Lost in Translation

Lost In Translation

I have recently started using the NIV(2011) version in my preaching on Sundays, and a few people have asked me why I am doing this after using the ESV for 10 years, so I thought that I would take a moment to share a little of my reasoning. The short answer is that sometimes it is refreshing to have a change, but is not simply a matter of taste as I hope to briefly explain.

The starting point is the fact that the Bible was written in ancient languages: Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. As few of us are, or indeed ever will be, fluent users of these languages we need to have a translation into a language that we can read and understand. Translation however is an imprecise process and also involves a degree of interpretation. The Italians have a proverb which says ‘traduttore traditore’ meaning ‘the translator is a traitor’. There is inevitably loss when something is translated; the question is how much loss is acceptable.

Consider the simple English expression ‘My name is David’. If you were taught French at school you would have been taught to introduce yourself with the expression ‘Je m’appelle David’ and told that this means ‘my name is David’. However, if you simply replace the words with English this would become something like ‘I call myself David’. This would be understandable but not the way English people speak. A translator has to choose between formally following the wording and structure of the original language, and producing something that is more readily understood in the target language. Bible translators use three words to describe the priority of their translation.

  • Formal translation – aims to replace word for word, at times sacrificing good English style and using a more extended vocabulary. A formal translation is good for students of the bible with a wide vocabulary and a good understanding of the background of the Bible times. In short those who are prepared to work a bit to understand what the Bible says. (e.g. NASB, KJV, ESV, RSV)
  • Functional translation – aims to achieve a more understandable quality of English using more common vocabulary in the same way as the wider population. This sacrifices some of the nuances of meaning for the sake of readability and makes the text more understandable to a general reader. (e.g. NIV, TNIV, HCSB)
  • Free translation – places the highest priority on simplicity of English and vocabulary. The results are often very easy to understand but the reader may be more strongly influenced by a translator’s interpretation than they realise. These translations can be good for less confident readers, but are also popular for bringing a refreshing perspective on familiar scriptures for readers who normally use other translations. (e.g. GNB, NCV, NLT, The Message, Living Bible)

Note however that all translations involve interpretation, the question is how much are you prepared to accept? It would be easy to assume that the best or most accurate translation would be the one that is most formal. However if you then can’t understand the English that is of little benefit to you! This is compounded by the fact that every language changes and even over a period of a few years words can become outmoded, take on new meanings, or become loaded with vastly differing meaning. This means that we will always need newer translations to take account of these adaptations. The NIV was first developed in the 1970’s and has gone through a couple of revisions such as NIVI and TNIV. The latest revision is known as NIV(2011) because it was produced in 2011, and is one of the most readable and popular English translations available. I hope this will help me make my preaching clearer. If you use the NIV on the You Version Bible app or have bought a new NIV in the last two years then these will be NIV(2011).

Should you change version? That is really up to you! You will find it easier to follow what I am reading on Sunday mornings if you do, and the NIV(2011) is freely available on a smart phone or tablet. In the end, the best translation for you is one that you will read and understand. There is value in any of those listed above and I will continue to refer to them all in my study.

This blog post featured in the February 2014 edition of Lifelines