Mondays with Moisés: On the NIV

Welcome to “Mondays with Moisés” at The Voice of Stefan! Of course, there simply aren’t enough days in the week to praise the excellencies of our Infallible Hero, but this occasional feature will grace your computer screens, well, whenever I wish to post a “Sundays with Silva” but can’t manage to do it by the end of the Lord’s Day. This installment, in which Silva introduces an article for the OPC’s magazine New Horizons addressing criticisms to the NIV from various quarters, seemed appropriate to me in light of the recent news regarding that translation.

“When the editor of New Horizons asked me if I would be interested in writing a response to criticism of the NIV, I hesitated briefly. After all, I was not involved in the translating of the NIV. Moreover, I think the NIV is far from perfect. During the past few years, I have been involved in the production of an ‘NIV-like’ translation of the Bible into Spanish. This work, which involves very close comparison of the NIV with the original, has alerted me to numerous renderings that appear unsatisfying, problematic, or even plain wrong. In other words, my own list of objections is probably much longer than that of the most outspoken critics of the NIV. So why then would I agree to write this article? Simply because my list of objections to other versions would be even longer. This is not to say that all available English translations are bad. Quite the contrary! We are richly blessed by a wide variety of versions, almost all of whichwhen compared with good translations of other literaturehave to be regarded as clear and accurate, but never perfect.”

(Moisés Silva, “Reflections on the NIV,” New Horizons [June 1995], quoted by Kenneth Barker, “Hearing God’s Word Through a Good Translation,” in Arie C. Leder [ed.], Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon. Essays in Honor of John H. Stek [Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary and CRC Publications, 1997], pages 30-31.)

When I first read these comments by Silva a little over a decade ago, I couldn’t help but to nod in agreement. At that point, I had been preaching regularly in English for a little over a year, and since the Bible in my congregation’s pews was the NIV, I had finally resigned myself to using it in all my preaching and teaching. As you might guess from the tone of my comments, this was a difficult decision to make: I had never been a fan of the translation, and in fact had gone out of my way to avoid it until I it was (in a sense) forced upon me. But by the time I laid down my preaching Bible to enter the waters of Baptism in the Orthodox Church a few years later, I had developed a very deep appreciation for the NIV born from struggling to preach and teach its words week in and week out. Oh, there still were plenty of exegetical decisions made by the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) that seemed less than fortunate to me, and a few that appeared to be so thoroughly mistaken as to be shocking; however, having became thoroughly familiar with the way the NIV works as a translation through relentless use, I learned to trust it as a basically reliable (though far from perfect!) text for preaching and teaching. To borrow the words of our good friend Kevin Edgecomb,

“There’s nothing dirty, little, or secret in my love for the NIV. From start to finish, most particularly in the savvy yet vanishingly rare instance of having hired a style consultant, the NIV project was exemplary. I’m often in awe of their skill at paraphrase. The quality of the English is a perfect middle, not too elevated, not too, er, plebian. It’s a great translation, and probably the most successful yet.”

Although I haven’t used the NIV as my primary Bible for any purpose in several years, I was enthusiastic about the release of the TNIV in 2005, and as early readers of this blog might recall, I spent several months trying to obtain a copy of it (which were, alas, not all that easy to find in Puerto Rico). Once I finally got a hold of one, I was impressed by the quality of the translation: indeed, many of the exegetical mistakes of the 1984 edition that had previously troubled me were now corrected, and it was on the whole a superior text to its older counterpart. The story of the regrettable and unedifying campaign of disinformation to which the TNIV was subjected has been told many times, and I need not repeat it here. Now that it had been announced that the TNIV will be retired from the market, I can only repeat what Rick Mansfield so poignantly said in his eulogy for that translation: “[A]s for me, I’ll always remember the TNIV with great fondness. It was surely the best translation that nobody ever read” (emphasis his).

All that said, I have great hopes for the NIV 2011 project, which will replace both the 1984 NIV and the 2005 TNIV. Of course, it will not be a perfect translation. There will doubtless be many problems with itat least as many as there are with any other translation out there in the market. But we have seen already in the TNIV what the CBT can accomplish when it sets itself to the task of revision, and on those grounds, there is no reason to be anything but hopeful.

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8 responses to “Mondays with Moisés: On the NIV

  1. Well, the next year and change should fly by pretty quickly. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with it, to bend toward the more literal (which is a popular choice, it seems, judging by the success of the ESV) or to retain some of the oddities that Jason, et al., have noticed.

    I simply hope that the entire project is carried out with the same level of obviously intense devotion that the NIV was. Those people knew that they were working with the Word of God. Other people seem to think they’re working with just some old book. Part of the success of the NIV, I think, is due to that distinction.

    Good to see they let you out of the salt mines!

  2. Esteban, I too am looking forward the the NIV 2011 version. I am praying for the CBT team that they do their best work. Also, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the TNIV took 10 years to revise? Is that true? If it is true, they are planning on revising the NIV in 2 years? Doesn’t make sense, unless of course they are revising the TNIV only and reconsidering some NIV where maybe they should have just left it alone?

    I can’t wait and just wish I didn’t have to wait until 2011, with my luck it will be December 2011 when they release. I do hope that they will release the New Testament sometime next year.

  3. Esteban: Ooh, Mondays with Moisés, I love it! Great post, and I share your hopes that this new NIV will be a good translation. I doubt I’ll ever adopt it as a primary text but I’ll be happy to add it to my collection eventually.

    Kevin: I think the distinction you name is of the utmost importance and we should all do well to remember it when evaluating any translation.

  4. Kevin> I don’t think for a minute that the CBT is going to compromise the (very successful) NIV translation philosophy in order to kowtow to the raving literalists. Such people have always disliked the NIV, and it is pointless to try to please them now. I do think that they will radically rethink the implementation of their inclusive language policy, which, truth be told, could use a great deal of improvement. As for the oddities, such as the use of “sinful nature” for σἀρξ, I’m afraid that they will remain by and large in the text. The NIV is, after all, an Evangelical translation, and it should come as no surprise that some of the exegetical decisions incorporated into the text clearly reflect an Evangelical understanding of certain passages.

    Also, your point about the CBT being composed of people who know full well that they’re working with the Word of God is very well taken. I tried to underscore that very point in one of my posts about the late great John H. Stek, in which I referred to him as a “translator for the church.”

    Robert> As Kevin says, I think the time between now and the release of the NIV 2011 will pass relatively quickly. As for how a revision of the entire text will be possible in a mere two or so years, one must remember that the CBT has kept two working databases: one of the 1984 NIV with correction, and one of the 2005 TNIV with corrections. There is also a database with all gender-related changes made to the NIV in the production of the TNIV. This will make the work of revision much easier to streamline, since most of the groundwork is already done. I don’t think, however, that the NT will be released before the full NIV 2011: it seems to me that the entire translation will be release at one time.

    Nick> Well, glad you approve! ;-) I too will likely never have the new NIV as my primary text, but I’m eager to seeing and using it.

  5. Hi Esteban,

    I would hope that NIV 2011 retains TNIV where TNIV moved back in the direction of greater literalism out of devotion to the wording of the source text. Wayne Leman informs me that that move was made rather often.

    As far as TNIV’s choice to pluralize for the purpose of eliminating any use of a gender-inclusive singular pronoun, its avoidance at all costs of “men,” and like matters, these are exaggerations that would best be avoided. Furthermore, I would like to see gender-specific language restored, including feminine specific, where the evidence points in that direction.

  6. John> I too hope the new NIV will retain the changes you mention, which were all, in my opinion, for the better. But then it must be remembered that, on the whole, the TNIV text reportedly differs from that of the 1984 NIV by a mere 7% — so the changes (even the gender related ones!) weren’t on a large as scale as some imagine. And yet, these changes were most significant: they certainly made for a more accurate translation in places and a more readable text over all.

    Regarding pluralizations, I have tended to regard them as unfortunate, much in the vein of your recent post on Psalm 1. However, in recent weeks I have read a few things that have me rethink that a bit. I’ve been meaning to post about it, but alas, time keeps slipping away!

    As for instances of feminine-specific lanaguage, can you point to examples in which the TNIV pluralizes them? I myself haven’t come across anything like this in my reading, so I would be most interested to learn where the translators have done this.

  7. Esteban,

    I look forward to a post from you in which you rethink your objections to pluralizations. That would be especially significant coming from you, an admirer (as I am) of traditional christological exegesis of the Psalms. The argument has often been advanced in favor of preserving the singulars of the source text, that that leaves an essential hook in place on which the entire underlying psalm is transposed on the new canvas of the Man of Sorrows.

    I have argued in posts on Job 28 that where wisdom is personified and the grammatical gender is feminine, the personification should be retained, and in the feminine. I would say that such is essential in a number of passages in Proverbs, once again with “Lady Wisdom” = Sophia as the subject. Furthermore, in a post I can’t expect you to have read, I have argued that MT gives us gender-specific feminine language that ought to be transferred in translation, in particular, in Isa 11:12 and 56:3:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2009/01/the-silent-emendation-of-mt-isaiah-563-in-modern-translations-.html

    These issues, however, are not pertinent to (T)NIV alone, but to almost all translations.

  8. Although it is always a pleasure to see the illustration of the dashing Professor Silva, it is bittersweet, for in seeing it here I know that Esteban’s Delicatessen (Delicatlesen? Delicatdenken?) is closed outside of the tourist season….

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