Demystifying Bible Translation and Where Our Culture Is with Inclusive Language — By Craig Blomberg
Last month I was initiated into the work of the NIV/TNIV Committee on Bible Translation. We met for five days and worked for forty hours at a conference center on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan. There are fourteen of us, half trained primarily as New Testament scholars and half as Old Testament ones. Because the current translations are set for the foreseeable future, the committee’s current role is fairly modest—collecting, weighing and deciding on fairly minor issues of word choice, syntax or punctuation and accumulating a list of agreed on improvements for such time, if ever, as a new edition of either translation is actually planned.
This is the fourth English Bible translation I have played some role in. With the New Living Translation, the Bible was divided into sixths, with a scholar appointed general editor over each large chunk. Then individuals books of the Bible (or small collections of books) were parceled out to three experts (I worked on Matthew), who compiled long lists of suggestions for revising Ken Taylor’s original Living Bible Paraphrased. We ranked these in terms of priority, sent them to the general editor over our part of the Bible, who synthesized a selection of them, interacted with a Tyndale House stylist, and sent a draft back to us for us to repeat the process. Eventually the full translation emerged.
With both the Holman Christian Standard Version and the English Standard Version, I was employed as a second-tier consultant. In other words, after the primary translators had created a draft of a given biblical book (in one case of Matthew; in the other, of Mark), it was sent to me for review. I sent back comments which potentially influenced further drafts of the manuscript.
With the NIV/TNIV Committee on Bible Translation last month, there were fifteen of us working together almost all the time (the fifteenth was a retired member; retired members are welcome to participate but they can’t formally vote on final proposals). After only one week’s worth of experience, my initial response is to say that this is at one and the same time the most unwieldy and the very best process I’ve experienced, or even heard of. We can all talk at almost the same time on any given issue, ask follow-up questions, clarify suggestions, and ultimately come to a decision (with the understanding that decisions can always be revisited in the future). We begin every day with corporate devotions, we build good camaraderie, and know when to laugh and when to be serious.
More than ever, I have an intense appreciation of how much easier it is to criticize a translation than it is to produce one that will be both as clear as possible and as accurate as possible. More than ever, I am convinced that the NIV/TNIV deserves pride of place as the translation that has captured the best balance between those twin goals, with the TNIV one noticeable step up from the NIV in both clarity and accuracy.
What about the big debate over gender-inclusive language for humanity at its peak in the late 1990s? After over a decade since the NIVI Britain’s first stab at an evangelical, inclusive language translation) was produced, I am convinced more than ever that it is the right way to go. I barely ever hear anyone any more in public speech (which is what the Bible was originally written for) even hesitate over sentences like, “Everyone who want to pass the test tomorrow should study their notes intensely,” which is the most common kind of change the TNIV introduced. I do still
here hear some generic uses of “man” and “men” and “brethren” (why people think “brethren” is more inclusive puzzles me since it is just an older English form of “brothers,” but somebody out there is claiming that because students ask me about it every year). But there are plenty of instances where the NIV (or ESV or HCSB) use “a man” or “men” or “sons” that would sound downright bizarre if applied in any normal context of life. And we dare never forget that the Bible was not written to be elegant, or in a high literary style by the standards of its day, but in the common language of the ordinary person (not just men!) to be understood and thus obeyed.
So let’s pray that this flurry of niche translations (a distinctively Southern Baptist one or one with a distinctively old-fashioned literary elegance or whatever) will help those who need what they offer, but that the vast majority of us can soon recognize the TNIV for what it deserves to be—the truly standard English-language version for years to come.
Craig Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 15 books, including 1 Corinthians in the NIV Application Commentary series. This fall, his commentary on James will be released in the soon-to-be-announced Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, a new 20 volume series. His coauthor for this project is Mariam Kamell.
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