Dated Language In The ESV?

  I’ve been using the ESV for around thirteen years.  I generally like it because there are many strengths in this translation; it often makes good sense of the original languages behind the English.  However, there are also a few weaknesses.  One weakness I’ve noticed is the fact that some of the language in the ESV is dated or somewhat uncommon.   I found a few instances of this while preaching through Luke’s Gospel.  Here are some examples (note the underlined words):

Luke 11:8 – “because of his impudence
Luke 19: 3 – “he was small in stature
Luke 20:9 – “a man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants”
Luke 20:47 – “for a pretense make long prayers”
Luke 21:11 – “famines and pestilences
Luke 21:34 – “weighed down with dissipation
Luke 22:14 – “he reclined at table

These words/phrases aren’t impossible for everyone to understand.  But they do contain dated language, words and phrases that regular American English-speaking people rarely use.  I have lived in four very different areas of the United States, and I have almost never heard people using these words or phrases in conversation or common writing.  In fact, sometimes when reading Scripture in a group setting we’ve had to stop to explain the meaning of words and phrases like this in the ESV.

In case you’re wondering, many of the words/phrases in the ESV that I’ve listed above are found in slightly older translations like the RSV (and to some extent the ASV).  Also in case you’re wondering, impudence means rude or harsh, small in stature means short (in height or years), let it out means loan or lend, pretense means the act of pretending, pestilences means plague-like diseases, dissipation means careless living (possibly because of drunkenness), and recline at table simply means sit down to eat.

I’m not saying we should throw out our ESVs.  But I am saying that it’s helpful to use several translations when reading and studying the Word.  Other translations I’ve come to appreciate include the NASB, the NIV, the HCSB, and the NET Bible.  The NLT has also come in handy; we use it at home to read Scripture’s stories to our kids, and I’ve given it to a few Christians who don’t have a deep grasp of the English language.  I have also use the NLT when preaching/teaching in a nursing home or jail setting where people aren’t familiar with Scripture and/or the English language.

For those interested, here are the words some other translations used for the verses I’ve listed above:

Luke 11:8 – “because of his shameless persistence” (NLT); “because of his friend’s persistence” (HCSB)
Luke 19:3 – “being a short man” (NET); “because he was short” (NIV)
Luke 20:9 – “[he] leased it to tenant farmers” (NLT); “rented it out to vine-growers” (NASB)
Luke 20:47 – “for appearance’s sake” (NASB); “for a show” (NIV)
Luke 21:11 – “plagues” (HCSB, NLT, NET)
Luke 21:34 – “carousing” (NIV, HCSB, NLT)
Luke 22:14 – “sat down together at the table” (NLT); “reclined at the table” (NASB)

If you run into a tough word or phrase in the ESV (or whatever translation you use), go to a few different translations to help make sense of it.  There is no perfect translation, but there are enough good ones out there to help us better study and know God’s Word, which is what we want to do as Christ’s disciples.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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13 comments on “Dated Language In The ESV?

  1. Alan Beagley says:

    I’m no longer young and was brought up in the UK and find it difficult to believe that those expressions in the ESV would not be readily understood.

    Concerning modern translations (even as old and moderately traditional in style as the RSV), Dwight Macdonald has written:

    “To make the Bible readable in the modern sense means to flatten out, tone down, and convert into tepid expository prose what in [the King James Version] is wild, full of awe, poetic, and passionate. It means stepping down the voltage of the K.J.V. so that it won’t blow any fuses. Babes and sucklings (or infants) can play with the R.S.V. without the slightest danger of electrocution.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwight_Macdonald)

    I think there is the same tendency in contemporary “evangelical” worship: make it almost like going to Starbucks but with different music and a “message” that may (or may not) have some connection with the Bible.

    As it happens I just came across this extract from a presentation by James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) on the “music plus a message” that has replaced worship:

    • Hey Alan, thanks for the comments. I’m not sure how making the language of Scripture understandable is flattening it out or toning it down. Granted, we don’t want to do away with clear Bible words like justification, transgression, reconciliation, and so forth, but since we want God’s Word translated so people understand it, we should use understandable language. Jesus and the apostles used common language to communicate the message; shouldn’t we do the same?
      Thanks again for the notes,
      Shane

      • Alan Beagley says:

        I don’t think Dwight Mcdonald is arguing for a translation that is unclear. Rather, it seems to me that he is arguing for a somewhat elevated style, a “What hit me!?” style — which I think is what James Smith thinks worship should do, among other things.

        I noticed that you cited the NLT for examples of clearer meaning. Soon after the original _Living Bible_ came out, one Australian newspaper columnist denounced it as “the Gospel according to Mickey Mouse”; maybe the NLT is better, but I don’t think I’ve ever used it.

        • Jeff Oien says:

          Just as food for thought, and I’m not sure I know the answer, but was Koine Greek in an elevated style?

          Also, I don’t think bringing megachurch services into the argument ist a good comparison.

  2. I don’t favor dumbing the Scriptures even further. Many words in my vocabulary came from the King James. I loved them, so I majored in English, specializing in Elizabethan drama at the University of Virginia. The loss to our culture and to intellectual growth is stunted by well meaning attempts to make the Bible conform. Have you ever read the Urban Bible? That is an extreme example of my point. Who decides what word is appropriate? The thing that annoys me about the ESV is its footnote saying that adelphoi is translated brothers and sisters. it seems to be a small politically correct addition.

  3. Jeff Oien says:

    I’m in the 1% of people who are Reformed and don’t like the ESV. Even if you compare it to a good current writer, whether it be a columnist or novel writer, the vast majority of the ESV is archaic language. There is nothing wrong with this. But for me, it got to be so annoying that I couldn’t read it it or the NRSV (which I like a little better, even with the troublesome spots). I read the NRSV for three years. God’s Word translation is an example of a natural language translation that isn’t ‘dumbed down’ and is more on the literal end than the NLT. The main problem with it is it doesn’t use many of the traditional theological terms like righteousness or sanctification. But they do translate those terms well, if that’s any consolation.

    Again, I’m fine with the KJV, NKJ, NASB, ESV etc. I myself would just rather read something that doesn’t use English that was used 75 years or more ago. I don’t agree that contemporary language (*not* slang or paraphrase) is dumbing down.

    • Jeff Oien says:

      One other thing I left out (of my comment that was too long), is that I think most people who are comfortable with the ESV’s language is because of being exposed to that and possibly the KJV for so long. This again is just fine. And tradition is valuable. But even at 51 years old, I was not brought up on those and find the language distracting. I don’t believe that it’s ‘koine English’. But yet again, I have no problem with those who prefer it, and I think they have good reasons.

      • Good points, Jeff, thanks, I think you’re right. The translations you listed do have some pretty rough English words and phrases (which really stick out when you read the Bible out loud to less educated people or to people whose first language is not English).

        Also, as you sort of hinted at, we shouldn’t make a person’s translation preference a litmus test of orthodoxy. Just because someone does or doesn’t like or use the ESV/NASB/NKJV much doesn’t mean that person isn’t a solid Christian!

        Blessings,
        Shane

  4. dantespencer says:

    I’ve noticed a couple of these oddities myself, though a couple of those phrases you mentioned I don’t consider dated. It seems the ESV stuck too closely to the RSV and I believe I have noticed that they make small changes without notifying the reader. e.g., the first ESV followed the RSV in placing the beginning of v.20 of Gal 2:20 in a different place. I imagine they will improve some of these things you have noticed in time. I’m still waiting for a version to render Col 3:16 properly. You can see the right translation in WBC and Hermeneia.

    • Hey Dante, good to hear from you. I was wondering – if those phrases I noted aren’t dated, what would they be? Sorry, it’s not a loaded question, just curious how you’d label them. I suppose you said “oddities” so maybe that’s your answer! Thanks! Shane

      • dantespencer says:

        I was thinking “small in stature” and “pretense” were not dated because I would use both of them if I considered the person I was speaking to sophisticated enough to not be distracted by them. I know the NAS uses “dissipation” though that was quite foreign to me when I encountered it and I’ve never heard anyone else use it. “Pestilence” is a biblical word pop culture mocks. “At table” sounds like improper English, as when the British say someone went “to hospital.” (Isn’t that what they say? I think that’s it.) “Let it out” is entirely baffling to me so I think it very strange that the ESV would go with that. So these latter two seem to me as very poor choices, I don’t know how they got approved. I never liked the NAS one bit so I don’t appreciate coming across “dissipation” that reminds me of it. That word is an unnecessary stumbling block to clarity in my mind. Maybe “small and stature” and “pretense” are too refined? Easy changes. I’m very grateful for the ESV. God bless

        • That makes sense, thanks! And speaking of, I just ran across “alas” in the ESV. I know what that means, but it is a bit archaic!
          Blessings,
          Shane

        • Alan Beagley says:

          “At table” is a perfectly standard English expression, and I see that the University of Nebraska Press has a whole series of books on food under the title “At Table.” And yes, Brits would say that somebody went “to hospital” when they mean that somebody became a patient in *a* hospital without specifying which hospital. If I said that I went “to *the* hospital”, (a) I would be assuming that my hearer(s) knew which hospital I meant, and (b) I would mean that I went there not to become a patient but perhaps to visit a patient. (As UK-born and a longtime resident of a British Commonwealth country, I am inclined to say, “Hey! It’s *our* language, and *we* get to make the rules. Get over it.” :-) ) BTW, there is at least one “archaism” that persists in “American English”: “gotten”; yes, it’s used in the “King James Version,” but it fell out of use in British English long ago and probably would be considered ungrammatical now.

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