(Lost in) Permanent Translation

The non-profit publisher Crossway is releasing what they are describing as a “permanent” English biblical translation.  I am having some difficulty with what I think I hear them saying:

“Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged—in the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). Thus, all present and future editions of the ESV reprinted and published by Crossway will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity. This means that current readers of the ESV Bible—as well as their children and grandchildren—will be able to read, study, and memorize the ESV unchanged for generations to come.”[1]

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has some issues with the translation details.  I am not qualified to speak to his points as I don’t read any ancient languages.   My issue is at the conceptual level, with the notion of “permanent.”  Perhaps Crossway means they intend no further revisions.  But the way the King James Version is referenced suggests the English Standard Version will need no further revisions.  I hope I am misunderstanding this.

Permanent translations of anything are in principle impossible.  It really doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians or Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.  Language itself is not permanent.

Linguists use a concept known as “drift” to describe the impermanence.   Words come in and out of usage.   Sounds and pronunciations change.   Meanings shift.   Syntax changes.  I am told that use of writing slows this process down but does not eliminate it.   Which means writing that is “…unchanged for generations to come…” will become unintelligible to those generations, and rather quickly.   Writing from the 19th century is already hard going for most modern readers.[2]  Think about how many people you know that have actually read works by Herman Melville or Alexandre Dumas.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

If it were not for linguistic drift, English readers could still use the King James or Geneva bibles.   The texts could be cleaned up with current manuscript discoveries and they would good to go.  But since Crossway is presenting us with the permanent ESV those translations apparently were not sufficiently permanent.

The goal of translating any ancient text ought to be to make the original sense of that text available to a modern reader.  It really doesn’t matter whether that ancient text was written by Aristophanes or the Apostle Paul.

As it happens, the Koine Greek of New Testament is not the Classical Greek of Aristophanes, Homer, and Plato.   It eventually developed into the court and liturgical language in the Byzantine empire but its origin was the everyday marketplace Greek of the Hellenistic world.  A good bit of the New Testament was likely oral composition in this very ordinary language, dictated to an actual writer.[3]  It was then likely read out loud, to be heard and understood by groups of very ordinary people.

The problem for us modern ordinary people is that we lack the linguistic and cultural context of the ancient audiences.   Translation and the teaching and preaching that accompany it ought to be helping us engage that context, and hear what those ordinary people heard.  Without that help we are apt to read our own linguistic and cultural contexts back into the text.   And hear something quite different from what the author intended to communicate.

This is why linguistic drift is relevant.  Language shifts in meaning and our understanding of it is tethered to an advancing present.  And the shift will inevitably decouple our present understanding from the fixed written meaning anchored in an increasingly distant past.  Which means the success of any translation in accurately supporting a reader’s understanding of an ancient context is only temporary at best.

And an update.

It doesn’t appear to have taken Crossway very long to reverse course and and apparently drop the idea of “permanent.”  The text quoted above has been dropped and the following is from a statement by the publisher:

“Our goal at Crossway remains as strong as ever to serve future generations with a stable ESV text. But the means to that goal, we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”[4]

I am surprised it took a bit of controversy (see article) to figure out that inevitable changes in the language might be one factor necessitating updates to the translation.

But I’m neither a translator or a linguist so what do I know?


[1]  About the ESV. Crossway, 2016.  Retrieved from http://www.esv.org/about/ September 19, 2016.

[2]  There is also a matter of shrinking attention spans that impacts on this, as well (see Eighteen Minutes).  But the linguistic drift likely makes the attention issue harder to overcome.

[3]  There are several probable reference to an author’s use of a writer in the New Testament (known in the ancient world as an amanuensis):  Romans 16:22, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:16, 1 Peter 5:12, and Galatians 6:11.

The practice is likely to have been far more wide-spread than is first apparent, even among the literate, which St. Paul clearly was.  We are the children of the printing press and formatted text — our modern text-saturated culture really has no sense of the cognitive demands of writing and reading in the ancient world.  For a related discussion see this earlier post.

[4]  Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text. Crossway, 2016.  Retrieved from https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text/ September 28, 2016.