Are "Literal" Bible Translations Necessarily Better Bible Translations? D. A. Carson Answers

One of the points often mentioned in discussions of Bible translations is the principle that a more literal translation philosophy necessarily accords better with the doctrine of verbal inspiration of the Bible. In other words, if we believe the very words of Scripture are inspired, then we should desire a translation that stays as literal as possible while still rendering readable English. It is this principle that often causes people to prefer translations like the ESV, NASB, KJV, or NKJV over less literal translations like the NIV, HCSB, NLT, or NET. D. A. Carson disputes this principle:

In a recent article Iain Murray, editor of The Banner of Truth, defended the King James Version (KJV) against the New International Version (NIV) largely on the ground that the former attempted a more literal translation, and this he alleged, was more in keeping with the doctrine of inspiration. It is a fair assessment, I think, that says the KJV is more literal than the NIV, although, as I have indicated, I doubt very much if that should always be taken as a compliment. But why a literal translation is necessarily more in keeping with the doctrine of verbal inspiration, I am quite at a loss to know. For example, if I may refer again to an illustration I have just used, to translate "Haben Sie niches gefunden?" by "Have you nothing found?" would scarcely be more honoring to the German author than "Haven't you found anything?," even though the latter translation is certainly less literal than the former. The Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture equally inspired the syntax and idioms. Ultimately what we want is a translation that means what the original means, both in denotation and connotation. Even if one objects to Eugene A. Nida's famous expression "dynamic equivalent," because it can lead to all sorts of freedoms with respect to translation, it ought to be obvious that to some extent every translation, from anywhere on the spectrum, is necessarily involved again and again with finding the "dynamic equivalent."

From D. A. Carson's The King James Version Debate, A Plea for Realism (Baker, 1979). He goes on to argue that if that principle were true (that more literal=better translation) then the logical conclusion would be that we ought to all use the NASB, which is very clearly the most literal of the popularly available translations. And very few people who have made this argument to me have been advocating the NASB.


C'mon Man and the NIV 2011

One of my favorite segments in all of sports journalism is ESPN's C'mon Man before Monday Night Football. They go back over Sunday's games and pick out the funniest moments. These hilarious incidents often involve a player doing something that leaves commentators and viewers wondering what he was thinking. Hence the name.

The debate over the NIV update has had some c'mon man moments lately. My purpose here is to plead with NIV 2011 critics to be fair in your criticism of the translation: not to demagogue, not to oversimplify, not to accuse translators of ulterior motives.

I want people to criticize when they find problematic passages in the NIV 2011. I hope people will publish, blog, and tweet when they see ways that we can better understand the Bible. I don't believe any translation is above question. Every translation can be improved, even if only in slight ways here and there.

What kind of criticisms am I talking about? What should be out of bounds? Here's a sampling:Continue Reading Article...

Poythress on NIV 2011

Denny Burk recently linked to an article in the Westminster Theological Journal by Vern Poythress. The article is titled Gender Neutral Issues in the New International Version of 2011.

I wanted to interact a little with this article because it makes some very valid points of criticism against the 2011 NIV. Readers of my website will know that I have been mostly positive toward the updated NIV. I still use the 1984 NIV as my main Bible for preaching and teaching. I haven't yet decided if I will use the new NIV. (I won't anytime soon because the vast majority of our church will still be using the 1984 version. But I do think this is an issue worth thinking about few years in advance of when I will need to make a choice.)

Poythress' Main Point
The main problem Poythress addresses in his article is the move from 3rd-person singular pronouns (like "he" or "him" or "his") to 3rd-person plural pronouns (like "they" or "them" or "theirs"). This move by the NIV translators is designed to show readers that the original text wasn't specifically addressing men only, but both men and women.

There's no good singular way in English to refer to a person without respect to that person's gender. It's why you've seen such awkward things in writing as "he/she" or "his or her". So to avoid that kind of awkward construction, people today sometimes use a technically plural pronoun ("them") while still meaning one person. Example: If anyone wants some water, they should take a drink from the water fountain. English teachers cringe but most of us shrug.
Continue Reading Article...

My Thoughts on the SBC's NIV Resolution

So in what may be the only action the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention took that I disagreed with, a resolution against the 2011 NIV was passed overwhelmingly. It came from the floor, rather than the committee, which is highly unusual. The committee had read the resolution and declined to offer it for consideration.

The committee was exactly right. The resolution should have never seen the light of day. Such an important issue should have never been voted on by people so ill-informed about as complicated an issue as Bible translation. As much as some want to paint the issue as black and white, good vs. evil, it is not as simple as that.

As the discussion displayed - many of the people didn't even know how to evaluate the new NIV. One well-meaning gentleman stood up and said that we shouldn't condone translations that use gender-neutral language for God. I agree! But the NIV doesn't do that. The applause his comment received made it clear to me that this was an exercise in misunderstanding and misinformation.
Continue Reading Article...

Most Popular Bible Translations

Ed Stetzer points out the Christian Booksellers Association have released the list of best selling Bible translations for this year. NIV was #1, KJV #2. ESV came in at number five and HCSB at 6. Check out the list here.


NIV 2011 Case Study: Romans 3:1-8

One of the problems with the discussion over the updated NIV translation is that it tends to make us focus on a few select passages to judge a whole translation. While that kind of discussion has its place and can be helpful, there are many aspects of translation which would never be touched on if that's the only way we evaluate.

I think one of the most helpful is to simply take passages and compare them side-by-side. I'm preaching on Romans 3:1-8 this week, so thought I might take the opportunity to show the differences between the 1984 and 2011 versions of the NIV. That's my only reason for selecting this particular passage: it's the one I'm currently working through.

There are three changes that I see as I compare these translations: verses 3, 4, and 8. Let's look at each in turn.

Romans 3:3
NIV (1984):

What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?

NIV Update (2011)

What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness?

I found this one particularly interesting because as I studied yesterday, never looking at the NIV Update, I wrote in my notes on the passage that the NIV's "faith" would probably be better understood as faithfulness. It is not primarily the lack of belief, but lack of covenant obedience to the "very words of God (v.2)" that Paul is discussing. Though belief likely would be included in this understanding, the '84 rendering makes it sound as if belief is the primary focus.

So I count this one as a notable improvement over the 1984 NIV. To compare how other translations render the verse: Faith/belief—NIV 1984, NASB, HCSB, KJV, NKJV, NET; Faithfulness—TNIV, NIV 2011, ESV, NLT, RSV, NRSV)

Romans 3:4
NIV (1984)

Let God be true, and every man a liar.

NIV Update (2011)

Let God be true, and every human being a liar.

The dreaded gender neutrality shows up! The text certainly flows and sounds better with "man" than "human being." And the Greek is certainly the noun for man (which is often used of humans in general). It is clear that this refers to both men and women equally so the meaning of the text is not obscured by the gender-neutral rendering.

I don't call this an improvement, but I don't think it's reason to criticize either. For readability reasons alone, I wish they had left it as it was in 1984. Translation comparison: Man—NIV 1984, NASB, KJV, NKJV, RSV; Human Beings/One/Everyone else—NIV 2011, TNIV, ESV, HCSB, NLT, NRSV, NET.

Romans 3:8
NIV (1984)

Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved.

NIV Update (2011)

Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

From what I can tell, the first change is an effort at clarity by giving a shorter rendering of the Greek. Is the meaning better presented even though "literalness" has been sacrificed? I think so. On the whole, I'd say this change is for the better. Longer reading—NIV 1984, TNIV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, NRSV; Shorter reading: NIV 2011, ESV, HCSB, NLT, RSV, NET

The second change is from "deserved" to "just". This Greek work is from the "justice/righteousness" family of words and is certainly more literally rendered as "just." "Deserved" is probably a fair way of bringing the concept into contemporary English, though it does lose the word family association. Overall, I slightly prefer "just" here, but realize a case could be made fir either. Translation comparison: Deserved—NIV 1984, HCSB, NLT, NRSV, NET; Just—NIV 2011, TNIV, ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, RSV.

So as we look at the changes, overall, I think the NIV 2011 is to be slightly preferred over the NIV 1984. Probably most interesting to me is the fact that the ESV has made the same choices in the two areas (gender-neutrality and literalness) that the NIV 2011 has been criticized most for (and quite often by fans of the ESV)!

NIV Update Discussion Links

As someone who uses the NIV translation as my main Bible for reading and teaching, I was very interested to see what would come of Zondervan's announcement that they would be updating the NIV text. The text is now available, even though you can't buy updated NIV Bibles until sometime around Spring 2011. To see how the NIV update translates any passage, you can look it up at the Bible Gateway.

The new NIV is said to keep about 95% of what we now know as the NIV (from 1984). So this is more than a minor revision, but not really a new translation either. A few years ago, Zondervan tried doing this same kind of thing and releasing it as a new translation, the TNIV. The TNIV was heralded by some, but also heavily criticized for going too far in some places with how it translated gender-specific original wording into gender-neutral English. (ie. man, or mankind may have been translated as people; sons may have been translated as children; etc...) The TNIV was not widely successful.

So this time there is no "new" version. After next year, Bibles printed under the NIV name will have the NIV 2011 text rather than the 1984 text. Some of the TNIV changes have been kept, some have been discarded. They have tried to stake out a middle ground on the gender-neutrality question. Here's a brief video from highly respected New Testament scholar Doug Moo talking about the NIV update.

I'm still evaluating the NIV 2011, but there has been plenty of discussion about the update, so here is a rundown if you'd like to see how the conversation is looking at this point:

  • Bible Gateway is also hosting a blog called Perspectives in Translation to address some of these prominent translation issues from both sides. The articles are short, but may be somewhat technical. However, don't let that deter you from taking a look. I think most anyone interested in Bible translation could benefit from it.
  • Denny Burk has a couple of posts on the release and a few different translation issues:

The Release of NIV 2011

The NIV on Romans 1:17 (links to some discussion that may be somewhat technical)

The NIV on 1 Timothy 2:12

I expect a lot more discussion to follow. I look forward to it as I consider whether to continue using the NIV as my primary translation.

UPDATE: Trevin Wax posts The NIV 2011 Forces a Choice at his excellent blog, Kingdom People.