NIV 50th Anniversary and Translation Strategy

Tonight at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Zondervan sponsored a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NIV translation. It was a well-done event with videos featuring members of the Committee on Bible Translation, a great meal, a touching tribute to Doug Moo (the current chairman), and a delightful gift of a leatherbound NIV for all attendees.

During the evening, Doug Moo (professor of NT at Wheaton) delivered the plenary address, in which he gave an overview of the current state of translation strategy.

Doug Moo's address
Doug Moo’s address

It was a thoughtful talk that blended direct echoes of the James Barr critique, subtle jabs at many linguistics misconceptions that we are as a whole still waking up from, and some pastoral application points. While it couldn’t quite be subtitled, “Why the ESV is terrible,” there were some veiled critiques along the way, and all were delivered with charity and integrity (and some of them were spot-on).  It might better be subtitled, “Apologia for the NIV2011.”

His three main points of discussion were as follows:

1. Word meaning is determined by use. Here he reminded everyone of Barr’s critique—which he believes we still have not internalized within translation strategy—that words generally do not have inherent, timeless, context-free, default meanings. Rather, usage within a given idiolect at a specific point in time determine meaning. We all know this, he argued, and in principle we all teach this (when teaching Greek, Hebrew, or whatever), but we do not practice this. For instance, he called himself and other scholars (not by name) out for harping on about what a word “literally” means, even though words do not have single “literal” meanings but rather broad (sometimes quite broad) ranges or domains of meaning. One implicit critique underlying this discussion was targeted at defenders of the ESV as being the more “literal” or “word-for-word” translation, which is, in his terms, linguistically nonsensical. One explicit critique was towards pastors who like to make points in sermons based on what they think the Greek or Hebrew “literally” means, but really all they are doing is trying to look good while simultaneously perpetuating linguistic fallacies.

2. Word meanings change, and so should translations. Here Moo implicitly responded to all the criticisms that have been launched against the NIV regarding their use of gender inclusive pronouns, among other things. He argued, quite well, I might add, that English simply does not have 1:1 equivalents for many Greek and Hebrew grammatical constructions, pronouns, prepositions, etc. (e.g., eis + infinitive is impossible to woodenly render in English). He also noted that, given point #1 above, word meanings and usage shift as language speakers shift. For instance, with the move of the church towards the global South, the majority of English speakers in the world now speak English as their second, not first, language. This has implications for translation. He then discussed the computational linguistics work the committee did using the Collins linguistic database that enabled them to see how English-speakers in various parts of the world actually use language, regardless of whether something is right/wrong according to the Queen or Webster’s or Oxford Dictionary or whatever. The net result of this work was the finding, for example, that most English speakers use “they” as a singular indefinite pronoun rather than “he,” as in times past. While this statistic is not true for Evangelicals, Moo added, it is true for the broader set of English speakers, and so the NIV opted in that direction (to the displeasure of many). But, he concluded, you have to pick your target audience, and the NIV aims to be as broad as possible.

3. Words encode meaning in discourse units, not single words (usually). An author’s meaning is not the sum of all the dictionary-definitions of the words in a given utterance. Rather, meaning is derived from the contextual and syntactical relationships among all the words in a discourse unit. For instance, “I drove into the bank” means one thing if you are talking about a Wells Fargo drive-through, and another thing when talking about a river. Here he was taking another jab at ESV apologists and their claim that it is more accurate because it is closer to word-for-word or “essentially literal,” whereas the NIV operates under a dynamic equivalence model of translation. While I think that unfairly pictures what the ESV is actually doing (there is no such thing as a word-for-word translation in any language, since no languages correspond 1:1 to each other exactly), his basic point was accurate.

He concluded with some pertinent reflections for teachers of biblical languages. In short, while all such educators presumably understand these three points, many still make the following two mistakes that undermine them: (a) teaching biblical languages within a “dictionary meaning” paradigm, esp. when it comes to vocabulary acquisition, rather than within a “semantic domain” paradigm; and (b) insisting that students always translate woodenly or word-for-word, when that violates everything we know about good linguistics.

Good food for thought. And very nice of Zondervan to give all attendees a free Bible!

4 thoughts on “NIV 50th Anniversary and Translation Strategy”

  1. While most of the ideas that Moo presented are accepted, it is the extremes to which the NIV translators have taken these ideas that are rejected. Here are just two examples:

    In Acts 6:3 the NIV has used the inclusive phrase “brothers and sisters” even when there is significant doubt as to whether the intended meaning was inclusive.

    In Mt. 5:32 the NIV has clearly demonstrated sectarian bias in their highly interpretive rendering of this verse. This level of interpretation belongs in a commentary and not in the translated text of Scripture.

    Additionally, the NIV Committee’s choice to break their word regarding their prior commitment to refrain from making these kinds of changes to NIV translation and their heavy handed decision to revoke the printing rights to the older version is quite troubling. Even if I agreed with all of the translation updates made in the NIV 2011, I would still be unwilling to support this version because of the clear ethical failures inherent in those decisions.

  2. Thanks for your reply.

    I agree with you that while, in principle, rendering certain instances of anthropos, adelphos, autos, outos, and other grammatically masculine nouns and pronouns as “people” or “brothers & sisters” is fine, they made some mistakes with that in some cases (and I imagine some folks on the CBT would admit that).

    That said, while I’m a big advocate of the ESV, I’d argue we all have sectarian bias in translation that is, philosophically speaking, unavoidable. The ESV committee, for instance, is majority complementarian, and the translation unavoidably reflects that. However, regardless of whether one thinks that is the “biblical” view (which I do), the NIV committee (which includes a mix of both complementarians and egalitarians) is by design set up to appeal to a broader audience than just the minority group of complementarians. We may disagree with that mandate, but it’s not so simple as condemning them for “sectarian bias,” for we have that too—everyone does. There’s no such thing as translating without interpretation (the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic aren’t some secret code that can be “literally” translated into English with perfect, objective, unbiased accuracy), and there’s no interpretation without presuppositions.

    Obviously he didn’t address the 1984 issue—which, I agree, is both irritating (as a fan of NIV84 myself) and questionable from a business perspective—given that the event was sponsored by Zondervan, and the CEO of HarperCollins himself was presiding.

    Just goes to show you how complex and, sadly, fraught with moral issues the Christian publishing industry can be.

    I look forward to the day when my Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible in the NIV1984 becomes worth something on eBay! For my money it’s still the best study BIble ever prepared. (And I’ve used the Reformation Study Bible, ESV Study Bible, and NIV Study Bible)

  3. Greg,

    I do recognize that some amount of sectarian bias is reflected in every translation and I also recognize that that sometimes interpretive choices must be made by the translator because there is no apparent choice in the target language for a translation that is free of all sectarian bias. However, I believe that our goal in translation should be to limit sectarian bias as far as it is possible.

    That being said, my concern with the verse I provided from the NIV 2011 is that it is unnecessarily interpretive and demonstrates clear sectarian bias when there is little apparent reason for the translation of this text to so strongly promote one view over other possibilities. FYI – I happen to agree with the interpretation offered by the NIV 2011 but cringe at the idea that this was offered in the text and not in a commentary.

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