The Politics of Bible Translation

The New International Version is the Bible translation of choice for English-speaking evangelicals. So you might be surprised to learn that the 2002 “update” of the translation chose to use gender-neutral language for humanity. And you might not be surprised to learn that this proved to be a marketing disaster.

The translation committee will not make the same mistake twice. Another revised version of the NIV is now out in electronic format and will be available in print next year. According to an article in USA Today, the translation committee went back to “mankind” instead of “humankind” and “man” instead of “people.” (Direct quotes in this blog entry are from the USA Today article.)

Why? Because “man” most accurately represents the literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words? Because “man” is most faithful to the original intent of the biblical authors? Because “man” most readily translates the truth of the Gospel into our contemporary context?

Actually, they made the change “in order to appease critics.” The head of the translation committee, Doug Moo of Wheaton College, admits that the committee researched what words evangelical Christians prefer.

Ahhh, a Bible that is custom-made to suit particular theological and political proclivities. Can I get one of those? I would like my translation committee to find a more gentle term for God’s anger. And maybe they could do something with Jesus’ words, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And surely there is a different way to translate those passages that seem to say that women cannot speak in church.

Special interest groups are upsetting enough when they control so much of our political process. I am deeply angered that a special interest group has been allowed to so thoroughly influence the most popular and accessible translation of the Word of God. (Anyone else feel like turning over some tables?)

Evangelical leaders like James Dobson and John Piper have used their influence over hundreds of thousands of Bible-purchasers to dictate to the Bible translators how to translate the scriptures. If the Bible does not get translated according to their liking, they will start using a different translation.

And so the NIV committee did their best to “create an accurate English Bible without ticking off readers.”

I can’t help but wonder what the New Testament would be like if Jesus had shown such concern for the religious powers of his day. At a press conference, at the ripe old age of seventy-five, a well-dressed Jesus with his slightly overweight disciples (and their photogenic wives) could have explained to reporters the secret of his success: “I just tried to present an accurate portrayal of God without ticking off the Pharisees.”

I, for one, am sticking with my New Revised Standard translation. And maybe brushing up on my Greek.

6 thoughts on “The Politics of Bible Translation

  1. Hi Joanna,
    Found your blog via your FB status update. I remember when the TNIV came out and the controversy surrounding it. I was (and still am) in the camp of “if the original language is inclusive/gender-neutral, then why can’t the translation be inclusive?” Makes sense to me.
    And to change language to cater to a certain group of people…sheesh. Where’s the integrity and authenticity?
    Personally, I prefer either the NRSV or the NASB, anyway.
    By the way, I added your blog to the blogroll on my own site. Hope that’s OK!

    • Good to hear from you, Patty. “Integrity” is definitely the word for what seems to be missing here. I think the Jewish tradition is onto something by having the faithful learn the original language of their scriptures.

      BTW, send me a link here or on FB to your blog. I’d love to take a look.

  2. how annoying! just as annoying is that most people won’t take the time to realize the changes and simply buy into whatever their current translation says without asking the tough questions of the translators. i’m sure it’s not any better, but i always make my own edits (with regards to gender) when i read a passage from a translation that i don’t care for.

    • Hey, Andrew,

      I often edit what I read as well–both for human and divine gender issues. But sometimes I get into grammatical trouble if I try to do it on the fly.

      I realize no translation is completely unbiased, but this really is ridiculous.

  3. I don’t know why anyone should be surprised. It seems to me I’ve read this same critique of every English translation that has come about since the days of Wycliffe. Your suggestion that people learn the scriptures in the original language is admirable. But here again the question of authenticity and trustworthiness is raised. The New Testament canon was assembled from texts that were written generations after the death of Jesus. You wouldn’t submit a doctoral thesis in history which quoted and cited second and third hand sources, would you? Some of these texts were edited or selected to support the Orthodox party of Emperor Constantine. Those that didn’t were summarily disregarded. Is scripture reliable? Perhaps in the most broad, and generalized manner it is. Infallible? Definitely not. Inerrant? Absolutely not.
    So quibbling over the use of Mankind vs. humanity, or Son of Man vs. The Human One [egad!] when the whole question of authenticity is at stake is not worth the bother, and probably best left up to the Jesus Seminar. Meanwhile, innocent folks are losing their lives caught in the cross-fire of stupid wars, while others are dying of starvation. Being Christ is more important.

    • The surprise is that the bias is so blatant, not that it exists. And yes, we could discuss the problems with the canon as a whole and the original Greek sources. That’s for another post . . . as is the Jesus Seminar.

      And “amen” to being Christ.

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