The English Standard Version (ESV) is published by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good New Publishers in Wheaton, Il. The ESV is essentially an updated RSV. It's been very well marketed, and generally well received. I purchased a copy in June of 2006, because I was interested to see whether this new translation would be appropriate as my main Bible.
My ESV is the Classic Reference TruTone Edition. It's bound nicely in a faux leather, which is supple right out of the box. The font size is decent, the Bible is actually nicely laid out. In fact, this is really what "thinline" Bibles should be: soft and compact without looking and feeling cheap. I paid around $20 for my ESV.
The ESV is essentially an updated RSV, with words like "virgin" re-inserted. It might be closer to KJV than the RSV is, but it is based on RSV.
I like the ESV. At times, I've been very happy with it, at other times I've found it disappointing. I've read the Epistles, and Genesis through Jeremiah so far (I'm in the last three chapters of Jeremiah in my reading right now); so I have an idea how it reads, and I've noticed some quirks that will prevent me from adopting it as my main Bible.
The ESV is billed as an "essentially literal" translation, and the Preface and Foreword take some shots at so-called "Dynamic Equivalence" that translations like NIV use. Personally, I have no use for an NIV, but I found the "essentially literal" translation philosophy of the ESV to be not literal enough.
I really like what the ESV tries to do: be a literal translation like NASB, but use language that looks and reads like real English. They do a decent job in places, but I found too many exceptions. Rather than produce a learned and scholarly analysis (which I'm not qualified to do anyway), I'll provide a few examples with some commentary.
Let me offer this caveat at the outset: the biggest problem in my ESV is, they don't mark inserted words with italics (as the KJV and NASB do), nor with brackets (as the Darby does). So there is nothing on the page to indicate a deviation from the text, unless there is a footnote. This is a major problem, and makes my ESV completely unsuitable for a study Bible. It may be that a "study" edition would correct this, but I can only speak for the ESV I've been reading.
The most annoying feature is the apparently gratuitous changes in the text, which appear unnecessary. Other translations offer a literal rendition of these, why won't an "essentially literal" translation?
Example: Hebrews 10: 12
"But when Christ* had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God," (ESV)
"But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;" (KJV)
"but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD," (NASB)
The ESV rendition of this verse replaces the "he" in the Greek text with "Christ". This is indicated by a footnote in the ESV. Now, we can all agree that this in no way changes the meaning of the text, but it's hardly "essentially literal" to insert a proper noun in the place of a pronoun! This is a pattern in the ESV, other sightings include Exodus 13:19; 1 Chronicles 21:26; Luke 22:8;
Example: 2 Samuel 6:22
"I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your* eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor." (ESV)
"And I will yet be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight: and of the maidservants which thou hast spoken of, of them shall I be had in honour." (KJV)
"I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes, but with the maids of whom you have spoken, with them I will be distinguished." (NASB)
The ESV indicates by a footnote that they substituted "your" for "my". Why? Both KJV and NASB render it literally as "my". Why does ESV change it? How is this "essentially literal"?
Romans 6 is interesting in the ESV: the literal "old man" of the KJV and NASB is replaced by the paraphrase "old self". Very metaphysical, but hardly literal, and not any clearer to an English speaker. (See Romans 6:6 and following). A footnote in the ESV indicates that "man" is the literal translation, rather than "self".
1 Corinthians 11:1--16 is almost comical. They insist on rendering "gyne" as "wife", except in vv. 8, 9, 11, 12, 15. This is not necessarily wrong: "gyne" can properly be translated "woman" or "wife". But the fact that five verses clearly mean "woman" and not "wife" would indicate that the proper translation of "gyne" in this passage is "woman". That's what both the KJV and the NASB translators did. Instead, ESV uses two distinct English words to translate a single Greek word throughout the entire argument. I understand "wife" is a more politically correct translation, but in this case, it's hard (or impossible) to justify.
There are other obvious flaws I found when reading through the ESV, but these are the ones that have stayed in my mind. In the end, my ESV would be a much better Bible just for having italics or brackets to mark inserted words.
As it is, I have to refer to footnotes too frequently to check whether a word has changed. It makes my Bible reading less enjoyable.
On the other hand, the English in this Bible really is good, and its text is very readable. In fact, this is a great Bible for just reading. And I think too often we try and "study" our Bibles, rather than just reading them, but I digress.
My recommendation? If you like Bibles, like I do, it's worth picking one up and reading it through. This is becoming a widely accepted translation, and it would be wise to at least have access to one. But for serious study, this Bible would end up with a lot of ink in the margins, correcting gratuitous word changes. It's not as bad as NIV, but I think NASB or even a venerable KJV is a much better choice.