My relationship with the Steinsaltz Talmud has always been ambiguous. In high school, those of us placed in the less ambitious Jewish Studies track solely used the Steinsaltz edition, with the vowels and Hebrew translation enabling easier, if less traditional, study. I saw this edition as a symbol of scholarly inadequacy which I strove to overcome, eventually with success as I switched to the other track and studied from the traditional Vilna edition of the Talmud.
On the other hand, I have fond memories of my grandfather poring over the Steinsaltz volumes, having returned to Talmud study late in life. With fluency in Hebrew he acquired during his decades in Israel, the Steinsaltz edition allowed him to easily understand the back-and-forth arguments of the ancient Aramaic text. After he died, I inherited a number of such volumes, which I treasure but never open.
I have personal connections to the Koren Steinsaltz edition, as well. R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the General Editor, is a man whom I know personally, respect tremendously and occasionally turn to for advice. The Content Editor, R. Shalom Z. Berger, was my ninth grade Talmud instructor. And I worked closely with the leaders of the Koren team on a number of projects, particularly the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, for which I am credited as Senior Editor. Yes, plenty of bias here so proceed with caution.
My high school experience was not long after R. Elazar Shach denounced the Steinsaltz edition as unbefitting yeshiva students. (If memory serves me correctly, this was not a ban.) I understand why he felt this way. A translation is a barrier. It mediates between the student and the text, preventing complete engagement. You can only truly master an ancient text if you understand its original language. While you do not generally see yeshiva students rushing to learn Judeo-Arabic in order to fully appreciate Medieval philosophical works like Moreh Nevukhim and Kuzari, they refrain because they place the Talmud in a class of its own, at the pinnacle of traditional Jewish scholarly achievement.
This is also why I rarely use an Artscroll Talmud. The English translation is sometimes helpful when I struggle with a difficult word, but the barrier to the original text leads to lesser scholarship. In this respect, the Koren Steinsaltz Talmud is no different. It is merely a translation.
However, the Koren Steinsaltz adopts a unique approach that even I can endorse. Artscroll shows the Vilna page next to the English translation. Realistically, most users focus on the translation because it is always right in front of you. Koren Steinsaltz puts the entire original text as a continuos book on the right side of the volume and the Aramaic with English translation on the left. You can easily study from the Vilna page — with vowels added — on the right side and when you have difficulty with a word, flip to the English section (corresponding page numbers are added to the bottom of the page). And when you are done with the text and Rashi, and maybe even Tosafos, you can check what comments R. Steinsaltz added. I think this arrangement is a great improvement over all previous translations.
The Artscroll includes Aramaic phrases in its English translation. I had assumed that this would help students learn the language. As they see these words in Aramaic and then in English, the familiarity and language skills should grow. In my experience, this does not work and students gloss over the Aramaic, never mastering the language. The Koren Steinsaltz uses blocks of sentences in Aramaic, next to the English translation and elaboration. This is probably just as (in)effective in teaching the language.
In comparing the translations, I found that the Koren Steinsaltz is less concerned with translating word-for-word because it does not present brief Aramaic phrases followed by English. The block-passage format allows for more leeway. However, the Koren Steinsaltz still keeps fairly close to word-for-word translation rather than idiomatic translation and often offers the more precise translation. While I did not compare the entire translations systematically, I noticed a few places where the Artscroll made questionable translation choices and the Koren Steinsaltz did not but that might be coincidental.
To give two examples, on Berakhos 54a, Koren Steinsaltz translates as: “One recites a blessing for the bad [that befalls him] just as [he does] for the good.” Artscroll translates this as: “One should recite the blessing [the true Judge] on a calamity that has the potential to be a favorable occurrence.” I much prefer the Koren Steinsaltz translation. (Note that I use brackets to differentiate between translation and expansion while both editions use bold and roman for that purpose.)
And on Berakhos 39a, Koren Steinsaltz translates as: “Rav Pappa said: It is clear to me [that] beet water, [water in which beets were boiled,] has [the same status] as beets… What [is the status of] water [in which] dill [was boiled]? Do they use [dill] to sweeten the taste, or do they use it to remove [residual] filth.” Artscroll translates as: “Rav Pappa said: It is clear to me [that] the soup of [cooked] beets is like the beets [themselves with regard to blessings, and haadamah is recited on that soup]… What [is the blessing for] the soup of [cooked] dill? Is it made to enhance the flavor [of the dish] or is it made to remove bad odors [from the dish]?” I believe the Koren Steinsaltz translation is more accurate and more elegant.
On comparing the Koren Steinsaltz with the Artscroll, I found a broad difference of approach in addition to the improvement in translation. The Artscroll’s in-text elaborations are extensive and its footnotes are occasionally extremely long and detailed. Koren Steinsaltz, on the other hand, keeps elaboration to the minimum required to understand the text and the multiple types of footnotes are all brief and intended to provide context.
The Artscroll’s footnotes provide commentary spanning the ages and expansion of practical aspects citing authorities throughout the ages. The commentary is less about the Talmud than about Judaism. Artscroll’s Talmud commentary is a gateway to Jewish thought and law. The Koren Steinsaltz commentary, on the other hand, is a gateway to the Talmud text. The background, commentary and law are all provided to give the reader a better understanding of the text. Indeed, compared to the Artscroll, the commentary is quite restrained. That is, I believe, intended to avoid distracting from the text.
After thinking about this for some time, I was gratified to hear R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb say something similar in a lengthy, fascinating interview he and R. Steinsaltz gave to Nachum Segal (link – 1:57-2:50):
Every translation is to some extent a commentary… However, I think a good translator has to know not to give too much of his own ideology or his own commentary. Commentary is necessary to explain the text but a good translator gives over the text, the flavor of the text, with just enough extra commentary to make it clear and the rest is up to the student. What we’ve tried to do in this whole project is to allow the student to study and ask. It’s designed to provoke discussion and to provoke questions, not to provide answers but to open things up.
Which edition is better? It depends what you are looking for. Even seasoned scholars can gain from the Artscroll’s commentary. Koren Steinsaltz’s commentary offers much less to such people.
People looking for a good translation that will help them master the Talmud itself will certainly prefer the Koren Steinsaltz. It is less of a crutch and more of a tool, specifically designed to offer students entry to Talmud study, to ask questions and to find for themselves a friend and a teacher with whom to advance their study.