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Is the King dead?
on March 18, 2003
Is the NASB95 - the king of the literal bible translations dead? That must surely be the question on our minds. The answer is, "I'm not sure, but it's having a good run at it!".
Firstly my comparison - I compared 50 difficult verses. The NASB95 and ESV were way way out in front of all other versions in accuracy. I gave the NASB95 a couple of extra marks over the ESV, but there's not a lot in it.
Secondly, literalness. On a word for word basis the ESV actually seems a little more literal than the NASB95 in that it is much more thorough in translating all the little words, the "ands" and "buts" and so on, as well as allowing sentences to run on where they do in the original. On the other hand, the fact that it is a warmed over RSV shows through in a lot of verses that should ideally be re-worked in NASB style. However, the ESV sometimes seems to try harder in consistantly rendering the same Greek word as the same word in English - but not always, sometimes the NASB is more consistent. Conclusion - The ESV is more literal on the "forest scale", but the NASB is more literal in the "tree scale".
However, the NASB appears to be quite a bit more accurate with tenses. Sometimes these verses have important theological significance. e.g. Acts 13:48 NASB "had been appointed", and Mt 18:18 NASB "shall have been bound" are more accurate than the ESV equivilents which are carry overs from the RSV (and KJV).
Thirdly, readability. People are talking about the ESV being more readable than the NASB. I don't think there's a lot in it. The ESV has it's fair share of bloopers where the English is strained and the NASB is readable. Sometimes the NASB's lessor readability increases its literalness and correctness. Conclusion: I personally can't see the difference. If we could pick some verses from the ESV and some from the NASB we would probably approach perfection!
Fourthly, scholarship. The ESV has taken advantage of the latest scholarship, especially in Greek and this shines through in a number of difficult passages. The NASB95 seems overly conservative in this respect.
Fifthly, textually. The ESV seems to have greater respect for the standard Greek text - the UBS4. However, neither strictly adhere to UBS4. The ESV is more faithful to UBS4, from my count 16:31 or 16:40 if you count the bracketed  verses in the NASB. Conclusion: A plus for the ESV.
Sixthly, extra features. The ESV footnotes seem more helpful than the NASB95. The NASB is particularly poor at footnoting textual issues. On the other hand the NASB's use of italics for words not in the original language and the "*" tense asterisk to show words that were present tense in the original, emparts more information than the ESV. On the other hand, the ESV's extra literalness seems to have a little less need for the italics in places. The NASB capitalizes pronouns that refer to Christ or God. While one might regard these as an unnecessary interpretive gloss, they do improve comprehension, especially since a literal translation does not allow doing what the NIV would do, which is replace "He" with "Jesus" to clarify who is talking in long narratives. I didn't like this at first, but now I do, it's just another little feature that the NASB has to add information to the text without actually departing from literalness. Conclusion: NASB's extra features probably empart more information. The use of CAPS for Old Testament quotations is helpful in the NASB, and I like the italics and "*" tense indicator.
Formats: Some people are complaining that the NASB is printed verse by verse rather than paragraph style. Actually, only some NASBs are printed that way. If you don't like it (and I don't), buy the versions that are printed paragraph style. Visit Lockman's web site if you are unclear on that. As of now, the NASB is available in pocket formats and study bibles. The ESV is planned to offer these, but not as yet.
Overall Conclusion: It's very difficult to make up ones mind which is best. The arguments seem so finely balanced in either direction. The ESV is a fine effort and one of the best two translations available. I think, at least for the moment I'm going to go with the NASB. The extra features of the NASB95 text - CAPS for quotes and italics, plus a slight advantage in literalness and accuracy just beats the ESV - maybe. I can't rule out that I may change my mind later on. Reports of the King's death have been exagerated, but I just wish there was a translation that picked the best out of the NASB and ESV.