      “The CSB was translated using a methodology called Optimal Equivalence, which balances contemporary English readability with linguistic precision to the original languages. This process assures that both the words and thoughts contained in the original text are conveyed as accurately as possible for today’s readers.”

  11. My private school in the late 70’s and early 80’s required the NASB; I bought an NIV when I started reading the Bible cover to cover. When I started teaching Sunday School classes I quickly grew to dislike the NIV and went back to NASB. I went to the NKJV when the Reformation Study Bible came out. I tried the ESV but don’t like the idea of a revision of the liberal RSV. The textual foundations of the NKJV and my growing interest in reformed theology and the reformation took me to the AV and the Geneva Bible.

    Now I support the Trinitarian Bible Society (TBS) and truly believe in Providential Preservation as Sam stated above. Hence, I use the AV for all of my reading, studies, and teaching. TBS sends copies of the Scriptures all over the world, and missionaries in Africa successfully use the AV to evangelize and disciple believers.

    People of our consumeristic society choose churches and Bible translations to suit the flavour of the month. Occasionally I tell my dog “Behold, I’ll smite thee in thy hinder parts!,” and he knows he’s in trouble. If my dog can learn King James English, most Christians should be able to expand their vocabulary and gain a greater appreciation for the heritage of modern English. Words may seem archaic, but part of that is the dumbing-down of our culture and our language. Ignorance of the variety of meanings a word carries doesn’t make it archaic. Words carry multiple meanings – it’s not that difficult.

    Alas, we cannot return to the days of a common English Bible, but I’m standing firmly in our heritage and using the AV.

    • The Lord has preserved his Word in Byzantine, Alexandrian, and other text types.

      The NIV was a good translation. So is the ESV. The RSV, with the exception of a few notorious decisions (e.g., Rom 9), was a good translation.

      In our desire to be faithful let’s not fall into the QIRC.

      • Drs. Clark & Duguid are the guides I would most agree with on this thread. Thank you Dr. Clark for your balanced and sane views on eclectic texts and the help that a variety of translations have been…even the lowly NIV. Some of us younger folk may suffer from things being supposedly “dumb down” but many others want to erect barriers that unnecessarily obscure the clear/understandable proclamation of the word. We have got to get the Gospel out to the people! Preserving archaic English meanings/understanding among whomever is not a matter of fist importance for the Church. It’s fine for some to be an Anglophile but lets be, first and foremost, about helping others understand who God is and what he requires of us. That would seem to require an understandable translation (humanly speaking) and the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

  12. RSC,
    For what it’s worth, though I don’t share much of Rachel Miller’s reasons, I’ve had an interesting experience using the ESV over the last several years in the pulpit. The session of the congregation where I minister the Word adopted the ESV before I arrived. I was happy to comply upon my arrival, and I still am happy to do so but with more qualifications than I expected. Increasingly I have found its phrasing cumbersome for public reading and, worse, for comprehension in the pew. For improved readability and understanding, I have found myself making use of the NIV and the CSB. All this has reminded me of the largely-tongue-in-cheek and overstated adage: “[all] translation is treason.” So I do what I have to do, yet I resist the temptation to make us of an individual’s (whether my own or someone else’s) translation.

    • rfwhite, are you a NAPARC minister? Could it be possible that there are three NAPARC ministers that actually admit how cumbersome and difficult to comprehend the ESV can be?

  13. I was a student at a major Reformed seminary in the late 1980’s. Several of the faculty were directly involved in the production of the NIV. I never cared much for that translation, and still believe to this day that its popularity was attributable as much to it’s advertising/marketing as to its quality. I once asked a NT faculty member at the seminary his opinion of the NIV. After carefully looking both ways to insure privacy, he leaned over and whispered, “If you tell anyone I said this, I’ll deny it, but I think the old RSV is still the best translation available.” For my part, as a NAPARC pastor, I have come to value the availability of having a variety translations because I am able to gain a clearer understanding of many texts by comparing them in translations ranging from formal to dynamic translations philosophies. And understanding the text is surely a top priority.

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