At last November’s ETS meeting in San Diego, I attended a dinner hosted by Zondervan celebrating the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of the New International Version (NIV). Doug Moo is the head of the committee that oversees that translation, and he gave an extended address on the NIV in particular and on Bible translation in general. Zondervan has made a PDF of that address available for free. You can download the booklet at right or at the link below.
Douglas J. Moo, We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr, Presentation from the 2014 ETS Annual Meeting (Zondervan, 2014).
Thank you for posting this.
While I agree with the vast majority of what Prof. Moo has said, I would push back just a bi against this presentation. It seems to me that helping the target audience clearly understand the Biblical text is the goal. Prof. Moo assumes that the best way to do this is to map the translation to the way contemporary speakers and writers of English actually use the language. That may not be true. Let me suggest a practical and a historical example of this:
(1) Prof. Moo says that he would like to use “unto” but that it has become archaic. I would reply, it might be archaic but would anyone have difficulty understanding what it means? [This is very different than translations like “Daughter of Zion” which easily baffle contemporary English speakers]
(2) Wycliffe invented a large number of words and expressions precisely so that he could communicate to his target audience. I don’t suggest that modern English translators need to invent new words, but the question should be “How can we accurately communicate God’s word in a manner that is clear to our target audience.” It think it is also worth suggesting that translations can carry explanatory footnotes for words or phrases where the translators are concerned the target audience may have difficulty understanding what they meant.
One thing I wish Prof. Moo had addressed is that the original books of the Bible are not written at the same reading level (Micah is harder than Ruth and Hebrews is harder than Mark). This poses an interesting question: Why do most translations try to translate to one uniform reading level when God didn’t inspire the Bible at a uniform reading level?
I thought this was a great article. I wanted to hi-five Moo on several points.
Regarding mvpcworshipblog’s (is that a first and last name?) comment, I’d reply that determining whether or not something is difficult to understand is the very reason why they make such use of computational databases. Sure, these highly trained scholars could sit around a table and create something that they THINK is easy to understand, but they went beyond that. They validated their assumptions through modeling. Of course, I also expect that they did a “common sense” check after consulting the database, but using a modeling method to determine what is or is not difficult to understand is a very sophisticated and appropriate approach. In other words, let contemporary use of the language alert you to what’s clear, not your own subjective belief about what constitutes “clear”.
During my theological training, I was consistently surprised at the number of young men and women who were offended and confused by non-gender-inclusive language. To me, use of words like “man”, “mankind”, and “he” were very easily understood as generic, and I didn’t believe they impeded readers at all. I was wrong – what I was taught about language wasn’t as universal as I thought, and I would have created a translation that was an impediment to truly understanding the scripture if I would have gone with what I or my enclave believed was understandable. I deeply value the work of Moo and CBT in diving deep into this issue.
Benjamin, one clarification. The study that they used measured usage, not understandability. There are many expressions that may not used very often but that may still be understandable to native English speakers. A good example would be “forefathers.” “Forefathers” is not a term that contemporary speakers use very often. We tend to use something like “ancestors” instead. Nevertheless, “forefathers” is still a term that’s understandable to the native English speaker.
Fair enough, usage is not the exact same as understandability, but I think your example might have made my point. Based on what criteria can you say that “forefathers” is still a term that’s understandable? You and I might believe that it is, but you and I are both educated and well read individuals. Moo points out that 35% of US adults read below a 5th grade level. I don’t think that translations should aim at the lowest common denominator, but this does highlight that what educated Americans believe is understandable might not be reality.
Moo’s point seems to be that, after wrestling with the issue, CBT has decided to determine language accessibility (the kissing cousin of “understandability”) through language usage. This means that “forefathers” may not be the appropriate term to use, despite both us both believing that it should be understandable.
I’ll repeat my commendation: I deeply value the work of Moo and CBT in diving deep into this issue. They deserve more of a pat on the back than most Bible readers give them.