4 Translations: “You got rhythm”?

So far in this discussion about the four translations we have examined word choices, sentence structure, “meaning,” etc. But another critical aspect of translation usage for a congregation involves memorization and liturgical use. Let’s be clear, all four translations can be memorized and can be used in liturgical worship. There is nothing special or unique about them. Some might be easier to memorize, some hard. But all can be memorized.

There are actually several parts to this whole memorization issue: broader scope, familiarity from the past, and “feel.”

Factors affecting memorization

1. Broader scope

Our choice of translation usage in the congregation cannot be done in a vacuum. That is, we interact with other congregations and church bodies. Our members move and will join other congregations. From that stand point, ESV and NIV 2011 make the best sense, since they are widely used.

2. Familiarity 

ESV follows in the KJV tradition, so more familiar passages will be easily recognized and learned. NIV 2011 follows NIV 1984 so has had 35 years of assimilation into the American Christian scene, and even more so because of the technology revolution and its use in electronic media.

Both HCSB and GW are relatively recent on the scene, and do not have the wide exposure that the other two have. This means that for those who have church backgrounds, these will sound odd and may be confusing in terms of memorizing.

3. Feel

Seems like an odd word to use, but this encompasses the naturalness of the translation for oral speaking. This is critical for memorization. It involves rhythm, cadence, and language choice and word combinations. Here both ESV and NIV 2011 have some challenges. HCSB and GW do better in several respects but also face their own challenges. I start with ESV because it is the most “traditional” of the four translations.


ESV faces a double task, following the KJV tradition and being in put into modern language. In some cases it yields a very suitable choice, i.e. Psalm 23 because of the cadence of the passage and the familiarity. The clash becomes evident, however, when looking at how the ESV commonly handles negatives.

ESv Bible

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1)

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, (Psalm 1:1)

This is not common usage today for negatives. I have read and heard defenders of this that such usage is more poetic. But according to whose ears? Even the NAS95 avoids this kind of construction.

Another is word choice that strikes the reader and listener as odd at best.

Behold, the LORD will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you (Isaiah 22:17)

NIV 2011 “Beware, the LORD is about to take firm hold of you.” Another translation using a similar approach as ESV, NAS95, does much better: “And He is about to grasp you firmly.”

Or consider this one also in Isaiah. If you don’t catch it, read it out loud to hear.

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. (Isaiah 63:10)

With all the revisions of the ESV, not just the 2007 formal one, you would think this could, should be corrected. Yes, I submitted this to the Translation committee. But it remains.

NIV 2011

A generation of time can change many things. I remember when NIV NT was introduced in 1973. It caused quite a stir, and then with the full Bible in 1978 (later revised in 1984), the challenge was on. For many, the NIV was too innovative for its time. Some challenged its “accuracy” in places. It met with mixed reviews. But another critique was that the NIV oral quality was not as good for liturgical worship. Thus, when the LCMS pulled out of a joint hymnal project with ALC and LCA, it had to look for an alternative for the Psalms. The choice was made due to money concerns, not translation suitability. Thus, LCMS used NIV for the hymnal Lutheran Worship because they could get it royalty-free for that purpose. Many were not satisfied with it as a translation choice because the cadence/rhythm seemed off. Of course, that may have been partly due to the previous KJV/RSV use within the church body and so the NIV did not fit that mold.

NIV Bible

One thing that I have discovered about the NIV is that while it reads well (silently), orally it can be a challenge. Personally I have found the split dialog more difficult to handle orally (also true for ESV). For instance,

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)

Another passage has an unusual rendering, even though it is simple, understandable English.

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. (Matthew 15:16)

In contemporary English, “dull” has a different connotation than what is implied in this text. According to one dictionary, here are possible meanings:

1. not sharp; blunt: a dull knife. 2. causing boredom; tedious; uninteresting: a dull sermon. 3. not lively or spirited; listless. 4. not bright, intense, or clear; dim: a dull day; a dull sound. 5. having very little depth of color; lacking in richness or intensity of color.

Do any of these correspond to what Jesus is asking his disciples? The Greek has ἀσύνετοί best translated as “without understanding.” The ESV and HCSB do better: “Are you also still without understanding?”

Here is an example of an attempt to parallel thoughts, but using a word that is not current.

But all who devour you will be devoured;
all your enemies will go into exile.
Those who plunder you will be plundered;
all who make spoil of you I will despoil. (Jeremiah 30:16)

Spoil in common English is more suited to describe a child who gets everything; and “despoil” is not part of current vocabulary. NAS95 has: “And all who prey upon you I will give for prey.” HCSB: “all who raid you will be raided.” Both of these translations carry the parallel thought without introducing a confusing term (in this context).

Next post I will look at HCSB and GW regarding this topic.


About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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