Is the NIV a deliberate mistranslation?

tumblr_mi1dl5xeQr1qcx6sno1_500There is an interesting debate going on at the blog ‘Is that in the Bible?’ on whether the NIV deliberately mistranslates in order to support a particular theological position. The blog is by Paul Davidson, who is not a professional biblical studies scholar (though is a professional translator), but it has attracted comment from a number of quarters, and is now developing quite a list of ‘problem’ translations in the NIV.

The discussion became particularly interesting when I pointed it out to David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House, who is on the NIV translation committee. He offered some lengthy counter-arguments, to which Paul has responded. Here is one part of the discussion:

[DIB] Hi Paul, I came across this website while I was at the annual NIV translation committee. I was hoping to find some serious issues which could get sorted out, but after reading through a lot of this, I’ve concluded your comments may be based on a misapprehension. You appear to think that the NIV translator try to smooth over problems in the Bible by stretching the translation. We don’t.

We meet every year to consider proposals for changes, mostly due to recent findings in academic research, and also for major changes in English usage. We specifically reject any proposals that are merely apologetic attempts to remove problems in the text.

Perhaps the best way to explain the thinking behind the NIV translation is to go through the first few examples: …

Gen.2.8; 2.19: “had planted” and “had formed”.
As you know, there is no pluperfect tense in Hebrew, nor any other tenses in the sense that English uses them. Translating an aspect language like Hebrew into a tense-based language like English requires careful attention to the context. Ancient Near Eastern narratives are often not chronological – they move from general to specific and back again and expect the reader to put the pieces together in the obvious chronological order. We see this sometimes in modern movies or novels which have frequent flashbacks, or which tell extended back-stories. The best way to translate short retrospectives like this into English is by using the pluperfect…

Gen.29.5 “son” or “grandson”
Hebrew is a language with a very small vocabulary – there are only about 8000 words in the OT – whereas English has a much larger vocabulary. One consequence is that Hebrew has no word for “grandson”. Although it is possible to say “son of my son” or something like that, Hebrew rarely bothers and simply uses “BEN” for any descendant. It is similar to the way that we rarely distinguish between a maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother, whereas some languages have separate words so that this ambiguity would be impossible.

While it would be accurate to translate BEN as “descendant”, this would create a very clunky and inelegant translation, so no version does this throughout. We have to use our intelligence, as the author intended, to decide whether this is a ‘son’ or ‘grandson’ (or whatever), and translate accordingly.

[PD]  Gen 2.8, 2.19 — Any Bible scholar knows or ought to know that the Eden story is an independent and self-contained story independent from Gen 1. There is no contextual reason to think that those two instances where the NIV switches from past to past perfect is a “short retrospective” as you put it. This is adequately addressed by Dr. Mariottini (himself a conservative scholar) in the link I provided, but you can consult any technical commentary on Genesis to confirm this. In 2.19, for example, the context is God creating the animals to find a helper for Adam. The NIV’s resorting to the pluperfect obscures what is the plain reading of the story.

Gen 29.5 — My problem with the NIV’s frequent changing of “son” to “grandson” and similar genealogical alterations is that they are done only to harmonize apparent contradictions, by allowing the plain reading of one passage but not the other. Furthermore, this eliminates other possibilities for harmonization, as well as the possibility that the traditions involved are simply contradictory. The NIV obscures what the text says and prevents the reader from arriving at his or her own conclusion. And I have taken into consideration the fact that other translations do not do this, making them more reliable in my opinion than the NIV.

One of the other significant discussions is about whether it is reasonable to follow the Greek OT (Septuagint or LXX) instead of the Hebrew (Masoretic text or MT), when the LXX matches a NT quotation. The best-known example of this is in Hosea 6.6, where the MT reads ‘I desire hesed [loving faithfulness] not sacrifice’ though Matt 9.13 has Jesus quoting the LXX ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’

There are several things to note here. The first is that there are some genuine issues of translational difficulty being addressed here, and judgements need to be made. It is always the case that translation involves interpretation, and interpretive decisions cannot be avoided in translation.

DavidBrewer2-fullThe second thing to note is that different kinds of translations aim to achieve different things. Should a translation aim to convey the words used? Or the force of the idioms? Or the function of an expression in its cultural context? Or the rhetorical force of the text? One translation cannot do all of these, because these different aspects of language are conveyed in different ways in different languages. So, at one end of the spectrum, Young’s Literal Translation (which is not actually ‘literal’ but is ‘word for word’) aims to do the first, and at the other end of the spectrum Eugene Peterson’s The Message aims to do the last (and so is not a translation so much as a paraphrase). David IB complains that the critics on this blog post are expecting the NIV to do the same as Young’s, when that is not its aim.

The third thing to note is that there is clearly a clash of ideology here. Davidson ends his original blog post with a comment from Tom Wright:

When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses…. Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul’s letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said…. [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about. [Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 2009, pp. 51-52]

The NIV does have an ideological agenda, in that it is committed to believing in the ‘complete trustworthiness of the Scriptures’. But it is also clear that Davidson has an agenda, and that it is ideological.

In relation to the pluperfect in Gen 2, Davidson comments that any scholar is aware that Gen 1 and Gen 2 offer two different accounts of creation and that they are contradictory. Instone-Brewer responds on the technical point of translation that other ETs use a pluperfect within Gen 1 in the same way as the NIV does in Gen 2. But more significant, he is wanting to treat the text in its final form as having some sort of narrative integrity. However the canon of Scripture was compiled, it was at some point thought to have coherence, and that can form part of our approach to translation.

This is particularly evident in decisions with narrative OT texts. On the question of translating ben as ‘son’ or ‘grandson’, Davidson complains that decisions in the NIV are taken ‘only to harmonize apparent contradictions’. But to translate the term as ‘son’ alone is actually to create a contradiction where none exists, since ‘son’ does not in English mean ‘grandson’ or ‘descendent’ where ben in Hebrew does! So to insist on disharmony here is as much an ideological concern as to insist on harmony. In the end, we cannot avoid making a prior judgement on whether the text is coherent or not.

These assumptions become more complex when considering the Hebrew versus Greek versions of the OT. Evangelicals have consistently wanted to believe in a single form of the original text, even if we cannot know perfectly what that is. To switch between Hebrew and Greek actually requires a believe in a pluriform ‘inspired’ text. But, paradoxically, in insisting that translation should always be of the Hebrew OT, Davidson appears to be making the assumption of a single text. There is clearly an ideological driver behind the desire to avoiding having Jesus misquote the OT—but the theological and textual assumptions behind this are quite complex.

In the end, I am not persuaded by all the decisions of the NIV, for many of the reasons given on the blog. But I am also not persuaded by a good number of the counter-examples; they are often as ideological as the translation they criticise.

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34 thoughts on “Is the NIV a deliberate mistranslation?”

  1. I grew up in an evangelical tradition for which the NIV was the translation of choice, and I used it for about 25 years. However, like Wright, I increasingly came to feel that the NIV smooths over discrepancies in the texts, and I now use the NRSV.

  2. My beef is with their (I believe deliberate) rendering of sarx by ‘sinful nature’ or rough equivalents of the same, and ergon by work when it suits Lutheran sensitivities.

      • It’s fair indeed, but it’s restricting its meaning to a very narrow one, which (honestly no offence intended) fits evangelical theology like a glove and erases platonic influences from Paul’s thought or world-view.

          • It’s a very good question, Ian, but it’d require a whole book to answer. Not a cop out, I promise, but I’ve got so much stuff to write before September I feel guilty just reading your site. OK, it’s a cop out.

  3. I would agree that within the translation policy of the NIV which is to make the Bible speak English rather than shaping English to correspond to Biblical usage of terms using “grandson” in Gen. 29:5 is perfectly acceptable. It does of course presuppose a certain reading of the text but so does any translation.

    NIV’s pluperfect reading in Gen. 2:8 is defended in C. John Collins, “The Wayyiqtol as ‘Pluperfect’: When and Why,”TynBul 46.1 (1995) 117-140, which is available online. I do not find this persuasive, nor do the majority of biblical scholars which, to my mind, warrants a footnote.

      • C. John Collins certainly engages with a range of scholars but the only three scholars he cites in support of the pluperfect reading in Genesis are three Lutherans who wrote a century ago (Keil, Delitzsch, Leupold). The comment about age is not mean to dismiss these three interpreters — Delitzsch was one of the greatest biblical scholars ever — but to indicate that Collins had to cast his net wide to find any support and that the pluperfect reading has been known for some time and apparently without finding support among any of the contemporary (evangelical or otherwise) Genesis commentators.

        • To be precise, Collins refers to Driver’s treatise on the use of tenses which deals with various proposals for understanding the pluperfect in cases where the Hebrew has a wayyiqtol. The names Keil, Kalisch, Delitzsch, Hitzig, and Wright are mentioned by Collins. Of these only Keil lists Gen. 2:19 as far as I can see and none to Gen. 2:8 (which by the time Driver wrote Ibn Ezra alone seems to have interpreted as a pluperfect).

          Collins later then lists commentaries by “Keil”, Delitzsch and Leupold. “Keil” is actually an earlier edition of the commentary by Delitzsch, so we are talking about two commentators, neither of which uses the pluperfect for Gen. 2:8, as it happens. On verse 19 Leupold writes “It would not, in our estimation, be wrong to translate yatsar as a pluperfect in this instance: “He had molded.” He does not actually do so in his own rendering of the text. The same is true for Delitzsch who argues that a pluperfect understanding is feasible although he does not export this sense into his translation (given in the German fifth edition, also in the 1888 English translation but absent from the long-seller Keil-Delitzsch set which does not offer translations of the latest editions of Delitzsch on Genesis and Isaiah).

  4. One of my Biblical Studies professors (the now departed Robert Carroll who was a great lecturer, but most definitely not coming from a Christian viewpoint) used to say that “a Bible without footnotes is a liar”. His introduction to Biblical Studies was to take us through the original KJV letter to the reader, to help us understand that all translators make decisions, and sometimes those decisions are based on very specific theologies and ideologies (ie the overuse of King and Kingdom in the KJV NT).

    Personally, I’ve never regularly used the NIV, partly because in my teenage years I felt that it was over-popular, and people were becoming too reliant on a single translation (I was somewhat precocious). I began to use the New Jerusalem (like I said, precocious), and then moved to the NRSV, which had been recommended by my Greek tutor (who was a Catholic priest). These days I’m in the ESV. But I would still recommend to anyone that they choose a Bible with footnotes (not necessarily a “study” BIble), and continue to consult multiple translations if they’re doing serious study.

    Oh – and the odd read of “Mounce on Mondays” for a bit of insight into some of the difficulties of Biblical translation 🙂

  5. All translation is interpretation (one of the many reasons I don’t jive biblical authority), but while, say, the NRSV has its biases, notably gender-neutral language, it flags them clearly. The NIV is more… discrete about its controversial choices.

      • I’d say that no text can exercise authority, period! But even if one could, if it’s interpreted, the meaning is the interpreter’s, not the autograph’s.

  6. All of this goes to show that the Bible was never intended by its compilers to be the only source of Christian knowledge. It is a teaching aid, inspired by God, but not containing absolute meanings. Jesus gave teaching authority to Peter and the other Apostles, not to a book whose various parts didn’t even all exist when He was preaching.

    • Thanks Kevin…but I am not sure that squares with what Jesus says about the Hebrew Bible. He appears to take it as ‘spoken by God’ in a way that many evangelicals would slightly struggle with.

      • I don’t think there’s an inconsistency there, Paul. The Bible as a whole is part of the Word of God, but I don’t think anybody seriously believes that He personally wrote or even dictated it. It was written by Men who were inspired by God. Or, more likely, it was first spoken by men whom God inspired and then reduced to writing from oral traditions. I see the Old Testament as the story of God’s developing revelation of Himself to Mankind, which was fulfilled and completed in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not to minimise the importance of biblical translation, interpretation and exegesis (which I find intellectually fascinating) but, in the end, would our salvation be affected one jot by determining whether “ben” in any particular context represents, son, grandson or some remoter descendant?

  7. Jesus clearly intended for the meaning of “loving faithfulness” to be carried into the meaning of “mercy”. The Good Samaritan did more than feel compassion on a man he found beaten and robbed by the road. He was lovingly faithful to that man. Jesus described true “mercy” in a parable…He also taught an opposite narrative in which a rich man refused to have mercy…loving faithfulness…on Lazarus…and the consequences of that.

    To suggest that the Living Word of God made flesh misquoted Himself is unacceptable. He saw satan fall from the sky like lightning! It is our understanding of what “mercy” means that is grossly deficient. True mercy is fidelity.

    • Thanks Darla…but I think you have just illustrated the problem! If Jesus ‘cannot misquote himself’ then we should not need to come to his defence by changing translation. That means translating Hosea 6.6 as ‘loving faithfulness’ and letting readers themselves resolve the problem.

      Then the question is ‘Is it a problem?’ Is the Septuagint similarly inspired like the Hebrew text…? Or is there a fundamental problem with the idea of ‘verbal inspiration’?

  8. On a minor technicality, The Message is the very opposite of a transliteration. That would simply be a rendering of the Greek and Hebrew letters into equivalent English ones to mimic the sound of the original text. I think you mean paraphrase.

  9. In home group last week, a new Christian asked me “Are all Bibles the same?” This led to a fascinating discussion about language and translation, and I even dusted off my Greek interlinear to illustrate. Who knew.

  10. Any translator will translate according to his own preconceptions about how the text is best understood. If one is a Protestant, then this includes Protestant preconceptions. If one thinks that the 3 origins stories in early Genesis should be read in harmony, then one will make translation choices so that such harmony with exist in the English text, and I think the pluperfect use is an example of that. I do not think the 3 origins stories are required to be read in harmony, so I prefer to NOT use the pluperfect as I find that artificial.

    • “Any translator” will be making choices, but we have to have faith that the word of the Lord is able to defend itself, i.e. that translators will really dig into the original text and all the relevant scholarly work to find the real meaning and be faithful to it. Thankfully the texts are open for all to read so that we can have discussions like this.

      I remember Don Carson talking about the Bible phrase ‘he dug out my ears’ and how it can be translated. And I thought English idioms were crazy.

  11. Two quick observations… firstly, when I started studying NT Greek, I was struck by how ‘literal’ translations are not literal. It actually convinced me to switch back from the ESV to the NIV, the NIV is far more readable and usable. When reading the ESV one is sometimes left wondering whether the authors spoke English as a first language.

    Secondly, again while I was studying Greek, if often struck me that modern translations are actually pretty good and that the NIV was no exception to this. It does smooth some things over but usually (in my opinion) correctly brings the sense out, at least in the instances I’ve looked at. You can’t get 100% nuance translating but the NIV does a fairly good job.

    Doug Moo’s article on this from a year or two ago is well worth reading – have you blogged about it before?

  12. Fantastic article, Ian.

    It has been the case, now that multiple translations are available that we should use the translations for different purposes.

    The Bible used at Church is easy for everyone but is not the same as the translations (deliberately plural) that I use for study.

    They are all translations from the “original” text.

    I came across the translation problem when writing for Scripture Union. I contacted an academic at Oxford who was translating the Bible into one of the smaller african languages.
    For this african language the background was that if a tribal chief took his warriors to invade a neighbouring village and was victorius then the people of the village would welcome him back by sweeping the road before him with their branches (i.e. brushes) but if he lost then they would waive the branches in front of him and throw them in his way.
    Consequently, in this african translation, when Jesus enters Jerusalem they are sweeping the road with the branches!

  13. The Masoretic Hebrew text is not the ORIGINAL Hebrew text, so any translation based on it is, in turn, not a translation of the original Hebrew. So on top of having potential theological bias in the translation, you also have the problem that what is being translated is not the original text.

    It is interesting to peruse the notes in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible, which are brutally honest in pointing out when the text is obscure or unclear. The editors, for example, find that the meaning of the Hebrew at least one phrase or verse in over half of the Psalms in the Masoretic text is uncertain. The situation is similar in the other books of the Old Testament.

    The only real solution, which solves both the lack of the “original” text and the difficulty the author points out in translating from an “aspect language” to a “tense-based language” is to defer to the Septuagint. The Septuagint, although in Greek, is a Jewish text, translated by Alexandrian Jews in the 2nd century BC. The earliest copies we have of the Greek Septuagint are much older than the oldest Hebrew manuscripts. It is, as was pointed out in the article, THE Old Testament text used by the early Christians and continues to be used by Orthodox Christians around the world today. Furthermore, the Masoretic text was written largely as a reaction against Christian, who were interpreting the Old Testament in a Christological sense. The Masoretes wanted a “pure” text, purged of any Christian context. Church Fathers like Jerome and Augustine who did defer on occasion to the Hebrew text were not consulting the Masoretic Text, but some other older texts that were extant at the time.

  14. I think the real problem is not that the NIV has chosen to interpret/translate in a certain way, but that its readers are generally not aware of translation difficulties. I would say most are barely aware they are even reading a translation.

    I think the best thing is just to try to educate people that what they are reading is team of translators best efforts. It is very easy these days to get an understanding of the uncertainty of meaning of a verse online (or by using a Greek/Hebrew translation tool)

  15. Thanks so much to all for this discussion. Bible study groups I’ve been in have always used several translations and we read aloud our specific version’s footnotes when they clarify the text. –As a long-time speaker/teacher of French, I early on enjoyed the _Bible de Jérusalem_, partly because of what I thought was its truly international group of translators. I was shocked when the NIV appeared, calling itself the “New International Version” just because scholars from various English speaking countries (In contrast to the NEB) participated. It seemed like an odd choice of title, making implications about the breadth of its scholars’ linguistic background that wasn’t really there.

    • It actually calls itself International due to its style of English easily understood by English speaking peoples around the world. It didn’t have much to do, if any, with an international representation of scholars.


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