Lost in Translation
This morning’s tour through the blogosphere led to the discovery that Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) is giving up on the 2002 revision of the New International Version of the Bible (the TNIV) because of the “mistakes” of this translation. As someone who actually likes the TNIV and uses it somewhat regularly, I was surprised and a little disappointed to learn about this. I realize that the TNIV is not a perfect translation and that, like every translation, there are biases and interpretations that come through, but it’s one that I’ve come to appreciate over the years—not least because of its commitment to render the original text in more gender inclusive language. It’s a translation that I don’t hesitate to recommend to others, whether they are long-time Christians or they’ve never cracked open a Bible in their lives and are just curious about what they might find. Consequently, I was interested to discover which “mistakes” the publishers were talking about.
Here’s what the Biblica CEO Keith Danby had to say:
Quite frankly, some of the criticism [of the TNIV] was justified and we need to be brutally honest about the mistakes that were made… We failed to make the case for revisions and we made some important errors in the way we brought the translation to publication. We also underestimated the scale of the public affection for the NIV and failed to communicate the rationale for change in a manner that reflected that affection.
Okaaay… Still not sure what “mistakes” they’re talking about…
I read a little further and came across Moe Girkins, president of Christian publishing giant Zondervan, declaring that “whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community” and that the “transparency” of the publisher is part of an effort to overhaul the NIV “in a way that unifies evangelicalism.” Right. Got it. Now, about those mistakes…
I got to the end of the article and I was still waiting to find out what the “mistakes” of the TNIV actually were. Now, knowing just a bit about some of the motivation for and reaction against this translation, I suspect that a lot of the “mistakes” that have been discovered by the powers that be have to do with people’s distaste for some of the gender-inclusive language employed by the TNIV. Knowing that, and based on this article alone, I would have to conclude that the real “mistakes” of this translation (according to the decision-makers) include:
- Those responsible failed to make the case for the necessity for the translation—they were unable to convince enough or the right people about the importance of gender inclusivity.
- Those responsible failed to anticipate how strongly some people would cling to a heavily masculine translation of the Bible.
- The TNIV ended up “dividing” evangelicals (never mind the question of whether or not this division might be a good or necessary or overdue thing…).
- The TNIV wasn’t “unifying” evangelicals sufficiently.
Now, I’m certainly no expert on the complex intricacies of Bible translation, but these sure don’t sound like translation mistakes. What they sound like are some of the unpleasant, uncomfortable, and inconvenient results of the translation and how it was received. It sounds like a bunch of people don’t like the TNIV for reasons having little to do with such weighty matters as one’s theology of Scripture or philosophy of translation or one’s views about the intention/spirit of the initial text and that these people are not buying this translation in great enough quantities to justify its continued existence. It sounds like whatever the inherent strengths of the translation might have been (and really, why should we bother to find out what those might be?), it wasn’t making enough people happy. Or unified. Or rich. Or something like that.
That’s what it sounds like. At least to me.
SO, I can only conclude that I’m missing something here. I can only conclude that the real “mistakes” of the TNIV will be made available to us at a later date and in a manner that is clear and forthright that does not cloak the real issues in vague and condescending language. Because as we all know, the politics of Bible translation and the sovereign decrees of the marketplace would never trump other important issues such as good and thoughtful theology, cultural awareness/sensitivity, fidelity to the goal of Scripture, etc.
Unless I’m missing something.
UPDATE: Christianity Today’s blog has substantially revised their initial post on the fate of the TNIV. The current post is longer and makes clear that Keith Danby’s quote (cited above) was mistakenly described as in reference to the TNIV when Danby was in fact discussing an earlier New International Version Inclusive Language Edition, released in the U.K. in 1996. In the updated post, Douglas Moo, chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation acknowledges the the NIV simply “does not currently reflect developments in the last 25 years of scholarship in Bible translation.” Moo also acknowledges the the Committee feels “comfortable” about the TNIV and expects many of its changes to appear in the updated NIV. He summarizes:
I can predict that this is going to look 90 percent or more what the 1984 NIV looks like and 95 percent what the TNIV looks like,” he said. “The changes are going to be a very small portion of the whole Scripture package.
Still sounds like a mess to me. I’ve been tracking a few conversations around this topic south of the border and this is starting to sound more and more like an extension of a larger (and drearier) spat between two factions within evangelicaldom. Surprise surprise…