NIV11 review by Rodney Decker

The NIV translators sought to communicate clearly to their generation. But English stops for no one. Our language has continued to change, and it has changed much more rapidly during the past hundred years than it did in the seventeenth century. The swirling vortex of technological and social transformation that has surrounded us with increasingly swift winds of change has impacted our language. Our language has changed. Oh, perhaps you speak largely the same way you did in the middle of the twentieth century (at least if you are near my age or older). That is quite possible if you’ve lived in relatively conservative areas of our country or ministered in conservative churches that have long since celebrated their golden anniversary (and perhaps their centennial or even their bicentennial). But English has changed. That is undeniable. (I will return to this subject a bit later in this article.) That is why new translations appear periodically and older ones are revised. Whether we like it or not, we do not live in an era where a translation can reign as sole monarch for several centuries. Perhaps such a time will once again be enjoyed by our heirs should the Lord tarry; but it is not this day, and it does not appear to be tomorrow either.

I’m late to the party, but not too late to link to Rodney Decker’s thorough review of the NIV11 in Themelios.

Particularly informative is his description of a report on English language change based on the Collins Bank of English. I think that using such a data corpus is essential, and hope our other translations are similarly grounded in real language data. He also looks at gender issues in some detail, quite fairly in my opinion.

Thanks Rod for another quality review!

18 Comments

  1. Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Nice review.

    I do wonder about those Formal-Functional diagrams everyone uses though. In what sense is the ESV more or less formal than the RSV? And everyone always seems to think the KJV is more formal than it is. Maybe it’s the archaic language.

    I have read a similar story to his about the Nigerians liking the translation but still wanting to be read the ‘Word of God’, only the story was written 6o years ago, set in Scotland and the translation in question was Moffatt’s. Plus ca change.

    What is the advantage of translating Christ as Messiah, and does it outweigh the disadvantages of making it even harder for the casual reader to understand that Christ isn’t a last name?

  2. Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Even my aunt, a minister’s wife who lives in rural Indiana, uses “they” as a generic third person singular pronoun. She even uses it that way when the gender of the referent is obvious in the context. Ex: “A woman in our church called to let us know that their husband got a job.”

  3. Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    I’m currently reading the NIV11, and am puzzled why the archaic phrase “put to the sword” is retained instead of “kill with the sword” in Joshua and elsewhere.

  4. Daniel Buck
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    You make a comparison that begs the question:
    “Our language . . . has changed much more rapidly during the past hundred years than it did in the seventeenth century.”
    In 1601, there was hardly anything that could be called “our language.” Church records in England were still being written in Latin, the universal language of education in England (the only country where English was the native language). But what was “English?”

  5. Dennis Clough
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    I think the language issue is much more minimal than most people see it. Christ had to explain what He was saying to even the most attentative hearers even though He was speaking their language!

    The things of the Lord are not of this world. The desire to change language even to the point of losing the uniqueness of the revelation being given is counter productive.

    “Washed in the blood” is not so hard to understand to a born-again believer, even though young in the faith. Re-labeling timeless truths with new terms is not done in any other discipline … why should Christianity seek to be trendy instead of tenacious in dogma?

    The church has been weakened over all by a desire to accomadate the Word to the worldly believer and the offended sinner.

    Dennis Clough

  6. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Christ had to explain what He was saying to even the most attentative hearers even though He was speaking their language!

    That’s true. But, let’s keep it in context.

    For example…

    Many, at the time when Jesus walked the planet, were expecting God to “touch down” as it were and take back ownership of the land, even the entire earth.

    There was also discussion of what we refer to by “the suffering servant.”

    But, no one, absolutely no one, put those two together, embodied in a single person. In fact, it’s a pretty easy argument to make that when someone suggested such a thing, they were thought of as irrational, or even demonic. No way would anyone grasp such a wild-eyed idea. Peter himself had to be put in his place when he expressed the ridiculousness of such an idea. He kept his mouth shut, but I’ll bet he was thinking, “Huh?!?!!”

    People have always had to explain themselves when the context in which they were communicating understandably strange concepts was itself brand spanking new. Jesus had to get people moved to a different mental place. Understanding the concepts required a complete change of mind (μετάνοια). One needed to grasp a context where even God himself becomes a loving servant.

    But Jesus didn’t use strange language to explain the strange concept. He used the language generated by the social contract between people of that ancient language group. When I’ve thought about this in the past, I’ve thought about when the Pharisees reacted to a parable because “they knew he [Jesus] was speaking about them.” That parable wasn’t hidden. It was poignant. If you want to get people to have a change of mind (μετάνοια), the loving, kind, generous thing to do is to communicate with them in language consistent with the already agreed upon social contract. Even if they reject it, the servant still has done his job.

    We will always need teachers to explain context and application. But I don’t think we should require teachers to explain the language. I personally believe that a main driver behind “to the Jew first” was simply the practical need to have teachers, on the ground with their boots on, to explain the Jewish context for much of the gospel. However, if the teachers must use a different English than the text itself, then the text itself has not gone through a complete translation.

    For a concrete example, compare these two translations, chosen at random (Luke 14:1-2):

    It happened that when He went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread, they were watching Him closely. And there in front of Him was a man suffering from dropsy.

    One sabbath, Jesus, went to a meal in the house of a leading Pharisee. They were keeping a close eye on him. There was a man there in front of Jesus who suffered from dropsy.

    The first certainly is not impossible to understand; the processing bar is simply higher than the second. Also, I would translate ὑδρωπικός with ‘edema‘ (or oedema in British English). However, more to my point, the second translation is much easier to read (the ‘of’ stream: “the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees” is much better expressed as “the house of a leading Pharisee”). And it’s more accurate (φαγεῖν ἄρτον doesn’t mean “to eat bread”).

    We need to keep ‘difficult to accept concepts’ distinct from poorly constructed English.

  7. Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Donna asked:

    I’m currently reading the NIV11, and am puzzled why the archaic phrase “put to the sword” is retained instead of “kill with the sword” in Joshua and elsewhere.

    The NIV revision team is always under a lot of time pressure when they have their annual meeting. At their last meeting they focused on the issue most important to determine the future of the NIV/TNIV, namely, gender language. This blog and other people contributed many other suggestions for revison of the NIV to have improved English. Few, if any, of those suggestions were addressed, not because the CBT doesn’t care, but because they lacked the time. I hope that they will continue revising to bring NIV English more up-to-date, addressing your observation and others like it, Donna.

  8. Optimus Prime
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t deny that the English language has changed, what I do deny, and deny very strongly, is that the language has changed so radically that a translation done as 1984 (or even 1971 in the case of the NASB) is now completely incomprehensibly and in need of a total overhaul.

    People today regularly watch movies and TV shows, and listen to music from past eras, it is not at all unusual to see a teenager watching Star Wars, or The Wizard of Oz, or listening to albums by the Beatles or Frank Sinatra, never once have I ever seen one of them say ‘I can’t understand the antiquated English in ‘Gone With the Wind’, someone needs to revise the dialogue in this movie for my generation’. In fact, people today regularly read books from the 19th and even 18th centuries without any difficulty….and books like ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Great Expectations’ remain popular with young people today just as they were popular 2 generations ago, despite their age. Yet, people who work in the field of Bible translations expect us to believe that people who read books that are more than 100 years old, can’t comprehend a Bible translation written in their own lifetime unless it is updated and revised. This is patronizing nonsense.

    Also, the description of the word ‘overweening’ as ‘antiquated’….I’ll grant that the word is not the most common word, but if you ever read a newspaper or magazine (or these days, a blog) you will see that it is still used in popular conversations and is widely understood even by people who would never use it themselves….all you have to do is read the editorial pages and you will see that politicians are regularly accused of ‘overweening arrogance’, or ‘an overweening sense of entitlement’.

    Just because a word is not used in casual conversation (although that I do use the word ‘overweening’ in casual conversation) doesn’t mean that they don’t recognize the word or can’t easily discern the meaning from the context in which it is used. And it certainly doesn’t mean that it is ‘antiquated’. Or, worst case scenario, God forbid the reader can simply look the unfamiliar word up in a dictionary, something which is very easy to do these days with an e-reader, all one has to do is simply highlight the word and click!

    The worst thing that a writer can do is have low expectations for his audience, ‘oh no, this word has more than one syllable, no one will understand it, better substitute another word’.

    And that is ultimately my biggest problem with modern translations, the tendency to talk down to the reader. Some of us actually have an adult vocabulary and don’t need everything to be written at an 6th grade reading level.

    This is the Bible for goodness sake, there is nothing wrong with expecting a little effort on the part of the reader.

  9. Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Some of us actually have an adult vocabulary and don’t need everything to be written at an 6th grade reading level.

    Indeed, Optimus. And that implies that some of us do not. But the Bible is intended for everyone. Do you want it to be accessible to only “Some of us”?

    Anyway, the 2011 NIV is by no means “a total overhaul” of the 1984 edition, as you will soon discover if you compare them side by side. It is in general quite a light revision, to correct some points where people might misunderstand the old version. You don’t want people to misunderstand the Bible, do you? But the many who do only read at 6th grade level or less in fact need something much more radically different from the old NIV or NASB.

  10. Optimus Prime
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    “Indeed, Optimus. And that implies that some of us do not. But the Bible is intended for everyone. Do you want it to be accessible to only “Some of us”?”

    The Bible is an inherently difficult book, you do no one any favors by pretending that it is otherwise.

  11. Dannii
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    I don’t deny that the English language has changed, what I do deny, and deny very strongly, is that the language has changed so radically that a translation done as 1984 (or even 1971 in the case of the NASB) is now completely incomprehensibly and in need of a total overhaul.

    But no one said that the NIV84 is completely incomprehensible, or that it needs a total overhaul. Most of it is still very comprehensible, and most of it was not overhauled.

    Yet, people who work in the field of Bible translations expect us to believe that people who read books that are more than 100 years old, can’t comprehend a Bible translation written in their own lifetime unless it is updated and revised. This is patronizing nonsense.

    By whose standard are we judging their comprehension? Everyone thinks they comprehend more than they really do. Good readers are quick to gloss over what they don’t know, filling in the gaps from what they do know. It’s not conscious. But we want better than that for the Bible, don’t we? I want Bibles that truly use the language of the average adult native speaker of English. And because the language of the average adult native speaker of English has changed in the last 30 years, our translations need updates. If it was up to me we’d be seeing daily updates of our translations (online of course.)

    The worst thing that a writer can do is have low expectations for his audience, ‘oh no, this word has more than one syllable, no one will understand it, better substitute another word’.

    There is no default translation – every single word has to be deliberately chosen by the translators. If you have two synonyms, one of which is widely used, and the other is obscure, why not choose the more widely used one? In my opinion “Arrogance” is a much better choice than “Overweening pride”.

    And here are some stats:

    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=overweening%2Carrogance&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    https://www.google.com/search?q=%22overweening%22&tbs=bks:1,cdr:1,cd_min:1961,cd_max:2000&lr=lang_en

    I think it’s interesting to note that a big proportion of those most recently published books with the word overweening are dictionaries… I wonder if there’s a way to exclude those from Google Ngrams…

  12. Dannii
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    For those who are interested the full report on gender language is available at http://www.niv-cbt.org/wp-content/uploads/Collins-Report-Final.pdf

    The report was produced by Collins dictionaries, and not by the NIV translation committee.

  13. Bradley J. Weidemann
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    The Bible does contain complicated ideas. Therefore, there is no good reason to raise further barriers by using pompous vocabulary.

  14. Robert Berman
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Marlowe argues that Deissman’s allegations of the vulgarity of the Greek in the New Testament does not tell the whole story. Rather, the NT uses koine (as opposed to the revivalist formalism of the Attic style) Greek which is elevated in formality due to the presence of many Septuagint-inspired Hebraisms.

    “It is not as if its original readers would struggle through it with such difficulty as a modern schoolboy might experience in the reading of Shakespeare’s plays. The Greek of the New Testament is fundamentally the koine Greek of its time, not the Classical Greek of a bygone era. But it is not merely the common language of its era, and it does not represent the lowest and simplest form of the koine. It is the common language ennobled by an infusion of Jewish and Christian meanings for many words, and by many borrowings from the language of the Old Testament, chiefly from the Septuagint version. In short, it is ‘Biblical’ Greek. If we were to look for an example of an equivalent style in English, we would find it not on the street, but in religious writings, such as sermon collections, in which the style of the writer is much influenced by the language of traditional English Bibles, and in which words are often used in technical senses established by theological tradition.”

    http://www.bible-researcher.com/language-koine.html

  15. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    While I agree that “It is the common language ennobled by an infusion of Jewish and Christian meanings,” I would not finish that clause with “of words.” The ‘meanings’ come from forms bigger than that.

    But, more importantly, I don’t think the analogy to an equivalent style being the religious language of today holds. I think a better analogy would be to how British English is different than American English. A Brit might say, “We’re in a sticky wicket,” or “I was bowled over.” We Americans ‘get it’, though our reference is not as full as the Brit’s and the accuracy isn’t quite there. (And, obviously, we spell better, leaving off all those extraneous ‘u’ vowels. :-) )

    The original audience wasn’t the entire Greek world. It was more constrained than that. Though I also don’t think it was constrained only to those within the Church such that one had to be “on the inside” in order to know what was being said. In the text where Paul tries to make clear (though translations fail here) that clear communication is important, he refers to the outsider being convicted when the outsider hears what is being said (cf 1 Cor. 14).

  16. Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Mike, we are in the same ball park here – and we Brits understand that Americanism.

    But perhaps a better analogy would be to a text about cricket, using words like “wicket” and “bowled” literally and in their technical cricketing senses. Such a text might be easily understood by any well brought up Englishman. But the only Americans who would understand it would be those who had had the privilege of being initiated into the wonderful game. That is not because the language is difficult, but because the text presupposes a basic understanding of cricket. Similarly, I can make a tentative suggestion that the New Testament, at least in part, would have been hard for most Gentiles to understand, not because the language is difficult but because a basic understanding of Jewish religion and culture is presupposed – but most Greek-speaking Jews would have had no problem understanding it.

  17. Posted March 26, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    “Other more formal uses might best be represented as “gentlemen” (e.g., Acts 14:15) or perhaps “brothers” (e.g., Acts 15:13, in which both NIV and ESV translate the phrase ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί as simply “brothers”).”

    It’s obvious why this is. James was addressing “the apostles and elders.” It has apparently been conceded in the NIV that this was a male-only audience (but where was Junia?). But back in Acts 1:16, Peter, using the exact same Greek phrase, comes out in the NIV as calling them “Brothers and Sisters.” Why? well, apparently because some women were present (v. 14). But was Peter addressing the women, or just the men? Because what he was convening was a church council to elect a man from among them to take the apostolic seat vacated by Judas. Doesn’t it make sense that the women were present, but not part of the voting quorum? As in 15:12, “the whole assembly?”

    The NIV assumes a role of women in church leadership in chapter 1 that it turns around and denies them in chapter 15. This is not translation.

  18. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I notice that in the article Decker has corrected his reporting of the text basis for Junia, noting that there is no instance of the name being accented as a masculine name. This is an improvement over the original form of the article.

    However, Decker does cite the NET bible note without correction on the issue of Junia. In footnote 93, he cites,

    “When, however, an elative notion is found, ἐν (en) plus a personal plural dative is not uncommon (cf. Pss. Sol. 2:6). Although ἐν plus a personal dative does not indicate agency, in collocation with words of perception, (ἐν plus) dative personal nouns are often used to show the recipients. In this instance, the idea would then be ‘well known to the apostles.’ See Burer and Wallace, ‘Was Junia Really an Apostle? 76-91, who argue for the elative notion here.””

    It is this kind of misinformation which makes it impossible to have an unbiased conversation about gender. The text is clear that Pss. Solomon 2:6 does not contain the elative notion of episemos. It is deeply to be regretted that although the editors of the NET Bible are quite aware of this information, they are unwilling to edit this note.


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    [...] BetterBibles brings up Rodney Decker’s deep review of the NIV 2011 update. [...]

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