Lost in translation header

Lost in Translation?

“Can we use the new New International Version?”

Even asking the question will seem strange to many of us. We grew up with the NIV, we’ve been memorising it and preaching from it for years. But there are two reasons why it’s worth asking the question, even though, to give away the ending, the answer is “Yes, we can enthusiastically use the new NIV.”

The first reason is that the NIV as many of us know it is no longer available. The 1984 edition is no longer on sale and it was removed from online sites like Biblegateway.com in February 2013. So it is worth knowing how the new edition is different – in what ways and to what extent. The second reason to ask whether we can use the NIV is that it has been rather controversial in recent years and it’s worth knowing why.

How is the 2011 NIV different?

Answer: not very different and many of the changes are a good thing. We need to remember that God’s perfect word doesn’t change but that imperfect translations do and that’s often a good thing precisely because they are imperfect. There is always room for improvement. In the case of the 2011 NIV, about 95% is identical with the 1984 NIV. According to the committee in charge of the NIV 2011, chaired by Douglas Moo, changes were made for one or more of three reasons:

1. Progress in scholarship
2. Concern for clarity
3. Changes in English

(For a full explanation see the 2011 Translation Notes)

An example of progress in scholarship is Philippians 2:6 where recent research suggests that in Paul’s mind Jesus didn’t think of equality with God as “something to be grasped” (1984 NIV) but rather as “something to be used to his own advantage” (2011 NIV).

As an example of greater clarity, the translation committee point us to Philippians 4:13. In the 1984 NIV Paul claims that he can do “everything through him who gives me strength” which sounds as if Paul is able to do absolutely anything, whereas the 2011 NIV avoids that misunderstanding by relating it more closely to the context: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Thirdly, the 2011 NIV has made changes due to changes in English in the last thirty years. In the 1984 NIV the word ‘alien’ appears 111 times, but increasingly that makes people think of an extra-terrestrial so the 2011 NIV wisely replaces it with ‘foreigner.’

Perhaps most significantly the NIV has tried to wrestle with how gender functions in English today. Having commissioned extensive research they concluded that masculine pronouns (‘he’, ‘his’) are used less often as generic terms, referring to male and female people, but are used more narrowly to refer to men. Instead plural pronouns (‘they,’ ‘their’) are more common when referring to people generally. For example, people are more likely to say ‘each to their own’ than ‘each to his own.’ This becomes important because it can prevent people mishearing Scripture. For example, here’s Genesis 4:15 in the 1984 NIV: “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” The Hebrew text isn’t limiting this to men, as if a woman could kill Cain without consequences. Previous generations of English speakers would have understood that as well from the 1984 NIV because they used ‘he’ as a catch-all to refer to men and women. But increasingly we do not, and so the NIV translates Genesis 4:15 as "Anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.”

Similarly John 11:25 is not limiting salvation to men, even though it could be heard that way in the 1984 NIV: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.’” Instead the 2011 NIV helpfully prevents that misunderstanding and translates Jesus’ meaning more faithfully: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

So the new NIV is 95% old NIV with minor changes made for those three reasons. If you want to know more, a brilliant breakdown of every single change can be found here.

Why is the 2011 NIV controversial?

There are two main reasons. The first is this question of gender. The most frequent change in the 2011 NIV is the removal of the word ‘he’ (it occurs 1131 fewer times compared to the 1984 NIV) and in part this contributes to the accusation that political correctness rather than Scriptural faithfulness is calling the shots. But this is inaccurate. As we have seen above, it used to be the case that the terms in Hebrew or Greek which referred to people generally could be translated into English with masculine pronouns but for many readers that is now confusing.

In fact, we might argue that there are passages in which this approach positively clarifies the meaning. Despite some objections at the translation of Hebrews 2:6-9 and the removal of singular male pronouns, I’d suggest this is an example of the NIV’s strength. Here are the passages in parallel1:

NIV 1984

NIV 2011

But there is a place where someone has testified:But there is a place where someone has testified:
"What is man that you are mindful of him,"What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
the son of man that you care for him?a son of man that you care for him?
7You made him a little lower than the angels;7You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honouryou crowned them with glory and honour
8and put everything under his feet."8and put everything under their feet."
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

As it is, the NIV 2011 preserves the 1984 text of 2:7-8 in the footnotes, but I’d argue that the 2011 text is probably an improvement. Psalm 8, which the author is quoting from, is about humanity – male and female, our privileged place in creation and our relationship to the Creator. Hebrews is arguing that although we don’t see humanity living up to that status now we do see Jesus. He was made a little lower than the angels in the incarnation and now stands as the fulfilment of God’s purposes for humanity, no longer lower than the angels. This means the references in 2:6-8 are most likely to all humanity as humanity, and so the use of their, them and so on is perfect. Only in 2:9 does the focus shift to Jesus and there, quite rightly, the NIV focuses on Jesus, and the pronouns become singular.

Another gender-related issue is the specific translation of 1 Timothy 2:12. In the 1984 NIV Paul forbids a woman to “have authority over a man.” In the 2011 NIV he forbids them “to assume authority over a man.” The accusation, from those of a complementarian persuasion, is that this only prevents a woman assuming authority but opens the door to women being given that authority. But the fact is that the Greek word Paul uses is very rare and it can have either a negative or a positive sense (grasping authority v. having authority). The NIV translators (many of whom are complementarian) have simply tried to leave that ambiguity in their translation, rather than make the decision for us. They deny that they have been influenced by a feminist agenda and there is no reason to doubt their honesty, not least since Calvin himself translated the phrase this way and he’d never heard of feminism!

The second reason the NIV is controversial is in the debate over the extent to which a translation should try to reproduce the form as well as convey the meaning of the original languages. Some argue that because God inspired the words of the original texts that we should try to translate on a word-for-word basis as much as possible. While there is some truth in this, it’s also a rather naïve view of translation. After all, what’s the best translation of “Au revoir”? Well, “Goodbye”. We’ve translated two words with one word, but that’s a good thing because we have clearly conveyed the meaning. To take a biblical example, borrowed from Rod Decker’s excellent brief review of the ESV (see the further reading section below) here’s a word for word ‘translation’ of 2 Corinthians 6:12:

“Not you are being restricted in us you are being restricted but in the intestines of you.”

Of course, that won’t do. And it proves that any translation will have to rearrange and change words in order to convey the meaning. The KJV reflects a more standard English word order but still doesn’t make much sense:

“Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.”

The ESV moves further away from the Greek word order and imagery:

“You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.”

That makes more sense but the nature of the ‘restriction’ isn’t clear. Enter the NIV, which says:

“We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us.”

Has this made more significant changes to words of the original? Certainly. But doesn’t this also convey the meaning more clearly and effectively than the other options? Just from this example we can see that every translation has difficult decisions to make, but the great advantages of the NIV – its accessibility and clarity – still stand. [I say ‘still stand’ because in fact there has been no change on this approach between the 1984 and 2011 NIV. The debate was simply reignited with the publication of the ESV in 2001 which was accompanied by some criticism of the NIV on this point.]

In conclusion, the NIV has been helpfully updated to reflect progress in our understanding of the Biblical text, to improve the clarity of its English, and to reflect the context in which it is being used. All three are a must for a faithful and practical translation, and we can be grateful for the work of the committee that continues to oversee the NIV. Is it perfect? By no means. But no Bible translation is. And to the relief of us all, God can do great things with imperfect tools!

Further reading

  • New Testament scholar Rod Decker has an excellent review of the 2011 NIV here. His reviews of the ESV are also very helpful: Short version here, longer version here.
  • For an overview of the history of the NIV, see: Combs, William W. “The History of the NIV Translation Controversy.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 17 (2012): 3–34. (online here)
  • For more general discussion of translations, the philosophies behind them and what they look like in practice respectively, see:
    • Dewey, David. Which Bible? A Guide to English Translations. Leicester: IVP, 2004.
    • Fee, Gordon D., and Mark L. Strauss. How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.
    • Kostenberger, Andreas J., and David A. Croteau, eds. Which Bible Translation Should I Use?: A Comparison of 4 Major Recent Versions. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012.

[1] This is adapted from Rodney Decker’s review of the NIV listed in Further Reading above.

This article is not intended to represent the official FIEC belief on any matter outside of our Doctrinal Basis and accepted ethos statements. Rather it has been written to draw attention to contemporary theological issues as well as stimulating theological engagement and healthy discussion.

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