Friday, September 07, 2007

Lost in Translation

A recent comment to a post on the CBE Scroll alerted me to this blog by Irvine-based pastor Mark D. Roberts, which seeks to articulate some of the issues behind the TNIV "controversy." If you don't know what I'm talking about, just read the first post or two. The whole thing is worth reading, but it's very long. It's done over three web pages, and took me a good couple of hours to read, myself.

To put it briefly, there are Christian leaders who feel that the TNIV (my currently preferred translation) is inaccurate (at best) or even dangerous (at worst). Most of these arguments (but, to be fair, not all) seem to have to do with issues of gender inclusivity.

I've tried, on a number of occasions, to argue that language is dynamic. That is to say, it is constantly changing. The words we use to convey meaning now may not be understood the same way, even by people who purport to speak the same language as we do, in another time. But I've never felt that I've articulated this position very well. I believe that Roberts is a bit more successful when he uses the following illustration:
About ten years ago I had an experience that forever impressed upon me just how transitory our language can be. I was working with my 20-month old son on his animal sounds. You know the drill: “What does a cat say? Meow. What does a dog say? Bark. Etc.” I got to the question, “What does a mouse say?” Nathan answered quickly, “Click.” “Now c’mon,” I responded, “what does a mouse say?” “Click.” “Nathan, you know this one, what does a mouse say?” “Click, Daddy. Click!” In frustration Nathan cupped his little hand, turned it upside down, and pretended to push down on something on the table. “Click, click, click,” he said, “The mouse says click!” At that moment I realized that for Nathan the primary meaning of “mouse” wasn’t “furry little rodent” but “mechanical device that controls a computer.” He was right. A mouse did say “click.”
The problem of the dynamic nature of language is at the core of some of our (that is, anti-TNIV folks versus those of us who like the translation) differences on gender inclusive language. Does the word "brothers," for example, speak generically to both men and women, or is it male-specific? (For Roberts' comments on this specific word, see page 3, but I really do recommend reading the whole thing in order, as each post naturally builds upon the ones before it)

Ultimately, I find that he is fair to the TNIV, citing both positive and negative aspects of the translation. We do not agree at all points. He still "dislikes" the use of the singular "they," whereas I not only consider it an example of how proper English has changed in recent years, but I'm quite comfortable with the usage, and he also desires to err further on the side of "more literal" than I do (such as in his feelings on how the TNIV translates words once rendered "the Jews" as "the Jewish leaders" in some instances), preferring to leave the interpretive elements for footnotes or commentaries. But these are actually fairly fine distinctions between us, and almost insignificant. To these, all I can do is respond with my old professor's mantra: "all translation is interpretation" (in fact, I'm convinced that he actually agrees with that notion, even if we may differ on the finer points of its application).

But, here's my main point in bringing this up. I expect that he and I could converse with civility even at these points of difference. I am well aware of friends and family members who, while being well-intentioned, have strong feelings (usually conservative) on these issues. I have often sought in vain to find ways in which I might productively engage in this kind of discussion with such people, and wonder if I may have found a useful tool, whereby we don't just degenerate into false accusations of "political correctness" or "closed mindedness." Do any of you have any thoughts to share on Roberts' reflections?


  1. What about using concordances to get closer to the original meanings?

  2. Could you elaborate on what you mean? I'm not sure I'd be answering the question you're actually asking.

  3. Sorry, I haven't been back here the last few days. I mean one or more of the Strong's Concordances. Most are for the KJV, but there are now NIV specific ones, too. Harder to disagree about interpretations when you get closer to the source material. ;)

  4. I certainly know what a concordance is, and indeed I do keep one on hand myself. I'm just not sure how you imagine using a concordance here. The issues of translation have to do with most accurately reflecting what a Hebrew or Greek word means in English, and that's not really what a concordance does. A concordance tells us how often and where a word occurs, but the issue of translation is still left to the user.

    I certainly expect that having a concordance couldn't hurt, but I'm having trouble seeing how it tells us much about "the original meanings," other than to show us the context in which a word shows up in other parts of the Bible.

  5. Speaking of the TNIV. There is a great audio version of the TNIV I found called The Bible Experience. A Hollywood production group recorded over 200 top actors, pastors, musicians, with sound effects and music. I have the NT, but the full Bible is coming in October. I found it a great way to engage the Bible. There are some "making of" videos on YouTube. Or you can check it out at

  6. I'd heard of that one. Ultimately, it came down to 1) what I could get a hold of fairly quickly and 2) cost. The version I got ended up winning on both counts.

  7. Hi B-W, I'm totally with you on this. I wrote an entry on my own blog about the TNIV awhile back... just thought you'd be interested. click here. I got a lot of great information from the Grudem/Strauss debate about the TNIV. I have linked the audio to the debate on my entry. There's a transcript of the debate floating around in cyberspace as well. Just look it up on google. :)



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