Reading the NASB again for the first [and last] time

by on August 30, 2013

When I was in high school my Bible translation of choice was the New American Standard Bible (NASB), proudly touted by many as the best literal, word-for-word rendering of the original languages. I knew precious little about translation theory, no more Greek than the alphabet, and no Hebrew at all. But I “knew” it was an improvement over the King James or the “nearly inspired version”.

That was a long time ago, and many things have changed since. In college I began using the English Standard Version (ESV), an evangelical revision of the RSV (now that’s another story…), and my NASB gathered dust. I also went on to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and begin a doctoral program in Old Testament from which I hope to emerge in the next year.

As a part of my regular pattern of reading the Bible through in English I have on the last few go arounds picked a certain translation to read cover-to-cover, and have done so now with the ESV, the NET (don’t get me started!), and the 2011 NIV (which was a pleasant surprise). I’m now somewhere in the middle of Isaiah working through the NASB, “reading it again for the first time.” This will also most likely be the last time.

The NASB is weird. Deliberately so, at times, I think. It is also very stilted. I knew this going in (this isn’t the first time I’ve read it through, though it’s been years). Even so, the oddness struck me rather forcefully in working through the Psalms (which is my area of specialization). You don’t have to finish even a first year of any foreign language study to know that one-to-one correspondence does not work, but the NASB tries, anyway. Or so it says. That’s where it gets really weird. Have a look at Proverbs 26:4–5! Here is how it is rendered in the NASB:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves, That he not be wise in his own eyes.

Why does this bother me? First of all, there is absolutely no basis in the Hebrew text for the difference between the red portions—they are precisely the same phrase. Compare the rendering in, say, the ESV:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

The KJV, HCSB, NIV, NET, etc. all do something similar (the NRSV, too, aside from turning “fool” into “fools” to be sure ladies are included). And for those who want to see it in the Hebrew, here you go (let’s see how your browser handles mixed right-to-left text and html tags!):

אַל־תַּעַן כְּסִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ פֶּן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לּוֹ גַם־אָתָּה׃
עֲנֵה כְסִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ פֶּן־יִהְיֶה חָכָם בְּעֵינָיו׃

I feel betrayed (or maybe just very severely irritated). Am I overreacting? Well, consider: a translation more like the latter leaves apparent the play between these verses. The NASB deliberately masks what I suppose it understands as a (possible) contradiction. Which leads to some other reasons I think it’s a terrible thing to do.

  • The approach of the NASB here is dishonest (or, perhaps less harshly, disingenuous). It hides what is said, and does not, as it claims for itself, allow (semi-)transparent access to the original language.
  • On that note, in these verses the NASB is violating its own principles with respect to rendering words, etc., in a consistent manner.
  • This pair of verses provides a wonderful window into Old Testament wisdom literature and how it works, but much less clearly in the NASB.

Let me expand that last point a bit more. Wisdom literature is a tough nut to crack, for a lot of reasons. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes alternates between sounding like a cynic, a moralist, a hedonist, and a hopeless optimist/pessimist. Solomon in Proverbs seems to have almost exclusively good days; Job has a particularly bad one. Song of Songs makes everyone blush (especially if you read it in Hebrew, let me tell you!). Why do these things get lumped together, and how do they “work”?

Part of the answer is that wisdom is applied. Yes, wisdom literature has a category for a person who knows and does not do (or does wrongly) (or just does not know): it is a four-letter word that starts with “f”. And applying wisdom requires discernment, which is another word for wisdom. We see that on display for us in the juxtaposition of these verses: answering a fool requires discernment. The appropriate response when one fool runs his mouth is not necessarily appropriate on another occasion. (Though on all occasions we should pity the fool.) (Sorry.) (OK, not really.) The NASB obscures this feature of wisdom literature that is otherwise so poignantly portrayed here by going out of its way to make two identical phrases look like they are in fact different. (Again, perhaps because of a misguided understanding of Proverbs and/or Hebrew poetry, they felt a need to relieve what they understood as a contradiction?)

Yes, I am being overly harsh on the NASB for the sake of making a point. On the one hand, there is no substitute for learning the original languages. But it is also instructive to see how a translation that markets itself based on a literalistic word-for-word approach will abandon that approach without warning. Even as someone who thinks that approach is fundamentally misguided, I’d prefer to see consistency!

Yes, part of the phrase in its second instance is in italics, and the two renderings are not vastly different. But they are different enough to trigger certain reactions in the reader, reactions that make it much more difficult to see through the hidden layers of interpretation to what is going on in the text.

The NASB has its place among other English translations, I suppose, but should not be read in isolation from them. But for my own part, I’m not likely to pick it up again.

[Edited after a few hours’ sleep to be a little less harsh on the NASB.]