Bill Mounce answers a question about the ESV handling of Romans 2:27, 29 in Conflicting Translation Procedures on the Koinonia blog (you can also find it at Bill and Bob’s Blog). The ESV, in these verses, chose to use different English words to translate the same Greek word. He defends this choice by highlighting the following list of procedures to keep in mind when making translation decisions:
1. Concordance. As much as possible, use the same English word for the same Greek word so the user can follow the authors train of thought, as long as doing so does not misrepresent the semantic range of the Greek word.
2. One for one. Prefer a single word translation for one Greek word.
3. Less interpretive. While all translations are interpretive, the ESV prefers the less interpretive. Written code is more interpretive; letter is less.
4. Euphony. The single word letter provides a nice poetic balance to the single word Spirit in 2 Cor 3:6. (The NIV/TNIV do the same.)
5. Must make some sense. But wait! Theres more! (Sounds like a Greek infomercial.) Why does the ESV use written code in Rom 2:27. Because saying you who have the written letter and circumcision makes no sense. Now granted, the ESV is content to make its readers work a little to understand the text, just as Paul was content to make his readers work a little to understand the text. But letter just sounds weird.
6. Open to misunderstanding. The ESV is especially sensitive to this problem, a problem all formal translations share. If the ESV read, you who have the letter and circumcision but break the law, would people unfamiliar with Pauls theology think of an actual letter?
What would you prioritize in translating a text (Hebrew or Greek)? Would you add anything to his list?