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Monday, June 09, 2008

When translation committees chicken out

"This edition of the New International Reader's Version has been revised so that the gender language more closely matches that of the New International Version."

From A Word About the New International Reader's Version in the NIrV Discoverer's Bible for Young Readers, 2002, Zondervan.

In March, I blogged about how the Contemporary English Version had been edited to put "grace" back into the "graceless CEV." (See my article at Lingamish: Seasoning the CEV with grace)

Translation committees are sometimes persuaded to reverse their translation choices based on public pressure. In the case of the CEV, I was quite disappointed to see the "Seeker Friendly" Seek Find issued with antiquated English. The 1995 CEV was at some point edited for the 2006 edition and numerous instances of "God's undeserved kindness" or "God treated us much better than we deserved" were edited out and that amazing word "grace" was popped back in.

Although I am always in favor of intelligibility, I think acceptability is even more important. If people reject your translation, it doesn't matter how "clear and natural" it is. I've seen this happen in two cases recently in Africa. The N. translation was beautifully done but they chose a word for God that wasn't acceptable to pastors. The result: a wasted printing of thousands of Bibles. In the case of the S. translation, the traditional word for "grace" was replaced by a "meaningful equivalent." The result is that the translation has been almost universally rejected.

So what do you think? Did the NIrV editors make the right choice editing out gender neutral language?

Here's NIV, Psalm 1:1

Blessed is the man
       who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
       or stand in the way of sinners
       or sit in the seat of mockers.

Here's the NIrV, Psalm 1:1

Blessed is the one who obeys the law of the Lord.
     He doesn't follow the advice of evil people.
He doesn't make a habit of doing what sinners do.
     He doesn't join those who make fun of the Lord and his law.

It's interesting how the "simplified language" with shorter sentences results in more pronominal references than even the NIV.

To see the full-blown "gender neutral" language, here's the TNIV, Psalm 1:1

Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,

And how about the CEV? Here's Romans 5:15-20 in the 1995 edition ("charis" and "charisma" in bold):

15 But the gift that God was kind enough to give was very different from Adam's sin. That one sin brought death to many others. Yet in an even greater way, Jesus Christ alone brought God's gift of kindness to many people.


17 Death ruled like a king because Adam had sinned. But that cannot compare with what Jesus Christ has done. God has been so kind to us, and he has accepted us because of Jesus. And so we will live and rule like kings.


20 The Law came, so that the full power of sin could be seen. Yet where sin was powerful, God's kindness was even more powerful.

This is the same version that is available at

But the 2006 version that I have in the Seek Find edition is heavily (if unevenly) edited. In this edition, the CEV editors changed the instances of "kindness" to "undeserved grace." As I mentioned in my Lingamish post, this is the worst of both worlds. If grace is understood as being undeserved kindness from God, why say "undeserved grace?" That's redundant.

This is an example of the sloppy kinds of patch up jobs translators can do when they're trying to please everyone. On one hand, they've got a consultant saying, "Grace is no longer a term that carries any of the connotations of the biblical term charis." So the translators try to find a good term for charis that communicates well for modern speakers. Then they send it out to the reviewers and they freak out! "Where's grace? This isn't right. What are we supposed to sing in church, 'Amazing undeserved kindness how sweet the sound?!?'" So, the translators go back and try to change it to something that the consultant will accept and the pastors will accept and the result is some awkward phrase like "undeserved grace." Lest you think I'm casting stones, let me confess, "I've been there and done that!"

Does anyone know of any other translations that have come out with a later more formal edition after the original "free" edition?

And which is more important to you: intelligibility or acceptability? Or is there a third option?

And a quick note: I've really enjoyed Suzanne's recent posts on love and also kephale. I loved that line, "the possibility of a relationship of loving interdependence." Sorry I can't comment but for some reason it's easier to post an entire post than comment on Blogger.

P.P.S. If anyone can track down the story on the 2006 CEV edition published in Seek Find I'd be very interested to hear it.


At Mon Jun 09, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Does anyone know of any other translations that have been come out with a later more formal edition after the original "free" edition?

Oh, that's easy... the revisions of the NEB (REB), the Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the New Living Translation (NLTse) are all considered more formal and less "free" than their predecessors. Though I suppose it depends on what you mean by an "edition" vs a "revision"...

At Mon Jun 09, 02:28:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

What a thoughtful post! Who says there's no political correctness in Bible translation? The TNIV committee certainly didn't chicken out, did they?

Some of us just wish Mary Sidney Herbert Countess of Pembroke would have translated Psalms 1 - 43, just as she did do beautifully with 44 - 100.

Oh well, at least her brother did better than the translators under Edward VI. Here's Sir Philip Sidney's intelligible and acceptable and free beginning to Psalm 1 in 1586:

HE blessed is who neither loosely treades
The straying stepps as wicked counsaile leades;
Ne for badd mates in waie of sinning wayteth,
Nor yet himself with idle scorners seateth;
But on God's lawe his harte's delight doth binde,
Which, night and dale, he calls to marking minde.

Here's the rest of Sir Philip's translation.

Now compare that to what King Edward VI is reading:

BLESSED is that man, that
hath not walked in the counsel
of the ungodly, nor stand in the
way of sinners : and hath not
sat in the seat of the scornful;

But his delight is in the law
of the Lord : and in his law
will he exercise himself day and

The rest of that is in here, with a bit of background there.

You make us sympathize with all the issues. I really think there's a lesson, in that psalm, for men who translate the psalms. Doesn't it sort of warn against chickening out of the "full-blown. . . language" of men and women?

At Mon Jun 09, 04:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It's the slippery slope, David. Once they start putting "grace" back in the Bible, who knows what else they might put back in, don't you know!


I happen to agree with you. The CEV is one of the few English Bibles which which we could (and do) give to people who do not understand Biblish. It's too bad they felt it necessary to put back in "grace," a word which a high percentage of English speakers do not understand with its intended biblical meaning.

At Mon Jun 09, 05:58:00 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Those are some good thoughts, David. Personally, I'm for "grace" because I think the meanings go deeper anyway - iow, some teaching on that is required anyway. (Back to carpet vs. shoes, imho.)

Thanks too for the parallel comparisons. Good observations. Not knowing a word of Hebrew, but assuming the Hebrew says "man", I say the BOOK should read "man".

When we read from it, we can paraphrase outloud. Or in personal devotion, christians should feel free to modify the pronouns for gender. I don't have any problem with that.

But the question is what to write in the BOOK. I don't want a translators opinion of what the psalmist would have said in today's culture. I want a faithful translation of what the Psalmist said.

Just my $2.

At Mon Jun 09, 07:34:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Not knowing a word of Hebrew, but assuming the Hebrew says "man", I say the BOOK should read "man".

In "today's culture" or in any culture where the translator always has his opinion (or hers if she's allowed), does the English "man" really belong in a translation of Ezekiel 1:10-11 (especially in v 11, where the writer uses one of the same words the psalmist does in Psalm 1:1)?

At Tue Jun 10, 04:46:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Bill, the Hebrew word in translation is sometimes, and appropriately, translated "man" or "husband". But sometimes it is gender generic and better rendered as "person, human being". And in other cases, as perhaps here, its meaning is more or less as a pronoun, and gender generic, meaning more or less "each". As there is no reason in this passage to suggest a gender specific meaning, it should not be rendered with a word like "man" which in current English in a context like this is clearly understood as restricting the application to males.

At Tue Jun 10, 06:10:00 AM, Blogger Nathan said...


What do you think of this argument?

The Noun איש (’îš) in Biblical Hebrew: A Term of Affiliation
David E. S. Stein
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8: Article 1 (2008)

... After noting that the primary sense of איש is probably not “adult male” as many lexicons state, [this article] sketches some implications for glossing, translating, and interpreting איש.


At Tue Jun 10, 07:01:00 AM, Blogger scott gray said...

or, just read it this way once in a while, to conjure a different picture in one's mind:

blessed is the woman
who does not walk in the counsel of wicked women,
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

and after thinking about that for a while:

blessed is the woman
who does not walk in the counsel of wicked men,
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

this way, everyone is in some kind of trouble.


At Tue Jun 10, 07:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan, I saw David's article some time ago and was very interested. I didn't go into the subject in enough depth to be sure if I entirely agreed. But it does make sense that the same word is used for "adult male" and as a pronoun, as also (more or less) in German, "Mann" and "man" which differ mainly in a spelling convention.

At Tue Jun 10, 05:25:00 PM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

Very nice post, David.

It might well be appropriate to have a translation for seekers in which chesed and charis, where traditionally translated 'grace,' are translated with 'undeserved kindness.' In any case, I sure wish the Gideons would stop distributing KJVs to people whose knowledge of higher register English is based on watching Ophrah. Why not distribute NIV or ESV or some other widely accepted literal, but not incomprehensible to the masses translation? NLT might be an even better choice for a hotel room, but let's start somewhere.

As far as Psalm 1 is concerned,
'ish is not there to specify gender (see David E. S. Stein's studies: do I need to post on this?). It simply individualizes.

I consider NRSV and TNIV unacceptable because they pluralize. The contrast between the 'one' whose delight is in divine direction and the 'many' who scoff at the very notion, whose source of direction derives from elsewhere thank you very much, is essential to the psalm's teaching.

At Wed Jun 11, 02:11:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

This is not meant to be a sarcastic post.

I see a conflict between on the one hand opposing the NRSV and TNIV on the basis of singular/plural distinctions (which I call "number-accuracy") and not opposing other translations which do the same.

I got an aliyah on Monday for the recitation for the Ten Commandments. As the commandments were read, I followed in the scroll. The text in Hebrew at Exodus 20:2 begins:

אנכי השם אלקיך, אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים

(You notice I am pious with words referring to God.)

Now, most contemporary translations do something like the following (ESV):

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. . . .

Of course, this is not number-accurate at all! Indeed, this is one of most important places for the Bible to be number accurate -- that these are personal utterances (דברות) to us -- not utterances (דברות) to the community.

Yet, the only translation I noticed (I did not search very many) that even footnoted this point was the NET Bible. The scholarly NRSV Study Bibles (New Oxford Annotated Bible and HarperCollins Study Bible also noted it. But no other contemporary Bible I consulted noted it at all.

(Note by the way that Jeff Tigay's notes in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible is a perfect mess in its annotation on this verse, although Sarna gets it exactly right in his notes of the JPS Exodus Commentary.)

Another way to handle this is to get the number right in the translation. The KJV does this precisely: I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt. . . . [Notice that the "thy" and "thee" are exactly where they should be. Notice how "have brought thee" elegantly captures the plural first part of אלקיך ("have") -- while also capturing the singular second part of אלקיך ("thee"). It is a work of genius.]

So, my preference would be for the Gideons to translate the KJV, because unlike the ESV, it gets the number right. Or, if that is not possible, then to distribute a footnoted Bible such as the NET Bible or the New Oxford Annotated NRSV which gets it right.

It is precisely for this reason that I favor first the KJV and second the NRSV in an annotated edition as an adequate Bible, and cannot tolerate others, that frankly dumb down the number issue.

Again, this is not meant to be a sarcastic post. John: you and I are on the same page here, and so I am surprised you do not agree with me on the KJV (you think it too difficult, but I believe you underestimate the average American) or with annotated NRSVs.

Once again -- I am entirely serious with this comment -- in my opinion among widely used Bibles, only the NRSV annotated Bibles, the NET Bible, and the KJV are acceptable at all.

And again, I cannot imagine a more important point for this to be made clear -- God gave the Torah to each Jew, individually, at Sinai.

At Wed Jun 11, 09:22:00 AM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

Hi Iyov,

I picked on NRSV and TNIV because they are both excellent translations, yet still do things I find difficult to accept. The same applies to other excellent translations, such as ESV, NJPSV, REB, NJB, NAB, and so on.

In the end, of course, there is really only one solution: learn the languages of the Bible, and learn them well.

Your favorite three translations, KJV, NRSV NOAB, and the NET Bible are also excellent. Each has a place, though I don't think any one of the three makes a good first Bible for the average non-churched or non-synagogued reader.

As I'm sure you are aware, it's not that difficult to find places where KJV and NRSV mangle their source text. It's just in the nature of things. I've given examples in posts on my blog. I'm not familiar enough to say for sure, but I assume the NET Bible also opts for questionable solutions on more than one occasion.

At Wed Jun 11, 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov, surely the "have" in Exodus 20:2 KJV is not to agree to a supposedly plural "God", something which I am sure you would consider a grammatical error, but to agree with the first person "I". Modern English does not always carry person agreement inside relative clauses, but KJV English does, as in the well known "Our Father which ART in heaven".

At Wed Jun 11, 02:23:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Right as usual, Peter. That will teach me not to post comments in the wee hours of the night.

However, my main point is as follows:

(1) Some people claim that the distinction between plural forms and singular forms in the Bible are theologically significant. For that reason, they criticize translations with inclusive language (since in English making statements inclusive requires either using a plural form or an awkward construction).

(2) However, many of the same people favor the use of "you" rather than "thou" (and similar second person pronoun forms) on the argument that the second person singular is archaic.

(3) I find it odd that those same people do not equally insist that when significant theological meaning is lost (e.g., Exodus 20:2 and the complete Ten Commandments) that the point is not footnoted or otherwise indicated. The fact that the Ten Commandments are addressed individually rather than collectively is certainly theologically significant.

I might add further, that John's later point, that there are other places where the translations "mangle" the texts does not negate my argument. Those ESV advocates who argue for it in part on the basis of its number-accuracy must acknowledge that the ESV is not consistent in its handling of singular/plural issues (and the NRSV [in annotated study editions], the KJV, and the NET Bible are at least in places, more accurate in their handling of singular/plural issues.)

At Thu Jun 12, 07:24:00 AM, Blogger Bill said...

I sure wish the Gideons would stop distributing KJVs to people whose knowledge of higher register English is based on watching Ophrah.

@ johnhobbins - This cracked me up. Then I thought about it. I'm guessing the Gideon's budget restricts them to public domain texts. If you're serious about your suggestions, someone would have to get the copyright holders to cut the Gideons a major discount.

I definitely agree they cold do better than KJV these days, on reading level alone. Nice idea...

At Thu Jun 12, 08:04:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I'm guessing the Gideon's budget restricts them to public domain texts.

I have talked to the Gideons about using a more contemporary Bible version. The rep understood the issue. They consider it a matter of acceptance, what the public considers a "real" Bible. In some places they use the NKJV. They believe that the public would not accept more contemporary versions as "real" Bibles for hospitals, motels, and jails. At least that's what I was told by the rep I talked to.

At Thu Jun 12, 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov, I agree that there is a lot of inconsistency among people who insist on the theological importance of number distinctions in the third person but are happy to lose them in the second person.

But I have no problem understanding the Ten Commandments in contemporary English as singular and so individually applicable. That is because in modern English the default understanding of "you" is singular. The problem, at least for me, comes only when "you" is supposed to be plural but not clearly marked as such in the context.

At Thu Jun 12, 01:23:00 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Thanks, Wayne, for the inside info. I wondered about that.

Hmm. That bit itself could be a whole other interesting conversation, if you have enough else to make a whole post of it... (?)

At Thu Jun 12, 07:45:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Peter --

My reply to you is here.


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