Monday, June 18, 2012

The NIV – Yet Another Example

Working through the Gospel of John with a weekly small group has once again reminded me of the debilitating effect of study Bibles, which I’ll address in a future post; of the piecemeal fashion in which we read and study the Bible, which I’ll also address in a future post; and of the poor job the NIV does in being faithful to the original text. It has also got me thinking about how little, if any, folks know about translations.

Around the table we have mainly NIVs; there is one NASB and one ESV; we used to have one KJV but that person was recently given an NIV so she is now bringing that – I wish she’d continue to bring her KJV along with it.

I don’t understand why some commentary writers write for NIV commentaries for I can’t see how one can do that without seriously criticizing the NIV; but then those writers typically subscribe to the “Dynamic Equivalent” theory of translation so I guess that explains it. If one wants to witness the slippery slope of this theory one only has to look at the more recent permeations of the NIV, permeations which I don’t keep up with but which, the last time I looked, was neutering the Biblical text in more ways than one.

One of the problems with the NIV and other pseudo-translations is that they think for the reader, thus dumbing down the text; these translations argue that they are translating the thoughts of the author, but that indicates that the translators are mind readers and I doubt that is the case. They also argue that they are making the text more understandable for the reader – well now, what ever happened to good solid engagement with the text…not to mention the Holy Spirit? Then there is the argument that most people read at a ninth or tenth grade level (a level which is likely degrading so that what is now a tenth-grade level may soon become what is now a sixth-grade level) – the thinking is that rather than bringing people “up” we bring the text “down”. That’s pretty sound thinking isn’t it? It must be sound thinking because that seems to be how society operates in many arenas.

By the way, what does this say about the ancient readers of the Greek and Hebrew texts? Among other things it says that they were able to hold complex and prolonged paragraphs and passages in tension without losing the tension and intricacies of the passages. We can’t do that as a society – we insist on treating a text piecemeal because we can’t hang with a Pauline paragraph that encompasses a few verses – it’s too much and we shut down – I’ve seen it in small group after small group – it’s like feeding a baby pureed food.

I like using Romans Chapter Six when I illustrate one of the problems with the NIV; it uses the term “sinful nature” for “flesh” (sarx in Greek). The NIV has no warrant for substituting a “term” a “designation” for a word that is clear Greek, sarx is sarx is sarx and it means “flesh”. Now as to why Paul uses the word “flesh” in Romans Six, well now that is another question – but that is not a question for translators, that is a question for the reader and the teacher. The NIV does the reader’s work for her, it does the teacher’s work for him, and we need not interact with Paul the human vessel or God the Author – the NIV has taken care of that.

Time and again when teaching and observing I’ve seen the NIV dumb down the text – but those who don’t know the text beyond the NIV don’t know it, nor do they know the theories behind the translations. (When does one take a time out in a small group or Bible study and say, “Do we understand the different theories behind the translations we are using?”)

Here’s the thing that has disgusted me in our study of John; when Jesus prefaces key statements with “Amen, amen, I say to you…” the NIV substitutes, “I tell you the truth”. Here again, as in Romans Chapter Six, the Greek is clear, in fact the Greek word is “amen”. So Jesus is saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” At least the KJV, NKJV, ESV and NASB use “Verily, verily” or “Truly, truly” or an equivalent – they are keeping a word for word correspondence to the Greek text and in so doing are retaining both the cadence and emphasis that Jesus places on His statements. (Just to clarify, I don’t think that all translation need be word for word, considering that Greek is a synthetic language, like German, it often takes more than one English word to correspond to a Greek word, plus a Hebrew or Greek word may have a thought behind it that is better expressed by more than one English word - I appreciate the KJVs use of italics when adding a word for better understanding.)

Read John Chapters Five and Six in the ESV, NASB or KJV and look for the Amen, amen or Truly, truly, or Verily, verily; read them again and again with an eye on these statements, savor their rhythm and emphasis, note the statements of Jesus that follow them – you don’t see this in the NIV. Reading these chapters in the NIV is like listening to a symphony in which all point-counterpoint has been removed. (About a year ago I did a blog series on John Chapter Five in which I held that Jesus’ use of “Amen, amen” is the equivalent of Yahweh proclaiming, “Thus says the LORD”, thus Jesus is proclaiming His Divinity. Whether one agrees with this or not at least if we have faithful translations we have something to wrestle with!)

I’ve seen this weekly small group go through the first six chapters of John and no one has caught the “Amen, amen” statements – in part because they’re reading the NIV – what a shame. A symphony without a motif – that’s the NIV and its companions in the land of the slippery slope.

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