NIV: Mistranslation, Deception, or Bad Theology? (Image from "Farewell, NIV")

A recent post by Paul Komorebi has been making the rounds, titled "Deliberate Mistranslations in the New International Version (NIV)". It contains a thorough list of passages in which the evangelical perspective of the NIV project has affected its translation, a subject that I have written about recently in "Translation, Rhetoric, and the 'Literal' Word of God". Lists such as Paul's are a great way to spark conversation. People need to know more about how and why translations differ, and why those differences matter. The situation, however, is more complicated than it appears.

Think for a moment about why two translations might be incompatibly—as opposed to merely stylistically—different. The first possibility is that one of them has committed an error, a mistranslation. The domain of "error" in translation is more narrow than you might suppose, however. I reserve this term for technical grammatical misreadings and lexical confusion. There are some of these in every Bible, I suppose, but they are rare.

The second possibility is the specter that Paul has raised: one of them has deliberately mistranslated by choosing words that they know are not supported by the text. Rather than error, we might call this "bias" at best, or even worse, "deception." Paul says that the NIV translators "change the Bible itself — altering the offending words and phrases to say what they think it ought to have said."

The claim that the NIV translators have deliberately changed the Bible is the exact charge that Leland Ryken brings against all "dynamic" versions (including the NIV and the NRSV) versus the ESV's "literal" approach. For more on this, see my recent paper linked above, and Dave Brunn's One Bible Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal, which challenges the idea that any translation can be "literal" in this way.

I do not believe that deception is the best category for discussing the differences between the NIV and NRSV, or any other translations. When scholars respond to the NIV's problems by saying that it has "mistranslated" the Bible, they imply that there is a self-evidently correct translation, a "literal" truth that has been deliberately obscured. And implicit in this is the claim that our own translations are free from such error. Certainly, our translations would never deceive anyone.

Rather, we need to think more critically about translation ethics within the complex layering of personal, communal, and institutional norms and goals. What are the ethical norms and responsibilities of the translator, and to whom do they owe their allegiance?

Thus, the third possibility when translations differ is that each is influenced by its own "theo-politics," the web of commitments and expectations that govern its production and dissemination. There are different ways of getting at this in Translation Studies, but one that I like is the Andre Lefevere's emphasis on ideology and "rewriting." [PDF article link]

This does not imply an easy relativism. Evangelicals have (ironically?) embraced postmodern perspectivalism as a way to carve out their own special-pleading. They think they if they include some language about inerrancy, inspiration, and OT Christology in the preface, that they can do whatever they want to Genesis and Isaiah. Well, they can, technically speaking, but claiming one's theological starting-point is not a rhetorical free pass.

Rather, instead of clinging to an essentialist view of language and critiquing the NIV for its "mistranslation," we need to recognize the role of theo-politics in all translation, and critique the NIV for its bad theology. "Deliberate mistranslation" is rhetorically powerful language, but it does not help us speak and reason clearly about translational difference.