In my previous blogpost, I discussed selectively the history of the English Bible, and brought us up to speed on the NIV 2011. Now, I wish to look at features of the NIV 2011. This blogpost will focus on the positive features.
What Makes for an Accurate Translation?
Before discussing the NIV’s strengths, I need to address a misperception of my first post—a misperception that I unwittingly contributed to. In discussing the history of the English Bible, I noted that the KJV was a literary translation while the RV was a literal translation. I also suggested that the RV was more accurate than the NRSV and the KJV. What I need to do here is correct the frequent perception that literal = accurate, and not-so-literal = inaccurate.
Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that the structure, idioms, vocabulary, and syntax between the two languages are not identical. To be sure, some languages are closer to each other than others (e.g., Northwest Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, are very similar), but there is never complete overlap. And although Greek, being an Indo-European language like English, is closer to English’s structure and style, Hebrew is a different animal altogether. For this reason, since a translation of the Bible is not simply a translation of Greek to English but a translation of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English, a formally equivalent, or ‘literal,’ translation of the Bible will inevitably be uneven and inaccurate. Even if the original text of the Bible were only in Greek, a so-called literal translation would still miss the mark. Taking just idiomatic expression as an example, consider Matt 1.18. English translations speak of Mary’s pregnancy as follows:
|KJV||she was found with child|
|ASV||she was found with child|
|NAB||she was found with child|
|RSV||she was found to be with child|
|NRSV||she was found to be with child|
|NASB||she was found to be with child|
|ESV||she was found to be with child|
|NJB||she was found to be with child|
|NIV (1984)||she was found to be with child|
|REB||she found she was going to have a child|
|TEV||she found that she was going to have a baby|
|TNIV||she was found to be pregnant|
|NIV (2011)||she was found to be pregnant|
|NET||she was found to be pregnant|
|HCSB||it was discovered…that she was pregnant|
A glance at the list of 15 translations shows that “she was found” is the wording of all but three, and “with child/have a baby” is part of the translation all but four times. One might conclude that since these translations vary from formal equivalent to functional equivalent the Greek text must have both of these phrases in it. Otherwise, how could so many translations have identical renderings? The reality is that all these translations are putting a Greek idiom in English dress and changing it to meet English usage. And, whether acknowledged or not, they are largely influenced by the KJV—even the 1984 NIV and the Roman Catholic translations (NAB, NJB). It may surprise you to know that the Greek text here says, “she was found having [it] in the belly.” That’s very vivid language; any woman who has ever been pregnant knows what it’s like to be having it in the belly! But it’s not English idiom, so translations have had to change the Greek idiom to one that was acceptable in English. It is interesting that two of the least ‘literal’ translations in the chart—the REB and TEV—are the only ones listed to actually read ‘have’ here; none of the others use that word, even though it is in the Greek.
What this text illustrates is that a faithful translation to the meaning of the original does not have to be faithful to the form of the original.
Consider another example, this time the Greek expression μὴ γένοιτο (me genoito). This is used 15 times in the NT, once by Luke and 14 times by Paul. Luke uses it in the more classical sense of “I hope this won’t happen [but I fear it will].” It is found in Luke 20.16 and gives the reaction of the people to Jesus’ parable about the vineyard owner who will come to destroy the tenants. But Paul doesn’t use the expression that way. For him, it has the sense of abhorrence, revulsion, of vehement and categorical denial of the truth of the supposition. For example, in Rom 7.7, Paul says, “Is the law sin? Absolutely not!” Even within the NT the same words bear a different idiom for two different authors. So, how is this two-word clause translated? These two passages will be used.
|KJV||God forbid||God forbid|
|ASV||God forbid||God forbid|
|RSV||God forbid!||By no means!|
|NRSV||Heaven forbid!||By no means!|
|NASB||May it never be!||May it never be!|
|ESV||Surely not!||By no means!|
|NIV (1984)||May this never be!||Certainly not!|
|TNIV||God forbid!||Certainly not!|
|NIV (2011)||God forbid!||Certainly not!|
|NET||May this never happen!||Absolutely not!|
|NAB||Let it not be so!||Of course not!|
|NJB||God forbid!||Out of the question!|
|REB||God forbid!||Of course not!|
|TEV||Surely not!||Of course not!|
μὴ γένοιτο is a Greek idiom that should not be literally translated. Literally, it reads “May it not be.” (Neither ‘God’ nor ‘forbid’ are in the Greek, but the KJV and several others have rendered this rather idiomatically, not literally.) But it is a request using the optative mood, which in Attic Greek and, under normal circumstances, even in Koine, had a weakened force. The optative was also used in prayers to deities in Greek (perhaps because the petitioner had little hope that the god would answer his or her prayer). It’s like when a child sheepishly asks her mother if she may stay up two hours past her bedtime to watch a movie on a school night: “Couldn’t I please stay up?” But Paul has utilized the same form but invested it with his own idiomatic meaning.
Two points here: First, the idiom in Paul is different from that in Luke and should be translated differently. Significantly, the only versions in the list above to render both instances the same way are the KJV, ASV, and NASB. Though claims are made that these versions are the most literal, they are not the most accurate. Second, no translation renders this exactly literally in any place it occurs. To do so would be to pervert the meaning of the text.
Often I am asked, “What is the most accurate translation today? What is the most literal, word-for-word translation?” I point out that those are two separate questions, and that the answer for one will be different from the answer for the other. The most literal, word-for-word translation is probably the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is slavishly literal to the point of being bad English much of the time—except where the Greek or Hebrew text affirms a doctrine that is contrary to what this sect believes. In those cases, the translation becomes paraphrastic, but illegitimately so.
At bottom, the best translation is one that is faithful to the meaning of the original text. That does not always, nor even usually, mean a literal translation.
Specifics of the NIV 2011
Praise for the NIV 2011
Charts and tables and databases of the differences between the NIV (1984, the revised edition of the 1978 version), the TNIV, and the NIV 2011 have been produced. These are indeed helpful, but since they focus on statistics more than on reading, the data can give a false impression. For example, some of them note that the NIV 2011 is closer to the TNIV than to the NIV 1984 its gender language. True enough. But then they make the illegitimate leap that as such the NIV 2011 is not accurate. The preface to the NIV 2011 explicitly notes that it is a translation meant for people today, and it recognizes that the use of ‘man’ in the sense of ‘person’ is no longer a viable option for most English speakers in the 21st century. The fact is, the English language has changed. In order to render the meaning of the original text in the language that people understand today, revisions are constantly needed. There is no final word on the Word of God. The King James translators knew this, as have the translators of virtually every translation done since. The NIV 2011 is no exception.
The primary focus of the NIV 2011 is an accurate translation (more on this later), and one has to admit that they have accomplished this objective admirably. Although there are, to be sure, some verses that one might take objection to, overall the translation is extremely well done. And it is fresh and ‘breezy’—in the sense that it is easy to read, not in the sense of being nonchalant or indifferent to the weighty matters of rendering God’s Word into a modern language.
The scholarship behind the NIV 2011 is probably as good as it gets. And the textual basis is both bold and exceptionally accurate. 1 Thess 2.7 now describes Paul and Silvanus as “little children” instead of “gentle”; Mark 1.41 speaks of Jesus as “indignant” instead of “filled with compassion”; John 1.34 has John the Baptist speaking of the Lord as “God’s Chosen One” instead of “the Son of God.” These are disturbing readings, yet scholars in recent years have come to recognize that most likely they reflect accurately the original wording was. No doubt Gordon Fee, a world-class textual critic, had a large role in these decisions. (Two of these readings already found their way into the NET Bible, and the next iteration will probably follow the third, too.) I wish they had been so bold in Jude 5, and followed the reading “Jesus” in the place of “the Lord,” especially in light of Philipp Bartholomä’s article, “Did Jesus Save the People out of Egypt? A Re-examination of a Textual Problem in Jude 5,” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008) 143-58. (See also, for example, Mark 1.1 and 7.4 for places where I think the NIV has deleted the true reading.) The text of 1 Cor 14.34-35, which Fee and a few others have strongly argued should be excised in spite of the lack of external evidence, is retained. And the preferred reading in John 1.18 was not changed from the 1984 NIV (Greek: “God” instead of “Son”), while other modern translations have capitulated to Bart Ehrman’s poorly-based arguments on this verse.
In most places, the text hardly changes from the earlier NIV. Yes, it was that good, especially in the Old Testament. Before the NIV was originally published in 1978, I was taking a course on the Hebrew text of Isaiah at Dallas Seminary from Dr. Ken Barker, one of the NIV translators. We translated Isaiah and compared the NIV to the Hebrew text. My admiration for the NIV—before the whole Bible was ever published—grew significantly because of that course.
This is not to say that the New Testament has been translated poorly. Not at all. In 1 Cor 13.5, it says that love “does not dishonor others”—a decisive improvement over the much weaker “it is not rude” of the earlier NIV. Gone are the more correct, but equally more cumbersome, relative pronouns in many verses (e.g., Matt 1.16: for “of whom was born” referring obliquely to Mary, the new NIV has “and Mary was the mother of”—a strong improvement in clarity even though not as ‘literal’). In 1 Cor 6.9, the old NIV and the TNIV speaks of “male prostitutes” and “practicing homosexuals,” while the NIV 2011 speaks of “men who have sex with men.” On the one hand, this turns these two substantives into a single phrase, therefore rendering it other than literally. But it is much more accurate. The footnote here correctly states, “The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.”
The alternative renderings that are listed in the footnotes are also refreshing for their honesty (see above on 1 Cor 6.9). The text of Rom 3.22 says, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ…” while the alternate rendering is, “This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…” (The NET Bible continues to be the only committee-produced English Bible that reads “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” in the text here, as far as I am aware.) This alternative received only a passing note in Cranfield’s magisterial two-volume commentary on Romans (1975-79); it cannot so readily be dismissed today, even though other recent translations do indeed dismiss it readily.
All in all, this is a fine translation and is the culmination of the efforts of many decades, scholars, countries, denominations, and ideologies. Yet everyone associated with the NIV is unswervingly committed to the Bible as the word of God written. Their joyous wonder at the beauty and majesty of the scriptures comes through loud and clear in this superb version.