Brief Thoughts on the International Standard Version

This short review of the ISV continues my series of brief thoughts on Bible translations. The ISV is a recent and little known translation that deserves praise for its vivid, imaginative passages rooted in excellent scholarship. Since the Old Testament portion is not yet complete, these comments are restricted to the New Testament only.

On the scale of free to literal, the ISV occupies a position somewhere close to the NIV although it would appear that certain books, such as Romans, are more literal than, say, Acts. I take no issue with this, and it is something that the translators of the HCSB attempt also with their “optimal equivalence” approach whereby some passages are distinctly more literal than others.

The ISV is noticeable in making a serious attempt to reproduce poetic stanzas in English. At times, this is very successful as in 1 Timothy 1:15 which reads:

“To this world Messiah came,
sinful people to reclaim”

Elsewhere, however, the attempts at rhyming poetry seem somewhat forced and hence a little artificial as in Matthew 16:2 which has Jesus addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees with:

“Red sky at night,
what a delight!
Red sky in the morning,
cloudy and storming.”

Word Choices

For the most part, the ISV is notably vivid and imaginative when rendering verses. Often, there’s a significant departure from traditional or mainstream Bible translations (e.g KJV, NIV, ESV) and this is particularly pleasing when it is both faithful and readable. Consider the following examples:

“Hoping in spite of hopeless circumstances, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations'”(Romans 4:18)
“So it is not surprising if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their doom will match their deeds!” (2 Corinthians 11:15)

Sometimes, there are commendable word choices not normally found in other Bible translations. For example, in Romans 1:17, the ISV has Paul describing the Christians in Rome as “called to be holy”, as opposed to “called to be saints” as found in the majority of translations. The ISV translation is arguably just as accurate yet less likely to be misleading.

Another example can be found in Ephesians 1:9 where the Greek musterion is translated “secret” instead of the more usual “mystery.” This may well be an improvement on the traditional translations which normally speak of “the mystery of his will.”

Here’s another example: compare these translations of 1 Peter 2:2:
“Like newborn babies, thirst for the pure milk of the word” (ISV)
“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk” (TNIV)

Virtually all translations opt for something akin to the TNIV but the ISV does something slightly different: it does not have the word “spiritual” but introduces, “of the word.” Here, the ISV understands the usage of Greek logikos to mean that the milk pertains to the word. This is quite plausible and seems to me to be correct.

Unfortunately, there are times when the ISV seems to go too far in its attempt to be novel or innovative. In John 15:1, we find Jesus declaring, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vintner.” A vintner is normally understood to be someone who sells wine and I doubt that Jesus intends us to see God the Father as a wine merchant. Much better choices can be found in the ESV (vinedresser) or NIV (gardener) or HCSB (vineyard keeper).

Continuous Action
One other aspect that is distinctive about the ISV is the frequent use of English constructions that reflect continuous action. This can be a helpful approach since it draws out some of the otherwise hidden meanings but the problem is there’s always a possibility of exaggerating the impact of the Greek. Here are some examples where I think it’s successful:

“Then his mother and his brothers arrived. Milling around outside, they sent for him, continually summoning him.” (Mark 3:31)
“Again the voice came to him a second time, ‘You must stop calling unclean what God has made clean.'” (Acts 10:13)
“If we make it our habit to confess our sins, in his faithful righteousness he forgives us for those sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Use of English
The website makes a bold claim about the ISV’s use of English: “You won’t find slang, national colloquialisms, or confusing regionalisms.” It’s an admirable goal but there’s still some work to go. As a Brit, the translation sounds distinctly American, more so than other international translations [the ESV and NIV and others have anglicised editions]. Here are just a few examples of verses that don’t sound right to British ears:

“the thorn bushes grew higher and choked them out” (Matt 13:7)
“they went outside and proceeded one block when the angel suddenly left him” (Acts 12:10)
“but after they had gotten a bond from Jason and the others they let them go.” (Acts 17:9)
“Ananias arrived with certain elders and Tertullius, an attorney” (Acts 24:1)
“so that we may not be outsmarted by Satan.” (2 Cor 2:11)
“So if we were crazy, it was for God; if we are sane, it is for you.” (2 Cor 5:13)

The Web Site
There is one issue which I admit to some frustration with: the somewhat immodest tone of the website which detracts from a thoroughly professional translation effort. There are numerous instances of statements that verge on being pompous or arrogant and I fear that it has the effect of turning people away. For example, on one page, rather than referring to another translation by name, they label it as “insert 3-letter abbreviation for name of dopey paraphrase.” Elsewhere, publicly replying to communication in this manner is, I suggest, wholly unnecessary and doesn’t help promote the ISV.

With respect to the New Testament translation, I think it’s a worthy addition to a growing list of recent, English Bible translations. There are few things that need ironing out (incl. typos in Gal 3:20; Heb 10:26; Rev 10:10) but it’s certainly commendable in its present state.

Andy Cheung is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham researching Bible Translation, and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School in the UK.

  1. Andy,
    Interesting stuff, thanks.
    I agree about the Americanism, it could really grate, and the website is very odd indeed – I think they might need a little marketing advice and a spot of teaching on graciousness…

  2. The literary Bible: Deeds of doom! « He is Sufficient - pingback on May 21, 2008 at 5:27 am

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