Translation Comparisons in Isaiah 63

Translation Comparisons in Isaiah 63

Why Isaiah 63? Well, I was reading it in Hebrew for my devotional time this morning, and then I compared some modern versions purported to be readable, and I thought it would be valuable to provide a complete comparison.

Note that I’m not attempting to provide a comprehensive list. I’m just comparing some poetic and idiomatic phrases that caught my eye. The versions I will use here are the ESV, TNIV, CEV, and NCV. Of these, I have recommended the TNIV, CEV, and NCV as options for outreach Bibles, that is, Bibles suitable for people who are not well versed in the church environment and dialect.

I would first note that all four of these versions capitalize “Holy Spirit” suggesting divinity in an Old Testament passage in which this was likely not in view. That is not terribly surprising, but it does illustrate the evangelical Christian roots of all four of these versions.

I am only going to post the phrases I’m comparing, so you may need to get out your own Bible and work with the context.

Verse Version Phrase;
1 ESV crimsoned garments
TNIV garments stained crimson
CEV clothes stained red
NCV dressed in red
In this verse, the ESV strikes me as not quite being English, and I’m not certain of the value of its text in literal terms. Just what does “crimsoned” mean? I believe I know, but I read the text in Hebrew first. The NRSV uses “garments stained crimson” just as the TNIV does. Both the CEV and the NCV simplify with “red.” There is a significant difference in meaning between “clothes stained red” and “dressed in red.” In context one can still get the picture, but the phrase itself is a bit weak. I give the CEV points for both “clothes” and “stained.”
2 ESV and your garments like his who treads in the winepress
TNIV like those of one treading the winepress
CEV your clothes look stained from stomping on grapes
NCV as if you had walked on the grapes to make wine
The ESV wording in this verse is extremely awkward, and I don’t think they gain poetic value from it, though it does follow the KJV tradition “and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat.” TNIV is again content to provide natural English, though treading the winepress is no longer a common term. NCV is the most explanatory.
9 ESV In all their affliction he was afflicted
TNIV In all their distress, he too was distressed
CEV It troubled the Lord to see them in trouble
NCV When they suffered, he suffered also
This is another completely non-radical rendering by the TNIV. CEV and NCV are much bolder, and with good effect, in my view. I would ask the ESV translators whether when their child is in pain they would say, “In all your affliction I am afflicted,” or whether they might instead say “I’m hurting with you” or something similar.
10 ESV and grieved his Holy Spirit
TNIV and grieved his Holy Spirit
CEV and made his Holy Spirit sad
NCV and made his Holy Spirit very sad
One thing I’m noticing in this chapter is how frequently the TNIV and ESV have the same reading. With all the exaggerated criticism, you might expect more radical renderings from the TNIV team, but they seem quite restrained.
14 ESV to make for yourself a glorious name
TNIV to make for yourself a glorious name
CEV The name of the Lord was praised for doing these things.
NCV and by this you won for yourself wonderful fame
Note that the CEV rendering combines thoughts in different lines of Hebrew poetry and thus doesn’t fully correspond with the phrase cited from the other versions. NCV conveys the information that “name” in this context refers to fame or reputation.
15 ESV the stirring of your inner parts
TNIV Your tenderness
CEV Show us that you care about us
NCV your love
This is a clear instance of an idiom translated word for word in the ESV, but idiomatically in the other three versions. The difference in the amount of text I quoted is based on other issues in the translation of the verse, in which the CEV and NCV both deal with repetition in poetic lines by combing them into more standard English style. That type of translation of Hebrew poetry, which loses the form, but may well convey the meaning more clearly is not my topic here.
17 ESV and harden our heart, so that we fear you not
TNIV and harden our hearts so we do not revere you
CEV Why did you make us want to disobey you?
NCV Why do you make us stubborn so that we don’t honor you?
Again, combination of parallel thoughts into single elements tends to make it difficult to quote precisely the phrase desired. I think TNIV’s “revere” is better than “fear” in this context.

I would have just a few observations on this. First, of course, studying a few instances that caught my eye in a single chapter does not fully characterize Bible versions. That should be obvious, but I don’t want there to be any mistake.

Second, one of the clearest differences between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence comes in the translation of idioms. Do we preserve the source language idiom, however little sense it may make in the target language, or do we find a good target language idiom to convey the same meaning. Depending on what the reader is looking for, one could answer that question either way. The ESV consistently translates idioms word for word in this chapter, while the TNIV takes a few steps away from that, but the NCV and the CEV generally seek a new idiomatic way of expression.

While it was not my focus for this comparison, the same differences could be noticed in handling poetic lines. ESV and generally TNIV reflect the Hebrew poetic lines, while the NCV and CEV scramble them as necessary to express the meaning. That conveys certain elements of meaning to audiences who are not acquainted with Hebrew parallelism–a very large percentage of Bible readers–but at the same time it loses the opportunity to see the structure of the Hebrew poetry.

The differences occur on a scale, i.e. there is not a clean break between the two styles of translation. If you compare the CEV and the ESV, it looks like two completely different approaches, but the TNIV is somewhat mediating, and I know that if I added several more translations, the scale would be even more evident.

Being aware of such differences, we can more intelligently select a Bible version for any particular setting and use.

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