Wretched translations! ESV vs. HCSB: Romans 7:13-25

As those familiar with this blog will know, I’m in the process of choosing a modern Bible translation to use after 20+ years of using the NASB almost exclusively. I’ve already blogged on a number of Old Testament verse comparisons, using the HCSB, TNIV, NLTse and REB as my base translations. One of my hopes is to find a modern translation that reveals not only the original message of the text, but also the structure of the source languages, especially when logic or poetry are considered; however, with the exception of the HCSB, the translations I’ve looked at are more dynamic translations that tend to be freer with translating the thought of a passage rather than the literal structure. To date, I’ve not been able to shake my “literal is best” background, so to be fair to the HCSB, I want to also spend some time on the literal end and see how it compares to other translations like the ESV and NRSV, with an eye back to the NASB.

The HCSB and ESV are very similar and seem to occupy the same market niche: both are fairly literal and formal in their language and structure; dynamic translation is used when necessary to clarify a passage (the HCSB calls this “optimal equivalence”; the ESV calls it “essentially literal”). Both claim to use the Colorado Springs Guidelines for gender translation, e.g. defaulting to masculine when gender is not explicitly noted in the text. The ESV is not actually a new translation, but is based on the Revised Standard Version text (1952); the older text has been gently modified to present more of a Christ/Messianic interpretation of the Old Testament, but still retains the style of the RSV, including all its warts. In contrast, the HCSB is an entirely new translation from the Hebrew and Greek texts, departing from the Tyndale text tradition (KJV>ASV>RSV>NRSV|NASB|ESV, etc.). [Edit: I trimmed this section down from my original post, removing some extra sentences that weren’t relevant to the comparison at hand.]

This first comparison is from Romans 7 and explores the similarities and departures between the ESV and HCSB translations; I’ve highlighted common keywords and phrases in red:

English Standard Version Holman Christian Standard Bible
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 13 Therefore, did what is good cause my death? Absolutely not! On the contrary, sin, in order to be recognized as sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin might become sinful beyond measure.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am made out of flesh, sold into sin’s power.
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 15 For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.
16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree with the law that it is good.
17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 17 So now I am no longer the one doing it, but it is sin living in me.
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it.
19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 19 For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do.
20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 21 So I discover this principle: when I want to do good, evil is with me.
22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 22 For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God’s law.
23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 23 But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I myself am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, to the law of sin.

The first thing that comes to mind is how similar the texts really are. Both translations translate most key words and phrases identically – the differences really come in the grammatical wrapper. And this is where the fresh translation of the HCSB shines through against the older RSV-based text. Simple things like the exclamation in verse 13: “By no means!” (ESV) vs “Absolutely not!” (HCSB) … both convey a rejection of the preceding question, but the ESV seems stilted in comparison.

Verse 17: “it is no longer I who…” is an example of the inverted negative common to the ESV (and other older translations); in contrast, the HCSB reads “I am no longer the one…”, still formal, but perhaps less archaic to modern ears. See this post at Parableman for an interesting discussion of the topic and how various translations, including the ESV and HCSB, handle these grammatical units, properly and otherwise.

Interestingly, in v.18 the ESV must get the nod for a stronger translation: “For I have the desire…, but not the ability…”; compared to the HCSB: “The desire… is with me, but there is no ability….” The latter’s “is with me” is a more passive possessive statement than “I have”.

Many of the ESV’s more literal translations, e.g. “my members” in v.23, are footnoted in the HCSB. In addition, there’s an interesting footnote to the HCSB in v.14, where an alternative to “I am made out of flesh” is noted: “I am carnal”. A quick check of Strongs (via bible.org) reveals that”carnal” is the translation for sarkikos <4559>, the adjective of the more familiar (and infamous) sarx <4561>, or “flesh”. Carnal is probably not contemporary language, but it is/was used in the N/KJV and it’s a helpful nod to tradition that the HCSB has footnoted the variant.

I hope to look at additional passages between these two translations, but expect that I’ll find more of the same; that is, the HCSB retains the literal and formal keywords and phrases of the ESV and other traditional translations while updating the grammar and structure so that it reads more clearly to modern ears and tongues. And in the end, that may make it a very acceptable literal translation for me to use for daily reading and study.

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  1. Posted July 5, 2007 at 6:13 PM | Permalink

    Have you seen the new edition of the ESV? It does fix a lot of the archaic forms such as inverted negatives, but it leaves others intact. It is a start, however.

    Thanks for the link.

  2. Posted July 5, 2007 at 9:58 PM | Permalink

    I’ve only seen what Rick Mansfield detailed on his blog as far as the 2001 to 2007 ESV changes, and those seemed relatively minor overall. Nothing that really affected this passage – in fact v.15 had the only change (adding the word “For” at the beginning of the verse) and that was already in the online ESV text that I copied.

  3. MACnoodle
    Posted November 26, 2007 at 4:04 AM | Permalink

    Why not buy both? I have virtually all translations in my library. I personally prefer the KJV for devotional reading and also for some study work. I always compare the KJV with the ESV, NASB, NAB, NIV AND HCSB. I enjoy the HCSB very much but still prefer my good ol’ faithful KJV for its majestic grace.

    I feel that too many modern English translations have “dumbed down” the Bible to ridiculous levels. One example of this is the NLT.

  4. Posted November 26, 2007 at 8:52 AM | Permalink

    MAC – thanks for the comments. I actually do have both an ESV and HCSB on my shelf and do refer to one and/or the other when digging deeper into a particular text. I’ve been using the Revised English Bible (REB) as my primary translation these days, with the NASB, NRSV, ESV, HCSB, TNIV, NEB and NLT all available for reference.

  5. Posted December 22, 2007 at 8:29 PM | Permalink

    The one objection I have, in the passage you quote, is in verse 14. The HCSB has, “I am made out of flesh”.

    I understand the problem with a less directive translation like the ESV. “I am of the flesh” means what, exactly, to someone who is not schooled in theology?

    Nonetheless, I think it’s better to leave the ambiguity in the text. The HCSB translation will cause readers to think that the problem is literally in our physical bodies.

    It’s the old Greek notion of the body as a prison for the soul, or a weight causing the soul to sink from the heavens to the earth. Paul did not hold that the physical body is innately evil, or he would not have held to the resurrection of the body as in 1Co. 15.

    Paul’s theology of the flesh is more nuanced than the HCSB would lead readers to believe. In sum, the HCSB is seriously misleading in this instance.

  6. Posted December 22, 2007 at 8:31 PM | Permalink

    Oops, I should have logged in from my biblioblog to leave that comment: Emerging From Babel.

  7. Posted December 23, 2007 at 4:22 AM | Permalink

    That’s a good point, Stephen, it does get tricky reading “flesh” in Romans et al. And perhaps the HCSB has erred here – since “made out of flesh” does seem to be slightly gnostic. Ironically, though, both translations read “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.” in verse 18.

    I’m slowly coming to the opinion that it really is too easy to read “flesh” as the physical body vs. “mind” as the spiritual body. I really don’t care for the (T)NIV’s translation of sarx as “sinful nature”, since that seems to imply that there are other natures as well. The REB uses “unspiritual”, which is also ambiguous.

    One of the more attractive functional equivalents I’ve read lately was “sinful inclination”. In that case, v.14 might read, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but my natural inclination is toward sin, I am sold into sin’s power.”

  8. Posted January 8, 2008 at 5:42 PM | Permalink

    Not sure if this helps or not, but I found this review of the new ESV study bible a big help. http://www.sharperiron.org/2008/01/03/book-review-the-literary-study-bible/
    I for one will be getting it.

  9. Posted January 9, 2008 at 3:50 PM | Permalink

    We are never going to find that perfect bible, but there are some really good ones out there: NASB, TNIV, ESV, NET.

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