There 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.
The 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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