God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Bible Translations Make News in 2011

According to the Religion Newswriters Association, Bible translation stories were among the top 10 religion stories of 2011.

The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:

  • Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)

  • Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)

  • The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”

Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.

The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.

Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.

And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.

Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.


December 15, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Girl Animals, Boy Animals, and Neuter Animals

CNN’s belief blog has an interesting story about a request by PETA not to call animals “it” in Bible translations:

PETA is hoping the [NIV’s] move toward greater gender inclusiveness will continue toward animals as well.

“When the Bible moves toward inclusively in one area [human gender -JMH] … it wasn’t much of a stretch to suggest they move toward inclusively in this area,” Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s vice president for policy, told CNN.

Friedrich, a practicing Roman Catholic, said, “Language matters. Calling an animal ‘it’ denies them something. They are beloved by God. They glorify God.”

I think it’s an interesting and complex question, and I’ll try to post some reactions when I have time. For now, read the article.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

More About the Revisions to the (T)NIV

Thanks to A.Admin on Aberration blog for pointing out the recently posted FAQ about the revisions to the (T)NIV.


Of the 31 questions in the FAQ, 7 are specifically about gender, and another few are about “flashpoints” (their word and their scare quotes) — presumably gender and the word sarx — in the translation.

Yet I don’t see any clear division in their answers between “gender inclusivity” and “gender accuracy” (I wrote about the important difference here.) They do say (Answer 5), that “It is not possible at this stage, therefore, to give a definitive answer to the question about the use of gender inclusive language in the new NIV.” But they are also committed (Answer 23), “to accurately translate God’s unchanging word into contemporary English.” It seems to me that that philosophy demands gender accuracy.

Regarding the generic “man” for “people” — and specifically regarding the potential claim (Question 24) on the part of readers that “Christians are intelligent people. We understand that ‘man’ means woman and man.” — the response is that, “As with the NIV founders, we still feel deeply conscious of the need that exists for a Bible that offers the whole church — from experienced Bible-handlers to interested newcomers — access to God’s unchanging word in language that all can understand.” I read this as them saying that experienced Bible-handlers are okay with “man” while newcomers are not. Q/A 25 offers roughly the same answer to the same question asked from the other side of the debate

To me this seems like the wrong way of framing the gender issue (though it might be more helpful regarding technical words like sarx).

According to the FAQ, “Instead of answering [some questions] individually, we have stated the theme of the question and have included the answer. Other questions are as they appeared when sent to the site, altered in some cases to correct spelling and grammatical errors.”

This approach is potentially important for understanding Question 16: “I am saddened to hear that the TNIV will no longer be in print. […] I certainly hope that the new NIV2011 Bible will lack the divisiveness of its predecessor, but please prayerfully consider the importance of gender-inclusive language, especially in cases where it is actually more faithful to the original text. God used the TNIV to bring me (and I suspect many other thoughtful women) even closer to Himself as I felt him speaking more directly to me as his daughter” (my italics).

I know there are people who think that gendered language should be used for God in English; others vehemently disagree. I wonder if the inclusion of a question phrased like 16 gives us a clue about the direction of the next (T)NIV. (To me, it sounds like the authors of the FAQ wrote both the answer and the question in this case, paying careful attention to the words.)

General Philosophy

Q/A 22 restates what we already know. The new translation will not attempt to be a word-for-word translation. The question is, “Who are you to change the language of the Bible? (This is a general question many have asked in polite and not-so-polite ways.) and the answer is “Translators of the Bible are sometimes accused of ‘changing the words of God.’ Guilty: Anyone who translates the Bible changes every one of ‘God’s words’ — because ‘God’s words’ have come to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. […] The real question, then, is how best to translate the original words of God into English words.” The answer then explains that the word-for-word approach doesn’t work.

Answer 29 gives a little more detail: “The committee simply considers how best to communicate the original authors’ ideas and the cadence of their language in the way they would have spoken themselves had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today.”

It’s a tall order.

September 21, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , | 2 Comments