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.

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

Adultery in Matthew 5:32

Adultery and Matthew 5:32

According to Matthew 5:32, divorcing a woman causes her to commit adultery.

But Peter Kirk notices that the new NIV (“NIV 2011”) translation has a new take on the verse. Peter writes:

One rather odd change I noticed, which some might attribute to political correctness: in Matthew 5:32 the “adulteress” (1984, TNIV) is no longer a wrongdoer but has become “the victim of adultery” (2011).

More specifically, the NIV 2011 translates:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

It’s a fascinating and complicated issue.

What Victim?

At first glance, the introduction of “victim” seems uncalled for. The NRSV, for example, representing the usual translation of the verse, goes with (my emphasis):

I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The usual translation makes the case look entirely parallel. A divorcee does the same thing as the man who marries a divorcee. They both “commit adultery.”

But the original is more nuanced.

Active and Passive Adultery

The original Greek uses the verb moicheuo (“commit adultery”) twice. It’s true that marrying a divorcee is moicheuo-ing, that is, committing adultery. But divorcing a woman is to cause her to be moicheuo-ed, or to have adultery committed against her. That is, the first verb is passive and the second is active. The man and the woman here do not do the same thing, according to the Greek.
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November 28, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 336 Comments

Which Jews Opposed Jesus?

The latest incarnation of the NIV (“NIV2011,” released on-line in 2010) sometimes translates ioudaioi (“Jews”) as “Jewish leaders” because “the negative statements made about groups of Jews in the New Testament were clearly never intended to refer to every living Jew at that time….” (translators’ notes, available on-line as a PDF — emphasis from the original).

Even if the translators are right, I don’t think their translation is sound, for two reasons.

The first problem is that the English “Jews,” like the Greek ioudaioi, need not refer to “all Jews.”

Here’s an example, from the NIV2011 rendering of John 1:19: “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” A footnote to “Jewish leaders” informs the reader, “The Greek term traditionally translated the Jews (hoi Ioudaioi) refers here and elsewhere in John’s Gospel to those Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus; also in 5:10, 15, 16; 7:1, 11, 13; 9:22; 18:14, 28, 36; 19:7, 12, 31, 38; 20:19.”

But I don’t think that the (more common) “…Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites…” means “every living Jew” or “every Jew in Jerusalem,” so I think the translators are addressing a non-problem.

Similarly, in John 5:10, the (more common) English translation “the Jews said…” clearly doesn’t mean that “all the Jews said….”

We commonly use group terms to refer to only part of a group. For example, “Americans voted for change in November 2010” clearly doesn’t mean “all Americans.” Similarly, there’s no reason to think that “Jews” means “all Jews,” just as ioudaioi need not mean “all Jews.”

So the English word “Jews” and the Greek word ioudaioi are similarly vague, making “Jews” exactly the right translation. Anything more is to make the mistake of “translating and improving.”

Secondly, though, I don’t even think that “Jewish leaders” is what ioudaioi refers to here. And I think we see this pretty clearly right in John 1:19. The priests and Levites were the Jewish leaders. So it’s not the Jewish leaders who sent Jewish leaders, but rather the Jews more generally who sent the Jewish leaders.

Again, we might by analogy look at English: “The Americans sent their president to high-level negotiations in Versailles….” It’s quite clear that (a) it wasn’t every American who supported the delegation; and (b) most Americans had no say in what their president did. But even so, to say that “The American leaders sent their president…” is not the same thing as “the Americans sent….”

Similarly, “the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites” clearly doesn’t mean that (a) every Jew supported (or even knew about) the delegation; or that (b) every Jew was involved in the decision. Rather, the point is that the priests and Levites were representing the Jews.

The political and religious diversity of the Jews as represented by their leaders, or as seen by the emerging Christians, may be an apt topic for commentary or a history lesson, or maybe even a footnote.

But I think the translation should present the text as it is.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Gender in the Updated NIV

According to the translators’ notes for the updated (“2011”) NIV, “every single change introduced into the committee’s last major revision (the TNIV) relating to inclusive language for humanity was reconsidered.” This is in keeping with an announcement the translators made in 2009.

Some people were concerned about this, because they were afraid the translation committee might reverse some of the progress the TNIV made in preserving gender accuracy.

From the quick look I took today, it seems that the gender-neutral translations for humanity have largely been preserved.

OT Examples

For example, the phrase ashrei adam appears six times. In all six places, the TNIV had “those” for adam, an update from the 1984 “man” in five out of six of the instances.

In half of those cases (Psalm 32:2, Psalm 84:16, and Proverbs 28:14), the NIV2011 changes “those” to “the one,” while in the other half (Psalm 84:6(5), Proverbs 3:13(12), and Proverbs 8:34) the newer version retains “those.” I think it’s unfortunate that ashrei adam now enjoys two translations in English, but I think the more important point is that the gender neutrality was preserved in the new NIV.

Likewise, Psalm 1:1 with its similar asrei ha-ish is now “one.” It was “those” in the TNIV, and “man” in the older NIV84.

In Psalm 147:10, surprisingly, the NIV translators chose “warrior” for ha-ish. I think it’s a mistake, but it still demonstrates a commitment to gender accuracy in translation.

NT Examples

On the other hand, for Matthew 4:4 (ouk ep’ arto zisetai o anthropos), the NIV2011 reverses a decision made by the TNIV, reverting to “man” (which is what NIV84 had) for anthropos: “Man shall not live on bread alone.”

This is confusing. Unless the translators think that “man” is gender inclusive, the translation is wrong. But if they do think that “man” is inclusive, it’s not clear why they didn’t use it elsewhere.
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November 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 19 Comments