Greek scholar Daniel Wallace has two very good online articles concerning Bible translation myths, twenty in all: Fifteen Myths about Bible Translation and Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text.
These caught my attention because in my current season in life I talk to numerous people daily about the pros and cons of different Bible translations as they search for a Bible to purchase. It can honestly be tricky bumping up against or tripping over the ideologies some (perhaps most?) Christians bring with them when buying a Bible (my pastoral and chaplaincy training and experience have come in handy here on multiple occasions). I’ve been told more than once I don’t know what I’m talking about when I recommend a Common English Bible (CEB) or a NIV2011 for example (and this despite my theological training, complete with high marks in Greek and Hebrew even! :-)).
The NIV2011 in particular draws a great deal of mistrust and criticism. The two major objections to the NIV2011 that I hear most often are 1) that the NIV2011 is not a ‘word for word’ or ‘literal’ translation and a word for word/literal translation is not only preferred but the best, most trustworthy, and most accurate and 2) the use of gender-inclusive pronouns in the NIV2011 means its ‘corrupted’ and ‘inaccurate’. The basic claim I hear most often (levied by self-proclaimed ‘complementarians’) is that the NIV2011 is somehow ‘compromised’ or a collusion with radical feminism due to its gender-inclusive translation of generic masculines (ie, ‘brothers and sisters’ vs ‘brothers’). Generally set in opposition to the NIV2011 (as the ‘bad’ or even pejoratively called ‘liberal’ translation) is not only the older standard fare KJV/NKJV as ‘good’ translations but also the newer English Standard Version (ESV) since its doesn’t follow the gender-inclusive philosophy of the NIV2011 and puts forth a claim to be an ‘essentially literal’ translation.
It’s highly interesting then that Wallace* lists the first two myths as 1) that a word for word translation is the best kind and 2) that a literal translation is the best kind. Here we ought to notice that (whether intentional or not) the ESV’s claim of being ‘essentially literal’ plays precisely to these myths and gives the impression that the ESV is somehow ‘more accurate’ and better than translations such as the NIV2011. I’ve seen this dynamic at work in person and even heard others state it as fact. But we should reiterate: this impression is based on perpetuated myths about Bible translation.
In fact, Wallace says,
“Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. Yet, ironically, even some biblical scholars who should know better continue to tout word-for-word translations as though they were the best.”
It’s here that I think we do best to also admit that the ESV is not actually as word for word or literal as the ‘essentially literal’ claim leads one to believe. In fact, where the ESV is concerned, once ‘literal’ is qualified with the word ‘essentially’ it means it’s essentially NOT literal as well. So for those ESV advocates who press on this because the ESV markets itself as ‘essentially literal’, please hear this: as far as any of the most popular translations go, none of them are strictly of the word for word or literal sort. They all sacrifice ‘word for word-ness’ and ‘literal-ness’ for the sake of comprehension in English.
Beyond this it is additionally interesting that the 13th myth that Wallace lists is that gender inclusive translations are driven by some sort of a social agenda. To this, Wallace states well,
“The NIV 2011, for example, strives to be an accurate translation that is understandable by today’s English speaker. And the translators note that the English language is changing. In reality, the older gender-exclusive translations may miscommunicate the meaning of the Bible in today’s world if readers understand the words ‘men,’ ‘brothers,’ and the like in numerous passages to be restricted to the male gender. Translations must keep up with the evolution of the receptor language.”
Worthy of notice here is that Wallace admits gender-exclusive translations (like the ESV) actually run the risk of being less accurate than gender-inclusive translations in this regard. Incidentally, this is one reason why I sometimes refer to the NIV2011 translation as ‘gender accurate’ – a claim that Wallace here seems to support. The NIV2011 may have its issues (there is no translation that doesn’t have ‘issues’ – including the ESV – as the Italian proverb says, “traduttore, traditore”, the translator is a traitor) but they are not related to gender-inclusive (or accurate) language. This is one of the things the NIV2011 does right in my opinion.
Now, my aim here is not to malign either the ESV as a translation nor those who prefer the ESV. I know there are quite a lot of folks that use and love the ESV and that’s fine with me. For me, personally, the CEB is fast becoming my go to, preferred translation. However, I also use the NIV2011 (and even the unfairly maligned TNIV which came before the NIV2011), the Voice Bible (especially for my lectionary readings), the ESV on occasion, as well as doing my own translations. If one favors the ESV that is fine, but the impulse of some (not all) ESV supporters to actively demonize the NIV2011 is deeply disturbing to me.
What’s not fine I think is disparaging the NIV2011 as not accurate, as somehow corrupted, or as compromised and then portraying the ESV as somehow more accurate, not corrupted, and not compromised in contrast to the NIV2011 based on these perpetuated myths concerning Bible translation that Wallace lists. Doing so only serves to perpetuate the polarities found in North American Christianity. Not only is this poor pastoral practice and potentially harmful to people’s faith, but when the NIV2011 specifically is termed inaccurate because its not ‘word for word’ or ‘literal’, or pejoratively labeled as corrupted or compromised in regards to the gender-inclusive translations, this unfairly denigrates and casts aspersions on the work of the many fine scholars of the broadly evangelical NIV translation committee (including Douglas Moo who was the chair of the NIV2011 translation committee and general editor of the NIV2011 and happens to be a conservative complementarian who has no sort of ‘social agenda’ in regards to the gender inclusive pronouns).
The bottom line I think is this: there is no reason to demonize one or another translation based on these myths to somehow bolster or make the case for one’s preferred translation – ESV or otherwise.
*Wallace, it seems, is uniquely qualified to speak to these myths and the issues involved. Not only is he one of the foremost Greek, Bible translation, and textual scholars alive today, he also served as a translation consultant for both the ESV and the NIV2011.