The project is one that has revolutionized learning. Back in the late 1960's when the Rav began his translation and elucidation of the Talmud, there was one English-Hebrew version of the Talmud available, the Soncino, which was a remarkable achievement but not the greatest to learn from given its awkward English style, limited footnotes and lack of correlation between the English and Hebrew pages. In addition, there was nothing for the Hebrew-speaking market in Israel. Unless you were raised in a yeshiva environment, the Talmud was a closed book for you.
Rav Steinsaltz, like Pinhas Kehati before him with the Mishnah, set out to make the Talmud intelligible for the masses. He revolutionized the Vilna daf, creating a new format that left the text, Rashi and Tosafos on the page but added his own interpretive commentary which included Hebrew translations of the Aramaic parts of the text. He also added additional notes that the bottom and sides of the page to add depth to one's learning both in traditional (bringing Rishonim and Acharonim) and innovative (bringing etymological and historical pieces) ways.
Naturally his efforts to bring Torah to the masses raised opposition from some corners. There were those who claimed that the Vilna format that he had adjusted was supposed to be unchangeable and that he had shown great chutzpah in doing so. What's more, his commentary occupied the column where Rashi's had traditionally been put. I recall a personal anecdote from several years ago learning with this volume and asking a dedicated kollel-type a question on the daf. Apparently the answer was in one of the Tosafos but after staring at the Steinsaltz page for a moment he rolled his eyes and groaned in frustration. "I can't find Tosafos in this crazy format" he muttered. I immediately point out where Tosafos was and helpfully pointed out "See? It's labelled with the word: Tosafos". He wasn't impressed. I didn't care.
It also doesn't help that Rav Steinsaltz has raised controversy in other areas:
But as scholars and Jewish leaders herald his remarkable accomplishment, Steinsaltz himself has become a figure of controversy, criticized in some Orthodox circles for what many consider his unorthodox behavior.
Five years ago he found himself outside the Orthodox consensus for accepting the post of nasi, or president, of a modern-day Sanhedrin, a re-creation of the ancient Jewish legal body that set ritual observance for the Jewish people. Steinsaltz’s decision a year later to hold Rosh Hashanah services in which the shofar was sounded on Shabbat Rosh Hashanah -- a practice banned centuries ago by the Jewish sages -- caused further controversy.
Having had the zechus to meet the Rav it is easy to see why his behaviour might be seen as odd by others. Simply put, if we the average folk are on the first floor in terms of intellectual ability, the Rav is on the 10th floor seeing and considering things that wouldn't occur to us. For him the Torah is not a strait jacket limiting one's activities but a book of possibilities in how to approach God and feel a connection to him.
Of course, there haven't been speedbumps along the road towards the completion of the Talmud project. While he was lauded at the time for releasing an English translation of the Talmud, in truth the project never had a chance of being successful in the way Artscroll's was. After 22 volumes covering a handful of tractates, it became clear that a final project would be over 100 volumes and it was abandoned. In addition, the product was so English that the books opened left to right, not the traditional right to left. Finally, Artscroll's masterpierce Schottenstein Talmud emerged (some say with the specific objective of wiping out the Steinsaltz English initiative). Although there are rumours that the Rav is considering another attempt at an English-Hebrew Talmud which would more closely resemble the Artscroll effort, it's worth considering whether such an endeavour would be worthwhile, given Artscroll's lock on the market.
The other major disappointment for me was his Yerushalmi project. Never mentioned now, the Rav initially planned to complete not only the entire Talmud Bavli but also those tractates in the Yerushalmi which lacked a corresponding Bavli. When the size and scale of the project became obvious, this plan was quietly dropped. The only memory of it is the lone volume of Peah that remains as a teaser of what might have been.
In summary, we are witnessing a tremendous achievement by a tremendous talmid chachami who has changed the face of Talmud learning in the Jewish world forever. Kol hakavod.