Monday, November 29, 2010

What's wrong with the New International Version of the Bible

Lutheran thinker Gene Edward Veith makes a point in a new post about Bible translations that I have made repeatedly over the last few years. Here is Veith on the problem:

In my earlier post about the even newer New International Version of the Bible, I complained about how that line of translations is indifferent to metaphor, poetry, and beauty of language. I cited as an example how the new NIV renders “the valley of the shadow of death” as “the dark valley.”

I would argue that sensitivity to literary qualities is necessary in an accurate translation. Metaphors are not just ornaments. They express meaning and are essential in expressing complex, multi-leveled, rich meanings that go beyond simple prosaic statements.

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright has called the NIV "appalling" for its simple inaccuracy in translating the Greek. But it seems to me that it is equally appalling, knowing what the correct rendering of the Greek is, to simply change the English after you have it correctly translated.

I had a pastor once who preached out of the NIV. When giving a sermon on I Peter 1:13, he took a ten minute detour, going back to the King James to get the full meaning of the passage. Here's how the King James Version accurately translates the Greek:

KJV: I Peter 1:13: "Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind..."

Here's the text with which the NIV replaces (not translates) the Greek:

NIV: I Peter 1:13: "Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober..."

This is an absolutely wretched way of rendering this passage. It simply does not pick up all of the meaning of the original metaphor. It can't. If the NIV was so great, I asked him, then why did he have to go back to the King James Version to get the full meaning of the passage?

The problem is that modern translators simply do not understand poetic expression, and since much of the Bible--even in what is otherwise prose--is given in poetic expression, they are ill-suited to translate it. If they did understand poetic expression, they would not assume that non-metaphorical language is somehow more "accurate" than metaphorical expression, which is the reason often given for taking out the metaphors of the original translation.

The NIV is a work of linguistic taxidermy. It claims that it can deliver to readers a Bible they can understand, and assumes that readers can only understand dead language (which is what purely prosaic language is).

Imagine a friend telling you that he has a real tiger. But when you arrive at his house to see it, he shows you a stuffed one. You say, "but it's dead." He says, "Yeah, but it's real." "Well, it may be real, but it's dead," you respond. "What's the difference?" he asks.

Maybe the NIV is a real translation. I rather think it's a paraphrase. But if it is a real translation, then it's a real dead one--stuffed and mounted for your hermeneutical convenience by scholars who don't know the difference between a living and a dead language.

By the way, notice that I just used a metaphor to explain what I meant that no purely prose explanation could say in any clearer way.

Veith is absolutely dead-on right here: metaphor is not ornamental. To say that the "real meaning" of a poetic, analogical expression can only be rendered in non-poetic univocal language is to simply betray an ignorance, not only of poetry, but of language itself.

To remove the metaphorical expression of the original language is to mistranslate the Bible. It's that simple. I'm saying it stronger than Veith says it, but I think I'm saying the same thing.

The reason given for "translations" like the NIV is that it uses "dynamic equivalance," which is supposed to be a method for rendering the text in a more understandable way. I'm not well-versed in the technical controversies over Bible translations, but I do know that removing metaphors, far from making something more understandable, does the exact opposite. This is why good writers (I'm thinking of C. S. Lewis here) use frequent metaphors. People who write with clarity use more, not fewer metaphors.

I read the King James Bible as an act of poetic rebellion against the evil forces of univocalism. If I want a Bible for study purposes which is easier to comprehend in English, I now use the Revised Standard Version which manages to be exceptionally clear without removing metaphorical language (imagine that!).

Those using the NIV ought to consider doing the same.


Unknown said...

The Catholic Bible

As Catholics were responsible for writing the New Testament (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), the Catholic Church doesn't "interpret" the Bible. We explain it.

Protestants can only "interpret", because they are not the author (guided by the Holy Spirit), and therefore, can only guess at the possible meaning of a chapter, passage or phrase, just as anyone can only guess at any author's intentions in any other book.

As the author, the Catholic Church is the only proper authority to consult in matters pertaining to the Bible.

Seamus said...

The New American Bible (the only English translation approved by the Catholic bishops of the United States for use in Mass readings) is pretty bad too. I grit my teeth every time I hear the reading from Ezekiel 36, where the translators, instead of having God telling the prophet that He will remove Israel's stony heart and replace it with a "heart of flesh," have Him tell Ezekiel that he will give Israel a "natural heart."

Singring said...

'As Catholics were responsible for writing the New Testament (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit)'


Which of the Apostles was a Catholic? Where in the New Testament does any one person describe themselves a 'Catholic'?

And how do you know the NT was written under the guidance of the 'Holy Spirit'?

P.S.: Even as someone who has read little of the Bible and has little interest in it even on a literary level, I must concur with Martin that those examples of mistranslation are quite awful.

Anonymous said...

As an Evangelical Christian to add or subtract anything from the Bible is unthinkable! It is the inspired word of God just as it is. And for the record the best and truest version of the Bible is the King James Version.

Anonymous said...

It is a proven fact that catholisism has remmnants of pagen worship practices so it is not an authority of Bible matters. The old 1611 King James is still the most agreed upon closest accurate translation of the Word of God. Couple that with the old Strong's concordance, Gesenius Hebrew and Thayer's greek lexicon and you will have some of the best tools for study. However, the "best" study tool is: seek His Face in prayer, ask Almighty God in the name of our Saviour. Jesus Christ, ask dilligently, and He will reveal the true meanings if you are really sincere and honest. Prayer, the most powerful tool of all.

Unknown said...

As a Born Again Evangelical, Fundamental, Bible-believing Christian I would like to state that the word Catholic means universal or all-inclusive. So, when talking about the Roman type (Western or Eastern) we need to be sure that we call them Roman Catholic people.

Now the RC church teaches people to bow down before idols and icons (pictures). This is totally AGAINST both OT and NT teaching. If someone can show me even one verse in the Holy Scriptures of the Bible where idol/icon veneration (bowing down) is advocated or permitted, I shall be most grateful.

Unknown said...

In my 30 yrs of being a student of the Holy Bible, I believe that the only reliable Bible in the English language is the KJV. Why? Because it is the most near-to-the-original translation. All other translations have flaws giving the student wrong understanding of the original intent of the writer.

If interseted, pl do a Google for example: What's wrong with the NIV?

One can do a Google for any Bible by askinmg: What's wrong with ....?

Andy Welik said...

The Holy Scriptures are very clear when the Holy Spirit say: "Do not add or take away from the Holy Scriptures."

The Holy Scriptures for the English-speaking world is the KJV. It's no happenstance that the KJV is THE Holy Bible for English speakers. The Good Lord made sure that the whole world will know English in the "last days" of this world system. Today one can go anywhere in the world and find people who know how to read and write and understand the English language. No other language anywhere in the world has that "privilege."

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an Ex- catholic, you guys have no more authority than anyone else. If you guys cling to your denomination for salvation, you guys are in for a supreme.
Romans 10: 9,10. It does not speak of a certain denomination. Sorry my friend but you need to read you bible more often. I understand salvation just fine. Love you and God bless.