Friday, September 22, 2006

Ideology in Translations

My OT professor is not a fan of the NIV. The problem, as he sees it, is that they had a "theological axe to grind" when translating. He made an admission that everyone "brings in suppositions," but somehow we were supposed to view the suppositions of the NIV translation committee with suspicion, while his own suppositions, while they may not be perfect are at least "scholarly."

Let's take a case that he mentions -- Genesis 2:19. Here is the NIV:

"Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them"

Here is the NASB:

"Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them"

The difference is that the second one seems to have a time order contradiction to the Genesis 1 story (God made man, then the beasts), while the first one switches the verb tense slightly to make it fit (God made man, and had already made the beasts).

Now, the professor admits that "had formed" is within the semantic range of the verb (יצר). But apparently, it is invalid to use that even though it makes the most sense within the text.

On another occasion, the professor has said that he finds it very interesting that the Hebrew people kept multiple versions of accounts, and even let them conflict with each other, because they were more interested in preserving a diversity of traditions than having them all work together.

Now, the question is, doesn't this make his determination of the verb form actually the one that has a theological axe to grind? The NIV committee seems to have simply chosen the tense of the verb (of the range of valid choices) that makes the most sense within the text. He wants to choose the one that makes the least sense, which just so happens to coincide with what he likes about the way the Hebrews collected scripture.

I don't mind that he claims the NIV committee had a theological perspective. It's the fact that he claims that they are translating according to a theological perspective and he himself is not (especially when his choice goes against what would make sense within the text) which really chaps my hide.

For more reading on why people like the NIV translation of this, see here (look under "Factual Contradiction #2") and here.

For more reading on why people do not like the NIV translation of this, see here (second half of posting -- if someone has a better reference for a "no NIV" let me know).

Of course, what's really silly is that in a language that deals so much less precisely in tense, we are arguing over precisely what tense is meant! Perhaps the point is that chronological order was not the main point. In that case, the specific verb tense is irrelevant. You have to pick one, but ultimately it doesn't matter, because all of them are going to be more specific than the Hebrew one. Harmonize with Gen. 1? Fine, but don't pretend that this is exactly what the Hebrew is saying. Don't harmonize? Fine, but don't pretend that the verb tense is specific enough to make a contradiction, either.


At 9/22/2006 9:48 PM, Blogger Wonders for Oyarsa said...

I'm sure your professor is only looking at things objectivly, as all liberals surely do.

I probably agree that the ESV and NASB are better translations than the NIV (just look at John 1:13!), but I find it interesting that he pits "diversity of traditions" against "working together." It makes a world of difference if you are going to read the Bible critically or sympathetically. When faced with the apparent dissonance between the two stories, one could say "look - a contradiction! Aren't we clever!" But if one is humble and seeking wisdom, one could say "Wow, this is really tricky. What is this wise author (and the Spirit of God through him) trying to say through these passages?"

At 9/23/2006 10:17 AM, Blogger Oloryn said...

I probably agree that the ESV and NASB are better translations than the NIV

The ESV and NASB are more literal translations than the NIV, but you'd expect that, as the NIV aims to be an idiomatic, not a literal translation. This has advantages and disadvantages. E.g. a very literal translation of Amos 8:1,2 doesn't get across the fact that there is a word play involved in the Hebrew, and thus makes the passage very puzzling (what in the world would a basket of summer fruit have to do with the end coming for Israel?). The NIV's "ripe fruit" and "the time is ripe" gets the idea across better in English.

My preferred translation is the NASB, but I had a period where it seemed the Lord had me switch primarily to the NIV. I think this is because the NIV's translation style makes it easier to follow flow of thought, to just plain listen than a very literal translation. Much as I like the NASB, to me it tends to read a bit stiffly compared to the NIV. It lends itself very well to nit-picking analysis, but less so to just trying to listen to what the writer is saying. You need both, and especially you need to make sure the former is serving the latter (and as we're seeing from cseminarian's posts, this doesn't always happen).

BTW, the above passage has always given me pause. I'm an inveterate punster, and Amos 8:2 strikes me as very like the typical punster's joke setup. What are we to make theologically of the apparent fact that God is quite capable of cracking a pun in the midst of pronouncing judgement?

At 9/25/2006 9:49 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

Since I don't see a trackback option, this is just to let you know that I commented on your post on my blog.

At 10/11/2006 8:31 AM, Blogger S and C said...

Thank you for reiterating the clear truth that every translation has a Tendenz! Can we all just be honest about that. BTW, there is an interesting related discussion of the NIV at Peace, --(Prof.) Stephen Cook

At 10/14/2006 8:08 AM, Anonymous Lorna said...

I like NIV :) End of discussion? maybe ... but it's always good to refer to other translations too.

Living here in Finland I find NIV to be most easily understood. NKJV is not, and NRSV is hard. We don't use the American Bible in Europe for obvious reasons.

ESV is great but not widely available and is more literal which I like.

I also love the message but not as a primary source (and would delete all references to baseball which no one but the Americans understand anyway)


Post a Comment

<< Home