Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Holman Christian Standard Bible

About a month ago I posted my thoughts on Bible translation philosophy including a chart giving the range of many popular translations between the two opposing extremes of word-for-word translation and thought-for-thought translation. The two extremes are also sometimes called formal equivalence (word-for-word) and dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought).

Looking at the diagram now, I think it would be more clear if the "Thought-for-Thought" label were moved to the right so that it was directly over TNIV. The NIV was pretty much right between the two extremes, but the TNIV has moved toward dynamic equivalence.

I think it is possible to balance both sides well. On the one hand, we want an accurate translation, but on the other hand, it must be readable and as easily understood as possible. Most translations sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

I recently acquired another fairly new evangelical Christian translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. It first came out in 2004, but I hadn't really looked at it to evaluate the translation until now. I'm glad that there have been a number of really good new English versions that have come out in the last several years -- the English Standard Version (ESV), the New Living Translation (NLT), and now the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Any one of these translations deserves the #1 spot among evangelical Christians more than the New International Version (NIV). The updated NIV, Today's New International Version (TNIV), doesn't come close to making the cut.

If market share of the bible business can be gauged by shelf space given to the version in any bookstore, then the NIV is very dominant, and the ESV and HCSB aren't getting the attention they deserve.

In my opinion, the HCSB translators have successfully balanced between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence with a translation philosophy they call "optimal equivalence." The HCSB is very readable. I can tell immediately that they were very concerned with using contemporary English with good English grammar and style. Like the NLT, their philosophy is to give the literal rendering when it makes sense, and to give a more idiomatic rendering when the literal meaning would not be as clear. I would place the HCSB on the spectrum between the ESV and the NIV, probably just to the left of the NIV.

One useful feature of the HCSB is that they place words added for clarity in small brackets. That adds to their accuracy because the reader can see when words that are not explicitly in the original have been added, usually for grammatical reasons.

Since they attempt to be idiomatic at times, the translation has the same issue of all meaning-based translations -- they regularly limit the potential meaning of a verse to what they think it means. In other words, they do the bulk of the work of interpretation for you and remove some of the ambiguity inherent in the text. Some translations do that work poorly (i.e., NIV, CEV, The Message), but some do it very well (i.e., HCSB and NLT).

The HCSB is one of several brand-new translations that have been finished recently. The first complete edition of the NET Bible was available in 2001. As far as I know, they only intend for it to be an online resource. The International Standard Version (ISV) is still in progress -- 83% done as of today. Unfortunately, they still think they're undertaking the first wholly new translation in decades (or at least their director said as much about a year ago - possibly he'd been too busy to hear about the HCSB and the NET Bible).

Before this current crop of "from-scratch" translations, the NIV from 1973 was the last completely new English version. So, it was definitely time for a version in today's English and the HCSB fits the bill. While the ESV is still my personal favorite because of its greater accuracy, I feel confident recommending the HCSB for anyone wanting an accurate but more idiomatic translation.


  1. You wrote "The International Standard Version (ISV) is still in progress -- 83% done as of today. Unfortunately, they still think they're undertaking the first wholly new translation in decades (or at least their director said as much about a year ago - possibly he'd been too busy to hear about the HCSB and the NET Bible)."
    You make want to re-check their website. This is what is on their own website "Holman Christian Standard Bible: A new, mediating translation that attempted to be as accurate as the NASB and as readable as the NIV. The HCSB made a worthy attempt and is accurate and quite readable (the translation uses natural English for the most part). The translation's weaknesses are two fold: it uses alternate translations to a fault and the English is often choppy (English stylists did not do their job as well as they did on the NIV)."
    "New English Translation: A new mediating translation which made the same attempts at accuracy and readability as the HCSB, but also included generous doses of academic paraphrase (dynamic equivalence translation theory) and gender modified language. The translation has the most extensive translation notes of any version, but the translation's English is inconsistent and the extensive use of gender modified language diminishes its reliability."
    If this is on the ISV own website it is very hard to make the claim that they have never heard of the HCSB which is the Holman Christian Standard Bible and NET which is the New English Translation.

  2. Randy, thank you for the clarification. Of course, I didn't actually believe that the scholars behind the ISV were ignorant of the existence of other translations. It was a tongue-in-cheek comment meant to highlight his claim as either ignorance or overstatement. For the record, the comments you quoted were from Brian Moyer on the ISV website's version comparison page( As far as I know, he is not part of their organization; they were just repeating his comments. On the whole, I found his comments on the different versions insightful and fair, though I would give a higher grade to the ESV.
    My comment about the ISV's ignorance of those versions was based on this quote: “This is not a revision, but an entirely new translation from the original languages—the first time this has been done in decades,” says Dr. William Welty, Executive Director of the ISV Foundation. (
    Maybe that was true in 1995 when they started their work, but it was an unusual statement to make in 2007. Finally in my own defense if I had meant my comment literally, it would be possible for someone in the ISV organization to put material on their website showing awareness of those versions while Dr. Welty himself was in fact unaware of them. It's possible.