Vern Poythress on the New NIV

We have been discussing the new of edition of the New International Version of the Bible this week, and I have another resource or two to throw your way. The first is a most helpful review by Vern Poythress which appears in the most recent issue of The Westminster Theological Journal. This review is very well done, and I hope it gets a wide-reading. Here’s the full bibliographic info and a link to a PDF of the article as it appears in WTJ:

Vern S. Poythress, “Gender Neutral Issues in the New International Version of 2011,” Westminster Theological Journal 73 (2011): 79-96.

Poythress’ review is valuable on many levels, but I think that he is particularly penetrating in his analysis of the Collins Dictionaries report and of whether or not generic “he” is acceptable English. His conclusion:

Overall, the NIV 2011 translation appears inconsistent or uneven. The NIV 2011 is definitely and improvement in comparison to the TNIV. The NIV 2011 corrects a number of difficulties produced in the TNIV. But it could have gone further. If in 2011 generic “he” is allowed (as NIV 2011 does sometimes admit), then it ought to be used whenever it is needed for the sake of accuracy. This kind of thorough revision has not been carried through. The result is a disappointment, and will not please those who want consistent accuracy.

In many respects the observations and arguments that I have presented in short compass repeat discussions undertaken at greater length during the original gender-neutral controversy. Not much has changed with respect to the substance of the arguments. It is all the more unfortunate, in my opinion, that too little has changed in the move from the TNIV to the NIV 2011.

Second, Jim Hamilton links to an article written by E. Earle Ellis several years ago for the Expository Times. Ellis aims his critique at the TNIV, but I think his overall point is still relevant to the 2011 NIV (which reproduces about 75% of the TNIV’s gender language). Here’s the full bibliographic info and link to Ellis’ piece:

E. Earle Ellis, “Dynamic Equivalence Theory, Feminist Ideology and Three Recent Bible Translations,” Expository Times 115 (2003): 7–12.

Even though translators may have the best of motives, Ellis identifies five difficulties with the functional equivalence translation philosophy:

(1) It rejects the verbal aspect of biblical inspiration.

(2) It gives to the translator the role that rightly belongs to the preacher, commentator and Christian reader.

(3) It assumes that the present-day translator knows what contemporary words, idioms and paraphrases are equivalent to the prophets’ and apostles’ wording.

(4) It advocates conforming biblical language and concepts to the modern culture rather than conforming the modern culture to biblical language and concepts.

(5) It appears to discard the Protestant principle that Christian laity should have full access to the Word of God written without interposition of clergy or of paraphrastic veils.

Third, Andy Naselli has put together an impressive list of materials on translation philosophy. For the most part, these resources favor a functional equivalence approach to translation. Many of them also favor the approach to gender language reflected in the new NIV. If you want to get into some serious reading on this issue, take a look at Andy’s page. Andy’s top recommendation from his list is the following:

Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss. How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

I agree with Andy that this is a helpful book. Its target audience is your average English Bible reader, and it introduces many complex topics related to translation theory in a way that is easily accessible to the non-specialist. Its major weakness, in my view, is that it favors functional equivalence translation and the approach to gender language reflected in the NIV. To put a finer point on my objection, I do not accept a strict bifurcation of form and function when there is a degree of linguistic concordance between the structures of donor and receptor languages (as there is between Koine Greek and English). This is the fundamental problem that I have with the functional equivalence approach, and I see this bifurcation in Fee and Strauss’s book. In fact, I think it skews their description of formal equivalence. Formal equivalence is not simply “word-for-word replacement” as Fee and Strauss allege (p. 29). Formal equivalence can only be “word-for-word” insofar as there is concordance between languages. In my mind, formal equivalence tends to value this concordance where it can be found, and functional equivalence tends not to. This to me is the basic difference between the two approaches.

19 Responses to Vern Poythress on the New NIV

  1. Patrick Schreiner June 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    I agree that the Poythress article is very helpful. A separate post explaining the bifurcation of form and function more fully would be helpful. I think I know where you are heading but more explanation would help.

  2. Brent Hobbs June 29, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    I’d like to take issue with the 5-point list offered by Earle Ellis because I think it illustrates a lot of the unfair criticism that’s come the way of the 2011 NIV. (I don’t think all criticism is unfair, but a lot of it has been.)

    #1 I just flat out disagree. It does not such thing.

    #2 and #4 could just as easily be used to show why we should have simply stayed with the King James rather than offering any new translation at all.

    For instance, take brethren/brothers which in many newer translations is made the gender-neutral ‘brothers and sisters.’ People say “just translate literally and let us INTERPRET that it means both men and women.” Or, “That’s the job of the preacher, commentator, reader.” But what about readers who don’t know to make that jump? The point of translation is to give people the Bible in everyday language so that they don’t need tools to make jumps like that. 30 years ago, people made that inference easily. Today, people do less so and in 10 years from now it will be even less common.

    We’ll be in the same situation as with the King James where we have:

    Original -> Translation -> Additional Interpretation -> Understanding

    The point of translation is to take out “additional interpretation” as much as possible, especially for people with little Bible knowledge.

    To #3, I’d say that’s exactly right. And that’s what a translator is supposed to do and know! Of course! That’s what they ‘get paid for!’ 🙂

    And to #5, I’d say functional equivalence does the exact opposite: it ensures the people have a Bible they can read and understand without the constraints of always checking with ‘authorities’ to make sure they are interpreting correctly difficult and awkward language.

    I want to jump in to the Poythress article in some detail soon when I have a little more time.

  3. henrybish June 29, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    The Ellis article has some very insightful comments:

    If our generation has lost the ability to understand certain biblical terms, the answer is not, I think, to abandon them for paraphrastic ‘educated guesses’ or for politically correct idiom. It is rather to explain the biblical words and idiom. If the translator sticks to transmitting the biblical wording, the preacher and the commentator can then give explanations that may enable our culture, or at least Christian believers in it, to think biblically and thus be prepared to hear the Word of God, i.e. the true meaning within the
    biblical words….

    With this goal in mind the translators of the KJV, who were committed to the sacred character of the words of Scripture, provided the church with a Bible that transformed the English language to biblical terms and concepts.

    Many biblical terms that were strange to its ?rst readers and hearers became over time, through faithful teaching of the Scriptures, part and parcel of common English. The goal and the result of the work of the KJV translators was to conform the culture to the Scriptures. In our more secular, i.e. pagan, culture it is even more incumbent upon translators to retain the often strange language of the Bible in order to seek again a similar transformation of our culture…

    It is not too much to say, I think, that the
    ‘dynamic equivalence’ theory of translating Scripture represents a compromising of the Protestant principle, going back to Wycliffe and Tyndale, that ordinary Christians should have the opportunity to read the Word of God in their own tongue. Medieval
    clerics hid that Word behind a veil of Latin. Modern ‘dynamic’ translators, not in intention but in result, often veil that Word in a cloud of paraphrase.

  4. Brent Hobbs June 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Henry, I’m glad your comment makes the KJV connection. There is a lot of similarity here.

    The problem with the analogy (KJV having such in influence on the English language) is that the historical setting is completely unique. I don’t think we’ll ever have another English translation that’s nearly the exclusive choice of English-speakers. Nor do I think Bible reading will ever be as prevalent as it was from 1600-1900. Modern translations just don’t have the opportunity to influence the language anymore. There is too much else to read whereas for a long time in history, a Bible may have been the only book a family owned.

    And if “strange language” is an asset to a translations, again, why not just stay with KJV. No need for NASB, ESV, or others – either formal or dynamic equivalence.

    And I think you’ve drawn too large a distinction between translation philosophies. All translations use both at times, they just tip the scales at different points. It’s no good to say the more formal equivalent, the better. The we end up with Young’s Literal or some kind of interlinear. Everyone understands there must be a balance.

    I know people want this to be a black and white issue but it really isn’t. Every translation is trying to strike a balance. The NIV, HCSB, ESV, NASB are really not as far apart as some like to make it seem.

    OK, sorry for the jump into translation philosophies. Need to stay on topic.

  5. Nate June 30, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    “I know people want this to be a black and white issue but it really isn’t. Every translation is trying to strike a balance. The NIV, HCSB, ESV, NASB are really not as far apart as some like to make it seem.”

    That’s because these translators are out to make money. As Brent stated so well, the differences are so minimal that one wonders why every year we need another 1,000 translations. People are greedy and the bible, being the best-selling book year after year, makes many people chase the money.

    The NIV 84 did not need a re-write. Language has not changed that radically in the last 30 years. They are competing against the ESV, HCSB, NLT, and every other “new” version for the title of “the best” translation.

    Yes, the gender-equivalence issue is important, but I think the almighty dollar is driving this as much as anything.

  6. danny June 30, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Nate, how much money do translators make?

  7. Nate June 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    You think they work for free? That aside, you think Zondervan is giving away bibles for free, or any of the other distributors?

  8. danny June 30, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    But how much are the translators paid? You’re making a fairly big accusation, I’d like to think you can back it up. Now, it’d be easier to track the profits of the publishing companies, but that’s a very different thing from supporting your claim that translators “are out to make money.”

    Back up it.

  9. Nate June 30, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Your right Danny! What I should have said is that the Publisher-in this case Zondervan-wants a certain style of bible written and then hires translators to do their bidding. Zondervan has been, since the publishing of the TNIV, clearly pushing a new translation model and they wouldn’t be doing it to lose money. They know they have the best-selling English translation in the NIV 84. The TNIV failed, so notice they have now simply referred to the new one as the NIV 2011, and they will discontinue printing the NIV 84. They wouldn’t be doing this to lose money.

    So no, I don’t know how much the translators get paid specifically, but Zondervan is in the money-making business, make no mistake about that. And their competition is the ESV, HCSB, NLT, etc.

  10. Donald Johnson June 30, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    Ellis identifies five difficulties with the functional equivalence translation philosophy:

    Ellis (1) It rejects the verbal aspect of biblical inspiration.

    Don: It does not do this.

    Ellis (2) It gives to the translator the role that rightly belongs to the preacher, commentator and Christian reader.

    Don: ALL translation involves interpretation, so his claim seems to misunderstand this aspect of translation.

    Ellis (3) It assumes that the present-day translator knows what contemporary words, idioms and paraphrases are equivalent to the prophets’ and apostles’ wording.

    Don: This is a part of the job of a competent translator.

    Ellis (4) It advocates conforming biblical language and concepts to the modern culture rather than conforming the modern culture to biblical language and concepts.

    Don: No, this is the wrong way to see the act of translation. A translator wants to make it understandable, this must be a major goal. In some cases, the ancient culture and the modern one will be very far apart and this will be quite a challenge.

    Ellis (5) It appears to discard the Protestant principle that Christian laity should have full access to the Word of God written without interposition of clergy or of paraphrastic veils.

    Don: This again indicates that Ellis does not see that translation involves interpretation and MUST do so as choices are involved. Most people will read a translated Bible, not in the original languages. Whatever the original text MEANT is what should be conveyed, but this is a matter of interpretation.

    Furthermore, there are cases when translating one ancient word to it “literal” match can give a false sense of that a reader understands it, this is true especially when a metaphor is involved that may not be current.

    For example, when Jesus called Herod a fox, he was NOT referring to his being sly (a current metaphorical meaning), but a reader today might not even know that it meant something else, so he falsely thinks he knows what Jesus meant. So in cases like this, a literal (word-for-word) translation can easily mislead a reader.

    The basic rule for metaphors is to ask what they meant back then, and not to assume what they mean today is what is meant.

  11. danny June 30, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Is it just me, or do Ellis’ points # 2 & 3 work against each other? We can’t necessarily trust that translators- scholars who have been working for years on biblical languages- will be able to translate ancient idioms, etc., in to modern ones. But we can trust preachers to explain them accurately from the pulpit. Maybe I’m missing something…

  12. Tim June 30, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Denny,
    From simply a pragmatic standpoint, I wonder if it’s helpful to present these two issues (gender & functional vs. formal equivalence) in the same post. It seems to me that these issues need to be addressed separately (yes, I realize that they bear some relationship, but they are nonetheless distinct). I’m afraid it may inadvertently foster a “piling-on” mentality, drawing on both sides’ oppositions to the NIV and presenting a greater consensus (“NIV BAD!”) on the issue than actually exists.

    For instance, some individuals who would object to the NIV’s philosophy on gendered language have no problem with functional equivalence as a translation philosophy. Others (e.g., Daniel Kirk) who have no beef with the gender approach prefer a more formal translation.

    It bothers me a bit that I perceive both camps (gender camp and formal equivalence camp) jumping on the NIV in this way. Those who object to the NIV for gender reasons should focus on those reasons in their objections, and those who simply dislike it due to its (only moderately) functional nature should argue it on that basis. I hope this is not a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

    BTW, I don’t believe this was your intent with the post, Denny (and I think both issues are worthy of discussion on their own merits).

    Blessings,
    Tim

  13. Donald Johnson July 1, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    I read the Poythress article. I agree with some of his points, that is, in some cases the NIV 2011 could be improved as he suggests.

    On his point 2 on Acts 20:30, I disagree. He sees Greek andres as referring to exclusively men. But masculine plural forms can include women in Greek and in a large group would be assumed to include them unless there is a reason not to do so. This is where ideas outside the immediate text influence the decision. If one thinks that elders can ONLY be male, they make that translation choice such as men (exclusive implied); but if one thinks (as I do) that elders can include females, they will make a more generic choice, such as people.

    But note there is a question with the choice of “men”, a reader needs to decide whether the exclusive or inclusive meaning is intended, when one thinks that use of generic masculine terms in English is useful. This is exactly a question that users of current modern English want to clarify by declining to use the generic masculine forms.

  14. henrybish July 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Hi Brent,

    sorry for the delay in replying, I have been occupied with other things. (Btw the comment I made above was a quote from Ellis’ article, not my own).

    Modern translations just don’t have the opportunity to influence the language anymore. There is too much else to read whereas for a long time in history, a Bible may have been the only book a family owned.

    I think the quote answers this where it says:

    If the translator sticks to transmitting the biblical wording, the preacher and the commentator can then give explanations that may enable our culture, or at least Christian believers in it, to think biblically and thus…

    Also you raise another point:

    And if “strange language” is an asset to a translations, again, why not just stay with KJV.

    You could take this argument further and say we should stick with the original Greek and Hebrew. But I think this misses the point. I don’t think anyone is arguing against making the Bible as understandable as possible (that’s why we translate into the vernacular) but rather that when this is done there are to be some limits – one of them being that we do not lose an integral part of the meaning in the original. When we replaced the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of the KJV we did not lose any of the meaning in the original Greek and Hebrew but rather made it more readable to the modern reader.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing for ‘strange language’ for the sake of it. Maximal readability is generally a good thing as long as we are tethered by the kind of reasonable limits Ellis mentions.

  15. henrybish July 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    p.s. anyone know how to get formatting for quotes? Let me try:

    This is mean’t to be a quote

    This is ‘blockquote cite=””‘ whatever that is meant to be.

    This is ‘strong’ whatever that is.

    This is ‘strike’ whatever that is.

    We should learn to use these things it would make out conversations much more readable.

  16. Steve July 7, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    Late to this discussion, but I agree with Nate. Zondervan is out to make money. I really wish they didn’t decide to stop publishing the old NIV 1984. I along with many others think its just fine. The new 2011 version is too different and much like the TNIV. They’ve changed so many of my favorite verses! My hope is they will still sell the old NIV as the “NIV Classic” (or “NIV 1984” or something like that) to a market of those of us who prefer this version. But of course they can say they tried that with the TNIV and NIV earlier. Oh well! I will continue to use my trusty NIV 1984!

  17. Chris Donato July 9, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Jumping in briefly to also add my disdain for Ellis’ five-point list. But I’m not interested in defending or prosecuting in particular the NIV. The important question for me has to with functional equivalence vs. dynamic equivalence.

    As a student of scripture, I love my dynamic equivalent versions. I remember being surprised (some years ago now) to find how accurate in particular the TEV (and the NLT) was in capturing the idea (esp. of the Hebrew) during seminary courses. I don’t disagree that these versions act like commentators, but that’s their strength, in my opinion. Lay folks are not going to read commentaries, and for daily reading, the TEV and NLT are great devotional aids when contemplating God’s Word, precisely because they make educated decisions on what certain confusing passages mean.

    Brent’s point about the KJV is spot on (as well as the major overlapping between translation philosophies). If we’re unwilling to recognize this, we might as well go back to chaining the scriptures to the lectern (which, admittedly, what with the proliferation of both bad translations—functional and dynamic—and study Bibles, doesn’t sound like a bad idea).

  18. Donald Johnson July 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    My take is there is a bit of a false dichotomy in the idea of functional equivalence verses dynamic equivalence. It can easily be the case where what is called a word-for-word translation is actually a mistake, for example, when the word is a used as a metaphor, but the metaphorically meaning is different when considering the 1st century and the 21st.

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