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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.

UPDATEChristianity 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…

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve come to appreciate [the NIV] over the years—not least because of its commitment to render the original text in more gender inclusive language….

    This is already a topic of debate, as I point out here.

    September 1, 2009
  2. Ken #

    Even if you remove the male pronouns, is the Bible not still a patriarchal text? How would you propose that be eliminated? If that is not eliminated changing the pronouns does not solve the problem. It is tough to be an evangelical and a feminist. It is even stressful for liberals. The feminist faculty of the seminary I attended hated the Bible, and evangelicalism.

    Why don’t you read the NRSV? Do you object to its liberal theological and secular biases?

    It appears that each translation contains theological biases. The bias extends even to the selection of the Greek and Hebrew texts on which to base the translation. Where does one find the “real” words of the Bible? Where does one find the “real” theology?

    And speaking of gender, by modern standards is the Bible not homophobic? How should those passages be translated?

    I mainly read the NRSV. I am aware of the possible lack of transparency created by its treatment of pronouns. Nevertheless, it remains a good translation that is easy to read for modern eyes.

    When you say the Lord’s Prayer, do you pray, “Our Father?” Those words are offensive to many in my former denomination and seminary. Some people pray to “Our Mother.” How do you feel about that change?

    September 1, 2009
    • I don’t find it difficult to be an evangelical and a feminist. I don’t look at the Bible as providing the template for gender or sexual relations for all time. There are plenty of examples in Scripture of gender relations that we would find abhorrent today. I always try to read Scripture with an eye to the redemptive trajectory initiated by Christ.

      Why don’t you read the NRSV? Do you object to its liberal theological and secular biases?

      I do read the NRSV. I also read the ESV and, less frequently, the KJV.

      Where does one find the “real” words of the Bible? Where does one find the “real” theology?

      As I said, I’m no expert on translation, text criticism, etc but I don’t feel any good reason to doubt that the Scriptures, more or less as we have received them, tell the story as God has intended it to be told. I don’t think that faithfulness to God and his intentions requires a perfect book of which we can have 100% certainty. Indeed, I think we have good theological reasons not to expect this.

      When you say the Lord’s Prayer, do you pray, “Our Father?” Those words are offensive to many in my former denomination and seminary. Some people pray to “Our Mother.” How do you feel about that change?

      Yes, I pray “Our Father.” People will always find things to get offended about—some of them even seem to rather enjoy it :). I don’t find that particularly troublesome. Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable praying “Our Mother.” I have no problem with emphasizing the feminine aspects of God’s character, but I don’t think radically altering the Lord’s Prayer is the way to go about it.

      September 2, 2009
  3. Ken #

    One other thought. I wonder how you feel about this.

    The NIV never appealed to me. I don’t think it is because I do not come from an evangelical background. I don’t share the disdain for evangelicalism that is common in liberal protestantism.

    I think the reason it never appealed to me has something to do with my interest in western literature. The NIV did not continue the translation tradition associated with the KJV. The KJV is the translation that influenced so much expression found in western literature. To read the literature without experience with the KJV is to miss something important and beautiful. The KJV can still be heard in the RSV, and to a lesser, but still significant, extent in the NRSV. I also admire the KJV as a renaissance masterpiece, a grand work of art, one still apparent in its descendant translations. It connects me with the past (and with artistic genius) and reminds me, just as reading Hebrew does, that the Bible is not like modern writings.

    I think the NIV, in its adherence to evangelical theology, and the NRSV in its adherence to modern inclusive language and ecumenical theology, are both expressions of modern pieties. Neither is really suitable for understanding the past or seeing into the Hebraic ancestry of the words. Instead they are suitable for worship in modern churches where people of like mind huddle together on Sundays, one for each side of the protestant cultural religious divide.

    September 1, 2009
    • I don’t have your literature background, so I don’t really have much to offer here. I may not share your bleak assessment of what goes on on a typical Sunday morning, but I suppose the NIV has mainly “serviced” the evangelical wing of Protestant-land while the KJV and its descendants has appealed to more liberal streams. I never felt a particular attachment to the NIV either. I try to read a variety of translations from both “sides.” I agree with you that there are some passages that just never come out sounding the same in the NIV, TNIV, etc—the most obvious example being, I suppose, Psalm 23.

      September 2, 2009
  4. Ken #

    At Borders (a large bookstore chain, perhaps they are in Canada too) today I noticed that most of the Bibles they sell are NIV – probably more than a 100 to choose from. The next most popular appears to be the New Living Translation, one that I have not read at all. All the other translations were represented by a couple of copies at most. I saw only 1 copy of TNIV.

    I did see a beautiful leather bound ESV. I don’t have an ESV. Perhaps I should buy it. From what I read on wikipedia it is apparently close to the RSV and closely tracks the Hebrew and Greek, even when it results in translations that sound odd to our ears. You mentioned that you read it. Do you like it?

    September 2, 2009
    • Yes, I like the ESV. It reads a bit awkwardly at times, but comparing it to other translations usually provides good clues about some of the translation issues, etc. I appreciate the formality of the language as well.

      Re: the New Living Translation, you’re not missing a whole lot in not being familiar with that one, in my opinion. It is an update of the Living Bible (which I would guess you also aren’t familiar with) and is extremely loose translation that borders on a paraphrase.

      September 2, 2009
  5. Larry S #

    Ken,

    From what I read on Southern Baptist blog sites, they love it because it is not at all gender inclusive.

    September 2, 2009
  6. Ken #

    I bought that nice leather bound ESV. It seems quite similar to the RSV or KJV and has an older sound to it than the NRSV. At the same time, to achieve that contemporary sound, the NRSV seems to translate certain things in ways that are not plausible, or at least, diminish the range of meanings carried by the Hebrew words. One that really stands out to me is God calling Ezekiel “Mortal” instead of “son of man” in Chapter 37. Still, the older sound of the ESV seems distracting to the modern ear, even though it is transparent and lets the Hebrew idiom come through. It seems the soup is either too hot or too cold.

    As Larry S points out, looking at the website for the Bible, the ESV does appear to be popular among and marketed to evangelicals.

    I also noticed another interesting version at the book store, The Green Bible, which, as you may know, is the NRSV with passages highlighted in green that one might say are supportive of contemporary green ethics and politics. As you know, I spend a lot of time reading nature writing. For the most part, nature writers do not believe the Bible or Christianity is green. I suppose I have long mentally highlighted the green passages. The problem here is something like feminists face.

    In seminary I remember one feminist professor who recommended that we eliminate 95% of the Bible, which is a radical form of highlighting the text. Another feminist professor proposed eliminating the most egregious parts of Paul’s letters, suggesting that Paul was actually a feminist and that chauvinist patriarchs later edited and added the particularly egregious parts to his letters.

    The ESV I purchased highlights the words of Christ in red. I have a couple of very old KJV’s that do this. That is itself a way of customizing the Bible for Christians who focus on the New Testament. None of the Old Testament is highlighted red. In addition, there is a beautiful cross engraved in the leather on the front cover.

    September 3, 2009
    • I’ve heard of that “Green Bible.” I’m not a huge fan of “theme” bibles of any variety, although I, too, own a red-letter edition.

      September 4, 2009

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