Mark Roberts on the TNIV, Part I

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Mark Roberts has been working through a balanced evaluation of the TNIV and the surrounding debate for quite some time now. He started over a month ago, and he's not done yet. I've been planning to interact with him on it all along, but by the time I got ready to say something he already had enough posts that I would have had to read too many to do much, and then I decided to wait until I had a large block of time. I've given up on that. I'm going to move through the posts a few at a time, focusing on crucial points and summarizing what seems right to me. If I have disagreements, I'll spend some time explaining why. I expect to post these interactions over a few different posts. [See links here.] This post covers Mark's first five posts in the series.

Here's the link to his whole series. As I talk about specific posts, I'll link to them also.

The first post in the series gives lots of great information that I think most people who've formed opinions about the TNIV simply haven't bothered to pay attention to. Any view on the issue has to take into account the facts, and these are what all sides of the issue will agree on if they're up to speed.

I appreciated Mark's explanation in part three of why he uses different translations in part three, even with the downsides he mentions. I really do think it's best to have multiple translations to use for different purposes, and different readers will best be served by different translations anyway, depending on age, level of education, how well they know English, how much background they have in their understanding of the Bible and the ancient languages and cultures relevant to biblical interpretation, and whether they plan to use this Bible for close study, for quicker reading, etc. For the record, I think the familiarity with the sense of the text that comes from using multiple translations far outweighs the downside in terms of memorization. I'd much rather know cold what Paul's flow of thought in I Corinthians 13 is than have the exact words of some English translation memorized.

In the same post, he makes this crucial statement:

Good translations can get close to the original meaning of a text, but cannot perfectly duplicate that meaning. Some of the debates about English translations (not just the TNIV debate) seem almost to assume that perfection is possible, and has been achieved by one particular translation. But this is wishful thinking. It�s important for those of us who take the Bible seriously to remember that translations are not inerrant. At best they convey the meaning of the inerrant text in a relatively accurate and faithful way.

That's been one of the most obvious things to me about many of the arguments against the TNIV. Too many of their arguments complain that something is lost in translation without recognizing that any translation decision involves which things will be lost in translation, not whether something will be lost in translation. Such arguments are linguistically naive.

Post #4 says two major things that I think are worthy of attention. First, it gives a pretty clear case of the NRSV, TNIV, and NLT, all inclusive language translations, deliberately not choosing the most favorable translation for the egalitarian view. You can read the post if you want more details, but this is one example among many that shows that the gender-related changes are not part of any political agenda to obscure gender role differences in the Bible.

Second, his comments about translating hoi Ioudaioi in John is very helpful for understanding what's at issue in some of these debates. Two ways of rendering this both have problems. Translating it as "the Jews" in our context will make people think John is talking about the whole Jewish nation or Jews as a whole, when by and large he's simply referring to some of the major figures in the Jewish leadership at the time. A close exegesis of the text in context will show that, and the best commentators have backed this claim up very carefully.

However, the other option also has problems. The NLT and TNIV translate this expression as "the Jewish leaders". The critics are right that this translation decision is based on an interpretive move that a straightforward reading of the Greek text by a first-time reader might not have picked up on. It turns out to be the right interpretation, I think, but should it be part of the translation or should the reader of the translation be left to make the same move the translators of the NLT and TNIV made in interpreting the text? Mark thinks the NLT and TNIV go too far here. Given that this interpretive problem is a problem in the original text, the translation shouldn't just translate it away but should leave the reader to deal with the problem the way the reader of the Greek would have had to.

I think I'm a little less convinced of this than Mark is, but in the end I think I'd say the same thing, at least about the TNIV. Ultimately, I think an issue like this will have to take into account the audience of the translation. Since the NLT aims for children, I believe no older than junior high, and people whose first language isn't English and are still in need of a more basic translation. In this case, the kind of criticism Mark raises is at least a little less strong than it is for a translation aimed at adults with a good grasp of the language they're reading. The TNIV, I believe, is not a children's Bible. So the criticism is stronger for the TNIV. In the end, I'd still say I agree with Mark. I wouldn't advocate this particular translation decision. I'm not sure it would be the same with every similar case, but on this one I think Mark is right.

[Update: Another example is reported here. They changed 'saints' to 'God's chosen people'. I think this makes the same mistake, but what's worse is there is a better translation than either. They could have just used 'holy ones' or some variant. An example mentioned in the same article seems absolutely right to me. They removed 'aliens' and replaced it with 'foreigners'. Many kids really do think of extraterrestrials when they see 'aliens' in the Bible. I did when I was a kid.]

The fifth post steps back to call us to examine our attitudes and our language toward fellow believers. Two items stood out in my mind. In his third plea, he says "It has always seemed sadly ironic to me that some of those who do battle for the authority or integrity of Scripture do so in such an unscriptural way." Then in the fourth plea, his call to recognize our genuine unity is of urgent importance in a debate characterized by what D.A. Carson quite accurately calls Bible Rage.

More to come soon...

4 Comments

In one sense all translations are also commentary, what the translator(s)thought the intent of the author was in text (best case - dependent on properly discerning intent - see or below) or the underlying cultural, philosophical, spiritual, or religious bias of the translator (worst case).

The whole process is further affected by formatting, layout, versing, paragraphing and inserting headings, red text, and a multitude of other "helps". No translation stands on its own as just words and sentences trying to convey words and sentences.

I just finished reading the series. Excellent though some people may get hiccups when he gets to translation nitty-gritty. One thing is obvious:
I really have to get back to learning Greek. My ABC's and reading with basic understanding is embarrassing.

Jeremy said:

"Given that this interpretive problem is a problem in the original text, the translation shouldn't just translate it away but should leave the reader to deal with the problem the way the reader of the Greek would have had to."

This is excellent, in principle, but many readers are even less equipped to deal with such problems than are the translators of English Bible versions, many of whom are longtime exegetical experts of the books which they were assigned to translate for that version.

I would suggest that another alternative would be to put within the translated text itself the wording which is best supported by exegetical evidence ("the Jewish leaders" is one of those which is strongly supported like this), but then footnote the literal rendering, and, ideally, even include bibliographic references to the exegetical literature that deal with the issue. Then, of course, we run out of room for the footnotes, unless we do like the NET Bible does and have more footnotes (which I really like) than we do translation text! Perhaps with modern technology we do need to move more toward hyperlinked Bible versions so we can click on a footnote bibliography link to get more back information and the sources where more information can be obtained.

This is an exciting time to be alive in terms of how we can better understand the Bible, due to having such a wealth of technology available to us to help us in our reading.

Unless, of course, we speak one of the 3,000+ languages which have no Bible at all.

The NET footnotes are excellent enough that I really wish I could get a cheaper hard copy. Last I knew it was really expensive.

As to the last point ... or unless we have no access to electronic media, as many people who even speak English don't.

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