Saturday, August 9, 2008

Comments on the TNIV and Gender Language

I recently read Craig Blomberg's post at Koinonia about Bible Translation and the TNIV.  I appreciated his comments on how difficult the work of translation really is and that it's much easier to criticize a translation than to make a better one.  However, I found some of his comments about the TNIV to be misleading.  I think it's important to notice that they're now calling their approach to gender language as "gender-accurate" and "gender-inclusive."  I guess the controversy over their gender-sensitive approach has led to that aspect being downplayed.  

In 1992, the NIV's Committee for Bible Translation issued a statement on Gender-Inclusive Language that stated in part:

"Authors of Biblical books, even while writing Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit, unconsciously reflected in many ways, the particular cultures in which they wrote. Hence in the manner in which they articulate the Word of God, they sometimes offend modern sensibilities. At such times, translators can and may use non-offending renderings so as not to hinder the message of the Spirit"[source].

I agree (for the most part) with the attempt to be gender-accurate.  The masculine plural in both Hebrew and Greek is technically unmarked for gender (meaning it was the default case for a mixed group).  However, I think the TNIV translators messed up on occasion and translated inclusively when a male audience was in view (e.g., 1 Thes. 4:1-6 where I don't dispute that the instruction is useful for women to take to heart as well as men, but I think the writer had guys in mind here.  Show me another place in the NT where "brother" in Gk masc sing refers to sisters as well.  That and the phrase the TNIV renders "to control your own body" is literally "learn to acquire a wife").  The debate over this has been going on for a long time and many more examples could be added.  The TNIV website has a collection of essays on the debate if you want to look at it further.

But the quote above from the NIV committee goes beyond being "gender-accurate."  They aimed to be gender-sensitive and translate to avoid offending modern sensibilities.  My favorite example of where I feel this weakens the text is in Isaiah 19:16.  Compare the ESV and TNIV renderings of the verse.

ESV:  "In that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts shakes over them." 

TNIV:  "In that day the Egyptians will become weaklings. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that the LORD Almighty raises against them."

I think it kind of waters down the insult that was intended against the Egyptians in this context.  As anyone who follows the trends with Bible translations knows, the TNIV set off a lot of controversy with their approach on a number of levels.  A number of denominations passed resolutions against it, and the rather large Southern Baptist denomination was so upset about it that they went and made their own translation so they wouldn't have to use the NIV.

I think the trend to market the TNIV as gender-accurate (and not gender-sensitive) is misleading since the gender-neutral principles behind its translation went beyond an attempt to be accurate and inclusive where appropriate.  Blomberg's promotion of it as okay because it's a better reflection of how we talk nowadays is a weak justification and could be seen as simply an attempt to soothe the conscience of a potential user who is reluctant to move to a controversial translation.

I was disappointed that Blomberg dismissed the ESV and the HCSB as "niche" translations.  I assume he was referring to those two when he said:

"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."

In other words, we should all be using the TNIV.  Maybe we should start a TNIV-only movement.  (I'm sure one may already exist.)  I'm skeptical of any translation's ability to become the new standard for many years to come, as I've said before.  But, apparently everyone except all you Southern Baptists and ESV users (and KJV only people) should just run out and buy a TNIV.  One final thought - if you really want a moderately idiomatic version that's actually pretty good, run out and buy a NLT.  We need to maintain the balance of diversity among bible translations, and at any rate, the NLT deserves to be the new standard just as much as the TNIV or the ESV.

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