Sunday, March 18, 2007

TNIV—basic idea or details of meaning?

One common criticism of the TNIV is that it dispenses with the details of meaning, communicating only the "basic idea" of a passage.

In Key Issues Regarding Bible Translation, Wayne Grudem writes, "These gender-neutral Bibles only translate the general idea of the passage and omit male-oriented details of meaning." These "male-oriented details of meaning" are overlooked, the critics say, because of a politically correct, feminist agenda.

Such criticism moves beyond the realm of objective analysis. It attributes motive and makes assumptions about what takes place among the translators.

I feel I have a somewhat unique perspective on the matter since, unlike the critics, I've watched the TNIV translators at work. About four years ago, I was invited to observe the committee as they finished work on Psalm 1.

I was working for Zondervan at the time, preparing for the commercial launch of the TNIV. It was made clear to me that I was there to observe... and only to observe. (A clear line of separation exists between Zondervan and the translators, thus protecting the TNIV from commercial influence.)

While I was there, the translators discussed at length whether to use a comma or a semicolon in one verse. Which was more accurate? Which would more faithfully communicate the psalmist's intended grammatical structure? They debated these questions as if heaven and earth hung in the balance.

So it's no surprise to me that gender inclusive language was not incorporated into the translation by means of "search and replace." Instead, the translators pored over the texts—line by line, word by word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark.

Yes, the details matter. Yes, the words matter. Critics of the TNIV and proponents of literal translation do not have a monopoly on attention to detail.

Whatever else you believe about the TNIV, the suggestion that the translators do not care about the "details of meaning" is fraught with logical fallacy and presumption.

8 comments:

Wayne Leman said...

Wow, Ben, I've not heard this particular criticism before. And as someone who has spent many years evaluating different English versions, I find it difficult to believe that anyone would seriously say something like that. Both the NIV and TNIV carefully line up with the meaning of the original biblical texts. There may be a few passages where honest scholars differ on what is the better translation, but I don't think either of these versions can ever be accused of just getting the "basic meaning."

I would challenge anyone who says that to cite even a single example and evidence that they believe supports that claim.

I have suggested a few possible revisions to the TNIV CBT, but they are so careful that they will carefully and deliberately consider my suggestions, and those of anyone else, including each other on the committee.

Thanks for your helpful post.

Melinda said...

It is so very clear every time I read the TNIV that the details were analyzed to this degree. I'd heard you tell this story before, but every time I am at church (my pastor uses NIV) and I read the corresponding passage in my TNIV, I am amazed at some of the differences.

It can be a word that is different or the sentence structure (commas, periods, semi-colons...). And while one might look at the paper and say "wow, that's not so different" I say 'read that again. you tell me what you think after reading it one more time.'

And you know what? They get it. They say "wow, the meaning of that passage suddenly makes sense! It is clearer with that word/comma/phrase than it ever was before!"

And that's why I love the TNIV and am grateful to the CBT that they spend this time and energy over the details. Because I can trust this to be an accurate translation, but also because for me and the community I am part of here, the Bible is alive again. And some of the barriers to understanding God's Word are removed in the TNIV because the language is clear. It makes sense.

ben irwin said...

Hi Wayne, I first read this argument in Gruden and Poythress' book The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy. On page 70, they write: "Nor should a translator assume that he can safely ignore some factors that influence meaning since these are not 'the main point' and therefore (he may think) 'unimportant.'

Later (p 81), they write, "We must be clear that the maning of any Bible passage includes not only its 'basic content' but also the nuances..."

This book was published before the TNIV came out, but it was rereleased as The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy in 2005, with the same content (plus a few new chapters).

I believe Leland Ryken makes a similar criticism in his book, The Word of God in English.

Also, I'm fairly certain that Grudem used this argument on the Focus on the Family broadcast in October 2005. I don't have a copy of it anymore, so I can't be 100% sure of it, though.

Wayne Leman said...

I first read this argument in Gruden and Poythress' book The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy. On page 70, they write: "Nor should a translator assume that he can safely ignore some factors that influence meaning since these are not 'the main point' and therefore (he may think) 'unimportant.'

Ahah! I think I understand what they are referring to, in particular. I think they are talking about the meaning of individual words such as Greek anthropos. This word really means 'person' although it can refer to an adult male in the appropriate context, but its meaning is not 'adult male.' But P&G claim that anthropos has a masculine nuance because it is grammatically masculine (there is no way in Greek for it to be grammatically non-gendered as is the English word "person"). I do not agree with their claim. I don't think that grammatical masculine gender carries with it a masculine semantic nuance.

Now, the English word "man," OTOH, does have a fairly strong masculine meaning component for most English speakers, regardless of whether it is used generically or not. But that's an English word, not Greek.

I believe that P&G are wrong to state that translations such as the TNIV are retaining "basic meaning" but not all meaning components, including nuances. They are wrong, I believe, based on how gender systems work in languages. When Greek speakers and writers use anthropos generically, I see no reason to follow P&G's unique idea about "male representation" where they claim that a person first views a male and then uses that image to extrapolate to a generic idea.

Either there is a generic meaning or there isn't. The problem is that gendered languages, such as Greek, have no way to express generic meaning without using a grammatically gendered form. But the form does not dictate the semantics. Meaning is dictated by the intention of the speaker. Speakers must use the forms that a language has, but they do so with the meanings they intend. A grammatically masculine form use for generic meaning does *not* mean that there will be semantic nuances of maleness. That is a unique theory about language which P&G have presented and I do not know of any empirical studies which support their hypothesis.

Glennsp said...

Sounds good, but would carry more impact if the session you observed covered a time when they discussed why they replaced singulars with plurals or their handling of a contentious verse or verses.
Psalm 1 strikes me as fairly safe ground in this respect.

Wayne Leman said...

Glenn commented:

Sounds good, but would carry more impact if the session you observed covered a time when they discussed why they replaced singulars with plurals or their handling of a contentious verse or verses.
Psalm 1 strikes me as fairly safe ground in this respect.


Actually, Glenn, Psalm 1 would have been ideal, since the TNIV "changed" Hebrew "man" to plural. It has been one of the passages strongly criticized by Dr. Grudem.

Dr. Grudem and Dr. Poythress believe that there is a "representative man" in Psalm 1. The translators of the TNIV as well as the translators of a number of other English versions disagree and believe that the Hebrew word for "man" is a generic term in Psalm 1. Generic singular indefinite terms basically have the same meaning as generic plurals.

Notice how similar the following two sentences are:

1. A pilot who wishes to keep his job must maintain an accurate logbook.

2. Pilots who wish to keep their jobs much maintain an accurate logbook.

I am a fluent, native speaker of English and I am unable to tell anyone what, if any, difference in meaning there is between #1 and #2. They have a difference in that #1 has a syntactic singular, but it is a generic. #2 has a syntactic plural but it is generic. The meaning is the same, although the form is different.

That's how languages work. Often there are forms which are different but have the same meaning and can be considered translationally equivalent.

The goal of Bible translation is not to match forms. If we do that, we will create inaccuracy in translation, especially in the translation of idioms. But also for singulars and plurals, sometimes.

For instance, if we insist on translating singulars and plurals exactly as in the biblical text then we have to translate Hebrew elohim each time it occurs as "gods". But that would not be accurate. There are many times in the Bible when the Hebrew plural elohim refers to our one (monotheistic) God. All Bible versions, including those which are essentially literal and those even more literal, such as the NASB, have had translators that recognize these facts, which show that forms do not always match up with meanings one-to-one between languages.

I, for one, am glad that all Bible translators have recognized this. I'm glad that the KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NIV, TNIV, NLT, and other versions translate elohim as "God" when it meant "God" in the original texts, even though it was grammatically plural.

Peter Kirk said...

The meaning is the same, although the form is different.

No, Wayne, #1 is different because it applies only to male pilots, or presupposes that all pilots are male.

Wayne Leman said...

Peter countered:

No, Wayne, #1 is different because it applies only to male pilots, or presupposes that all pilots are male

You're right, Peter, for those of us who do not use "he" as a generic pronoun. I should have been clearer that I was writing to Glenn who I assume uses "he" as a generic.

#1 in my dialect which has the singular "they" would be:

"A pilot who wishes to keep their job must maintain an accurate logbook.