Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Politics of Bible Translation

On September 1st the board of Biblica (formerly The International Bible Society) issued a press release announcing their intention to release an update in 2011 of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. The press release stated that this would be the first update since 1984.

This is curious, because in 2005 Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was published as a revision of the NIV. “Revision” is the word that Bible publishers use to differentiate it from being merely a new edition of the old translation. A revision is a new translation from the original languages which uses the same translation philosophy and seeks maintain much of the original while updating the translation. Revisions are necessary because scholars develop new understandings of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, there are better manuscripts available, and because the English language continues to evolve.

So what’s the difference between a revision and an update? The latter would seem to be some tweaking of the translation, or word or a verse here and there when new understandings are developed, while a revision involves more wholesale changes. The press release for the 2011 NIV, however, makes it clear that this is to be a revision, not just some tweaking.

So why not just call it a revision like everyone else? The answer may be found in the fact that there is barely any mention of the TNIV in the press release. It is referred to one time: “The 2011 NIV will represent the latest expression of the CBT's translation work. Previous expressions included the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV and the 2005 TNIV.” And that’s it. Elsewhere you can find out that Biblica plans to discontinue the TNIV. They are distancing themselves from it.

The NIV is geared toward the American evangelical market, which, if you are going to sell Bibles, is the market to shoot for. Evangelicals buy Bibles, lots and lots of Bibles, and think nothing of dropping anywhere from $60 to $100 on a top-grain leather bound Bible.

And evangelicals hated the TNIV. Well, some did anyway. The Willow Creek Association sent every pastor in the WCA a copy; that’s how I got mine. And I like it. It’s the one I use at home for my devotions. It’s a good translation, and very readable.

But other evangelicals didn’t. Specifically they didn’t like the use of gender-inclusive language; they thought it was caving to the pressures of political correctness. In his letters, for instance, Paul would often address the church with the word adelphoi which is the word for “brothers.” The King James translates it as “brethren.” But Paul is clearly addressing the entire church, not just the men in the church, so recent translations, including the TNIV, have rendered it “brothers and sisters.” So which is the correct translation? Well, both are and aren’t. One gets the word right and the sense wrong; the other gets the sense right but hedges on the word.

See, translation isn’t math, where 1+1=2, always. Words are dynamic, meanings change from context to context, meanings evolve with usage. Bible translators have to decide if they are translating into British English or American English, because they aren’t the same.

Anyway, conservative evangelicals went nuts about this. Well, male conservative evangelicals, anyway. Maybe they were afraid people would stop using masculine pronouns for God, even though we know that when God made humans in his image he did so as “male and female.” (Notice the use of masculine pronouns just then?) I don’t know why. But James Dobson, Charles Swindoll, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson and many more voiced their objections, loudly and vehemently, using their radio broadcasts to warn people away from the TNIV.

These guys aren’t Bible translators. Their focus is on other things, and it should stay there. Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary (a very conservative seminary) states, "The group that objects to the TNIV does not reflect a majority of evangelical New Testament scholars. In fact, most of these individuals have no translation experience."

But people listen to these guys, and so no one bought the TNIV. And now Biblica is coming out with an “update” of the NIV, and I’m sure it will have nothing that will challenge the beliefs—and prejudices—of prominent evangelical leaders.

But when the average Christian goes to read the Bible, shouldn’t they have a reasonable expectation that what they are reading reflects the very best scholarship out there? Accuracy, readability, scholarship—all these should be considerations in a Bible translation. Market share and catering to Christian radio hosts should not.

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