The NIV 2011 and Translation Philosophy

I am surprised how much attention the recent announcement of a revised NIV (New International Version) is receiving from all different walks of life. Some are excited about an updated version of the “world’s most popular translation” while others are skeptical of yet another Bible on the market. After the super controversial 2005 release of the TNIV, a version which went drastically with gender-neutral language, the folks involved with the NIV have tried to calm the waters by limiting the availability and publicity of that particular version. They have all but admitted to some mistakes they made with the TNIV and are determined to not let history repeat itself. Here are a couple of reasons why I remain hopeful for the new NIV:

First, Douglas Moo is the chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation and will have a significant role to play in the 2011 NIV. Moo is a leading NT scholar and professor at the Wheaton College Graduate School. He has been identified as one of the leading Romans scholars, which has been interesting for me since I studied with one of the other leading Romans guys, Tom Schreiner. So, I was always reading Schreiner and Moo (and listening to Schreiner joke about how Moo was wrong at times). Anyway, Moo is solid and will be a very helpful guide along the way.

Second, even though we are inundated with translations, it is a good thing for the NIV to be revised. Most of the translations on the shelves today are not read by the vast majority of Christians in the pews. Versions like the NCV, CEV, and NLT might have various strengths in their particular translation, but are not the standard Bible for most evangelical Christians. That spot still belongs to the NIV. Even with the growing appreciation and use of the ESV, the NIV is still the choice for the majority of Christians. For that reason alone, a revision is in order. We want the world’s most used translation to be current with the vocabulary and language of the day.

So, with this recent buzz of the new NIV, I thought it might be helpful to describe in very brief detail the basic translation philosophies that go behind the current popular versions available today. This brief treatment only scratches the surface.

Traduttore, traditore – Italian proverb, “translators, traitors”

The very first thing to mention when discussing the translation process is that it is impossible to translate without losing something, without altering the original in some way. Translating from one language into another is not as easy as simply plugging the words into a magic translation machine and out pops the equivalent. So, in one way or another, every English translation we have is a commentary of sorts. There is no such thing as a “pure” translation. But don’t lose heart! We can still confidently say that we read the inspired, inerrant Word of God. But, that is a post for a different time.

Essentially Literal – sometimes called “word-for-word” or “formal equivalence”. The philosophy behind this translation model is to as accurately as possible translate into English word for word what was written in the original manuscripts. This method seeks to represent each word of the ancient texts with an equivalent word in English. There are several benefits to such a translation. The most obvious is that this philosophy seeks to preserve the original author’s language and intent. In other words, this is the translation method that seeks to provide as little commentary from the translating as possible. Study and meditation of Scripture is usually best done with a translation of this time. Downsides to this method are that it can become “choppy” and difficult to read. Plus, at times ancient idioms are all but impossible to understand with a direct English equivalent. The New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version are good examples of essentially literal.

Dynamic Equivalence – sometimes called “thought-fort-thought”. This philosophy sets out to determine the meaning of the original texts from their form and then translate in such a way that the same impact is made on the contemporary reader that was made on the ancient reader. The emphasis here is not on word for word translation as it is getting the meaning across. Strength of this method includes an easier, smoother reading bible and idioms that are placed into our 21st century context. Some even boast of having a “5th grade reading level.” Weaknesses include the possibility of the translators including too much commentary, that is, too much of their own theology into the translation. The New International Version and New Living Translation are examples of Dynamic Equivalence.

Optimal Equivalence. This model has really developed with the Holman Christian Standard Bible. I have not seen this used with any other version. Basically, the Southern Baptist Convention got ticked off at the NIV, a dynamic equivalent translation, and decided to issue their own translation that Lifeway would sponsor. The translating team came up with “optimal equivalence” as a way to blend the best parts of both essentially literal and dynamic equivalence. I do not really recommend this translation and have not found it to “catch on” in SBC churches as of yet. Time will tell.

So what is best for you? If you are interested in word studies or are a student of the Bible, then an essentially literal translation is best. If you are looking for a readable translation that “makes sense”, then a dynamic equivalence version is best. Dynamic equivalence translations are also good for a “read through the Bible in a year” plans. Stay away from paraphrases as your “go to” bible. They are fine for follow up and reference, but should not be your normal read. The Message is the most popular paraphrase.

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4 Replies to “The NIV 2011 and Translation Philosophy”

  1. I see you stayed away from the authorized God inspired KING JAMES BIBLE. Can’t handle that time tested Bible?

    1. I must apologize for neglecting to reference the Bible Jesus read. The KJV would fall under the “Essentially Literal” category.

  2. Hey Philip,

    Interesting as always. Everyone is familiar with the NIV of course, for better or worse. I am surprised that you didn’t mention the KJV (already commented on) or the New King James Version. I am far from a Bible scholar, but the thing I find distasteful about the NIV is the various places where it just skips a verse and footnotes it. Sometimes the skipped verses seem pretty crucial to me. I have (for now) settled on NKJV as my preferred translation, relatively easy to read but not as slick and sometimes seemingly forced into a strange sounding modern phrase as the NLT and even the NIV have in places. IMHO of course ;^) I have a four way translation bible that I really like (KJV, NKJV, NIV and NLT) as it makes it really easy to compare. All the other translations are pretty much a mystery to me so it is interesting that you mention NASB and ESV as well as Holman…

    Regards, Doug

    1. Doug,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. My purpose for this post was to give a brief account of translation philosophy and general thoughts on the NIV revision, not so much highlight indiviudal translations. That is a great idea for a future blog and I will definitely put that on my list. For what it’s worth, I strongly commend the ESV Bible to you.

      And, as I hope my readers understand, I was totally kidding in response to Rev. Hamilton when I said the KJV was the version Jesus read.

      Many blessings to you Doug!

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