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.
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!