Eddie and Sue Arthur

50 Years of the NIV

I distinctly remember getting hold of my first NIV (quickly christened, the Now Indispensable Bible) when it first came out in 1978. And now we are celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and I am feeling something like fourteen years older than I should.

Actually, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the NIV translation, not it’s publishing date, which is a bit of a relief. In celebration of this anniversary, Douglas Moo has published an excellent essay which looks at some of the underlying principles behind the NIV. Most of what he has to say won’t surprise regular readers of Kouyanet, but it is an excellent summary of some important principles.The bulk of the essay is built around three concepts:

  • Linguistics is not a prescriptive but a descriptive enterprise
  • Meaning resides not at the level of individual words but at the level of collocations of words in clauses, sentences, and ultimately discourses
  • The meaning of individual words is expressed not in a single word gloss but in a semantic field.

As I said, familiar ground for Kouyanet readers.

Moo looks at some contentious issues such as the reading level of the target audience for the NIV and the use of gender-neutral pronouns. I don’t suppose he will convince the die-hards who dislike the NIV, but his points are well made and worth reading.

Translators must work with the language as it is; wishing it were otherwise is vain, and forcing into our translations English meanings and constructions that are no longer current is a betrayal of our mission.

…Should translators bias their English toward the evangelical sub-culture, recognizing that it forms a substantial part of the audience? Or should translators use general English to make sure the Bible communicates well to everyone?

He also has some excellent things to say on the process of translation and on the issue of word-for-word or literal translations.

Translation is not, as many people think, a matter of word substitution: English word x in place of Hebrew word y. Translators must first determine the meaning that the clustering of words in the biblical languages convey and then select a collocation of English words that accurately communicates that meaning to modern listeners and readers. All translations work this way — as they must to be considered translations at all.

…To claim that a word in the biblical languages has a “literal” meaning, capable of being summarized in a single English equivalent, is simply not true. Words occupy a spectrum of meaning, and the range of meaning of particular Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words is never quite the same as the range of meaning of any particular English word.

Three things to note in conclusion. Firstly, if you are interested in comparing English translations, you can do no better than read David Brunn’s excellent One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?. Secondly, we need to remember that while we get worked up about different translations in English, there are still millions of people who don’t have a single word of Scripture in their language. This is a major injustice, one which Christians need to get interested in. Finally, thanks to my mate Antony for pointing me to this article via his most excellent blog.

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