Daniel Wallace, a first-rate scholar of the New Testament who teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, has completed three parts (1, 2, and 3; UPDATE: now 4) of a four part series in which he reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of NIV 2011. Below the fold, I take stock of Wallace’s critique of NIV 2011. I seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in W's critique, just as W endeavors to put strengths and weaknesses of NIV 2011 in evidence.
Wallace says (a summary of selected points in italics, with exact words footnoted):
NIV 2011 – like NIV 1984 - has a breezy style.1 This is accurate. It is also a problem. What if you think, as I do, that a translation ought to be faithful to the stylistic choices of the original (go here for a sharp critique of Bible translation, NIV included, that does not give due consideration to this matter)? From this point of view, it has to be said that NIV is an unfaithful translation. It is breezy in countless passages in which the Hebrew or Greek is not. It is fresh in many passages in which the Hebrew and Greek have a traditioned quality, with stereotyped language of the kind one expects in a hallowed tradition of expression.
To be clear: the translation tradition I prefer, the King James translation tradition (KJV; RSV; NKJV; NRSV; RSV CE2; ESV; etc.) is known for having stilted, archaic syntax in countless cases in which the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek source text is not breezy, but not wooden or convoluted either (there are examples of convoluted diction and argument in the Bible; said examples should be preserved in translation, but often are not, especially in "let's tidy things up" non-literal translations).
A translation that is faithful to the stylistic choices of the original, literary where the source text is literary, traditioned and stereotypical in expression where the Hebrew or Greek is, colloquial and fresh where the source text is (a relatively rare occurrence in the Bible), has yet to be produced.
NIV does a great job of translating the Old Testament.2 As a blanket statement, I’m afraid this is not the case. To be clear, since I am a Hebraist, I hold translations of the Hebrew Bible to a very high standard. Examples I have discussed in which I think NIV’s translation choices are open to criticism include Qohelet 11:1-2 and Isaiah 19:16. Moreover, I am opposed to NIV’s pluralization of constructions in texts in which a singular collective or a singular-plural contrast is part of the semantic message. Psalms 49 and 112 are cases in point; Psalm 1 is an example I have discussed at some length; NIV 2011 retains the singular-plural contrast but at the cost of introducing a heavy expression, "that person," in place of what may in fact be most naturally understood as a *non*-generic masculine singular pronoun.
A comparison with the revised Grail Psalms and NABRE 2011 Psalms is instructive. These two recent Catholic translations preserve generic masculine language in key passages; it is unfortunate that NIV 2011 does not. The pluralization approach NIV 2011 adopts is, in far too many cases, a nuisance in the eyes of those of us who preach exegetical sermons. It becomes necessary to re-singularize in the course of exposition.
NIV is the expression of a spirit of timidity insofar as it includes passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53–8:11 in the body of its New Testament, rather than in a footnote where they belong.3 I could not disagree more.
Wallace’s suggestion is the result of the pitiful restriction of the once robust doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture to the autographs thereof – which we don’t have, and even if we did, about which there would necessarily be endless debates, such as: which “autograph” of the gospel of John should we accept, the one retouched thus far, or that far, or not at all - combined with an irrational exuberance about the extent to which the eclectic text of the NT Wallace prefers can be said to approximate autographs: "autograph," of course, is in the final analysis a term of art.
Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 belong to the New Testament of the Christian Church just as much any other part thereof; I mistrust the spiritual acuity of anyone who suggests otherwise, for the following reason: as if the discipline of textual criticism is in a position to trump the spiritual discernment behind the outcome of the first four centuries of orthodox Christian tradition. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with going behind the text of the New Testament in the form it came to have in the wake of efforts by Eusebius and Constantine (to mention two who played key roles) such that the New Testament in the full and strict sense came into existence. I do not deny that a text of the New Testament from which passages such as Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53–8:11 have been surgically removed is every bit as trustworthy and inerrant as the text which includes them. But it has not been argued in a convincing fashion that we should perform this surgery, and reduce to a miserable footnote those parts of the historical New Testament just mentioned.
At the very least, those Christians – and I count myself among them – who hold to the ecumenical consensus up to and including the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 should want a translation of the Bible that preserves both less and more developed textual traditions of the books of the Old and New Testaments in an even-handed presentation. This kind of edition of the Bible in translation, again, has yet to be produced (NABRE succeeds in the case of the two examples cited above).
In an age such as ours, endowed as it is with a strong awareness of the multiformity of the biblical text across time and space, but also, with a healthy suspicion of the primitivist notion that the best text of a biblical book is by definition the one that can be presumed to have given rise to all others, is in need of a translation of the whole Bible, not only and not merely of the Bible that may have existed - but of course never did, as anyone with a minimum of historical knowledge knows - for an infinitesimal moment, somewhere in Palestine, in the second century AD.
NIV too often opts for interpretive translation, rather than interpretive-neutral translation, wherever the latter is viable in understandable English.4 I concur in full with Wallace’s point.
However much it may pain translators of the Bible, a Bible translation committee has to translate with one eye on the source language and another on the history of interpretation. This is a complex subject, often swept under the rug, with a lot of untruth-in-advertising, as if translations of the Bible out there *are not,* and *should not,* be influenced by the history of interpretation. It’s time to talk about these matters openly and honestly, rather than in private emails among scholars.
NIV 2011’s gender-sensitive translation choices are less awkward than those of NRSV, but awkward enough in a number of cases.5 Wallace proposes that NIV be revised again in order to correct those instances. I concur with Wallace’s proposal.
The need in this sense is urgent. NIV 2011 stands a very strong chance of being rejected by a large number of Christians who delighted and continue to delight in NIV 1984, all because of insufficient care taken on this subject.
UPDATE: Wallace concludes his series with a strong plea that, whatever its weaknesses, NIV 2011 be singled out as one of the best translations the English-speaking world has been given.
According to Wallace's cumulative scoring of three parameters (elegance, accuracy, and readability), ESV is the best translation of the Bible in English (24); RSV and NET tie for second (23); NIV [whole tradition] comes in third (22). Wallace does not score HCSB and NABRE: both would, presumably, score in the same range. Wallace does not score translations that strive for functional as opposed to formal equivalence: GNB, NLT, CEV, CEB, and so on.
1 NIV 2011 “is fresh and ‘breezy’—in the sense that it is easy to read, not in the sense of being nonchalant or indifferent to the weighty matters of rendering God’s Word into a modern language.”
2 “[T]he text hardly changes from the earlier NIV. Yes, it was that good, especially in the Old Testament.”
3 “The reasons translations keep [Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53–8.11] in the text even when the translators themselves do not consider them authentic is due to a tradition of timidity. But with the publication of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (2005), a popular book on the transmission of the New Testament text, the cat is out of the bag. Most biblical scholars—including evangelical scholars—have long recognized that these passages are most likely later additions. We do the living church no service by not fully admitting this fact in our translations. But because these two passages have a long history in printed Bibles and even in the manuscripts, they should not be eliminated altogether. Placing them in the footnotes would seem to be the best policy.”
4 “In this instance [1 Tim 3:2], as in many instances throughout the NIV, I would have preferred that the translators retained a more interpretive-neutral stance as long as the English rendition wasn’t nonsense.”
5 “[T]he gender-inclusiveness of the NIV 2011 creates some problems of style and even meaning in a few places. This version has done a significantly better job in both Matt 18.15 and 1 Tim 3.2 than the NRSV, but it still stumbles over Rev 3.20 (“I will come in and eat with that person”), for example.”
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