Monday, March 24, 2014

Guest Post: US vs. UK editions of the NRSV

Thanks to reader Jason for this guest post.

My preferred translation of the Bible is the NRSV (the REB/NEB are a close second and the NIV’84 comes in third).  But, because the NRSV is not as commercially successful as many of the evangelical translations (NIV, ESV, NKJV, etc etc), it is difficult to find beautiful editions.  Most publishers stopped publishing nice leather NRSV Bibles in the late ‘90s, and the leather-bound NRSV Bibles published today almost always use the Anglicized text, which was released in ’95.

So, I happily bought up a number of fine leather Anglicized NRSV Bibles under the assumption, as advertised, that the only difference between the update and the original was spelling and punctuation (and, as I learned later, tweaks to how Brits spell out numbers that differs from the American format).  Indeed, in the “Preface to the NRSV Anglicized Edition” that is printed in each such Bible, you will find this critical text:

“All those participating in the process of ‘anglicization’ accepted that no attempt could be made to alter the basic translation in any way; their responsibility was simply to render words that might otherwise be uncertain or awkward into the best generally acceptable equivalent in British usage, whilst at the same time adjusting appropriate points of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.”

Hold on….  There’s more there in that sentence than spelling and punctuation.  There’s grammar, as well as this vague notion of rendering “uncertain or awkward” words into something more “acceptable”.

The next paragraph in that document outlines how spelling and grammar were modified to conform to British norms, but then the following paragraph goes into more detail about how some words might be altered completely if the American idiom did not match common British understanding.  They use the example of replacing “sea” with “lake” when referring to the Sea of Galilee and explain why.  Well, it was a logical explanation, but it’s just one example.  What else did they change?

But then we reach the killer sentence: “Many smaller alterations have been made,…”  Adding to that vague statement is the complete lack of any resource anywhere that outlines, in full, every change made.

For the longest time, this did not bother me.  I didn’t really care that much, and for the most part I tended to only focus on the typical marketing info that only indicated the spelling and punctuation differences.  That is, until the day I saw my first significant difference in the text.  It may seem like a small thing, but it really shocked me when I came across a passage in the OT in the Anglicized edition that had re-rendered “slave girl” (US version) into “serving maid” (UK version).  That’s not documented anywhere, and I don’t see how that alteration is necessary in any way.  “Slave girl” is quite clear.  Maybe it is too blunt for a British audience, but that is the more accurate translation.

After that discovery, I started to pay very close attention to the words in my Anglicized NRSV Bibles.  Maybe I shouldn’t have, ignorance is bliss after all.  But I found a major change in a critical passage that makes it possible to dramatically change the meaning.  Romans 3:21 in the US edition reads as follows:

"But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,”

While the UK edition renders that line as:

"But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,”

And that one change, “irrespective” instead of “apart from” ruined the Anglicized NRSV for me.  Maybe - BIG maybe - the two phrases are functionally equivalent between the two versions of English, yet when I read “apart from law” I think of something that is separate from the law, while “irrespective of law” has a negative connotation of disrespect, without regard, heedless, without consideration.  To me, that’s a major alteration.

Then I undertook a very careful line-by-line comparison, limited to Romans and 1 & 2 Corinthians (not much free time with 3 kids and a full-time job and a couple volunteer positions).  I found dozens of spelling differences, about as many instances where various prepositions are added without affecting meaning.  But I also found what I consider to be significant words changes that, like Romans 3:21, alter meaning: Romans 11:18, 1 Corinthians 1:10 and 10:24 and 15:8 are less serious, 2 Corinthians 11:32 also bothered me.  I can only guess how many other such changes are present elsewhere in the Anglicized NRSV.

How can I trust the Anglicized NRSV when there is the potential for an unknown number of major textual changes that some editor might have chosen to sneak in when this revision took place?  It does not bother me at all that the REB and the NIV and many other translations render this passage slightly differently, and yet it really disturbs me that this translation is still marketed as and claims to be the NRSV when it is not.

I still love the NRSV and still reach for it first when it comes to my daily reading and study.  I still recommend the NRSV to friends and family when they ask my opinion.  Now, though, I always make the distinction between the original NRSV and the Anglicized edition; I simply can't trust the Anglicized NRSV and no longer read from it.


Ted said...

Can someone please explain for me
... if British readers need anglicized editions of US bibles why do we never get americanized editions of the NEB and REB?

Theophrastus said...

It is not hard to find the differences between the NRSV and NRSV-A in any single chapter using online tools.

Open two tabs on your browser and open them both at and choose the NRSV in tab and the NRSV-A in other tab. Search for the chapter(s) in both pages. Click on the "make Quicklink" button near the top of each page in both tabs.

Open a third tab and point it at

Copy the two quicklinks (one for the NRSV and one for the NRSV-A) into the two fields for URLs to compare on the page.

Click the "Compare Page" box near the bottom of the page, and the browser will display the full list of changes between the two versions in that chapter.

Michael Demers said...


Anonymous said...

I like the NRSV but never cared for the Anglicized edition, which (to my understanding) was simply created by the folks at Oxford - and not done by the NRSV translators.

Similar criticisms can possibly be made about the RSV-2CE, but I think Ignatius Press did a better job overall, which was broader in scope than revising for a different dialect.

Michael P.

Jay said...

@Ted: Because not enough people in the United States want to read a British Bible.

rolf said...

Ted, I agree. Lets tell the Brits (Cambridge & Oxford) that we want a new edition of the REB for us cousins 'over the pond'. The REB-A (Americanized)!!!

hoshie said...

Jason: With apologies to Bill Clinton, I feel your pain when to comes to descent NRSV Bibles. It took me a good six years to find a good quality NRSV. The one I ended up with was The Access Bible in hardcover. I suspect the reason we didn't see nicer NRSV Bibles years ago is due to the fact that conservative Christians and evangelicals have rejected the translation. Since they buy more Bibles, the market follows them. Your observations about the differences between the US/UK NRSVs is a surprise. Like you, I'd always thought the UK NRSV removed Americanisms and things like that. One of the notable ones I can think of is in the book of 4 Maccabees. The late Bruce Metzger wrote in his book "The Bible in Translation" that a passage in the book used the phrase "angels on horseback". In the UK this refers to a side dish. As a result this was changed to "angels mounted on horses".

Theophrastus: Here's a way to search and read both NRSVs. Go to Bible Gateway. Choose ether the UK or US NRSV. Once you get to the page, clck the parallel button to chose ether the US or UK NRSV. This will make it easier to search and read both of them.

rolf: I have to disagree with a need for an Americanized REB. Personally, I can understand it just fine. The only sticky points were the "verily" passages in John. The NEB is a different story.

rolf said...

Hoshie, In regards to the REB-A, it was sort of a joke. The REB does read very well and most of the time you don't notice the British flavor. But then you come to a key word in a passage that you have never heard before. Here are a couple of examples:

Isa 2:4; 'He will judge between nations as arbiter among many peoples. They will beat their swords into [mattocks] and their spears into pruning-knives; nation will not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war.'

Acts 5:30; 'The God of our fathers raised up Jesus; after you put him to death by hanging him on a [Gibbet]...'

Now when you look these words up in the dictionary, you find that they are appropriate, but to us average non-scholarly American Bible readers they kind of throw a momentary stumbling block in your reading.

But that said, I like the REB very much. I am reading out of it right now for my daily readings. Once you understand the meanings of these words and see them more frequently, you get comfortable with the translation.

CarlHernz said...

Great post on the differences between the American and Anglicized versions.

In the Queen's English one does not say “apart from the law,” because the expression “apart from” in British usage means “in addition to” or “as well as.”

This would mean that the verse would mean “But now, IN ADDITION TO law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets...” And that wouldn't be correct.

Therefore as you can see the change was necessary. We Americans read “apart” as one word and “from” as another, but the British use “apart from” as a single expression with a totally different meaning.

By the way, the expression “irrespective” has nothing to do with “respect” in American English usage. As used in the USA, it means “notwithstanding” or “without connection to.”

But for what it is worth, except for the absence of the American usage of the word “gotten” in the NRSV-A (a usage now deemed archaic, but not at the time of the production of the NRSV), I do not care much for the Anglicized NRSV myself.

Llanbedr said...


As an Englishman I can assure you that we get a very large dose of 'Americanese' in both our Bibles and literature in general.

When I was an Undergraduate there was a certain professor (who shall remain nameless) who taught medieval languages (Anglo-Saxon, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Middle-High German) and was a sci-fi fan on the side. A friend of mine who also liked science-fiction borrowed a rather large novel from him one summer and discovered as he read that this chap had crossed out all of the Americanisms and rendered them into the Queen's English. He was very eccentric. As an Undergraduate I had assumed he was in his sixties at least, but ten years later I ended up teaching in the same department as him and discovered that he had been only 30yrs old at the time. It transpired that he had corrected every Americanism in every single book in his personal library.

Do I win anything for the longest digression in the history of this blog, Tim?

P.S. Rule Brittania!

Timothy said...

No problem with the digression. Thankfully you didn't regard us as "the colonies" which would have be unbearable. ;)

Verum Laicus said...

Here's what I get from Oxford University Press:

"Since its first publication in the United Kingdom in 1990, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has established itself as one of the finest modern translations of the biblical text ever produced. Already extensively used in theological faculties in major universities and colleges, this version is not only ideal for academic work, but also lends itself perfectly to liturgical worship, group Bible study in parishes, and personal reading.

Oxford University Press is proud to announce the publication of a new Anglicized edition of the highly-respected text. The work of Anglicization has been undertaken in full-co-operation with the leading American academics responsible for the original work of translation. By this means, the foundational scholarship which underpins the NRSV has been safeguarded, but enhanced for readers in the UK, and other countries where British usage is preferred.

The changes made to the text do not impair the translation, but rather ensure that the meaning is immediately clear for the reader. This is particular useful in public worship, where the natural flow of the language is vitally important, and in personal use, where unfamiliar phrases will no longer interrupt the reader's concentration."

This might settle the unrest.