SBC Rejects NIV: An Examination of Translation Techniques

As part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s national meeting the issue resolutions on various issues ranging from their desire for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman to their most recent one, a rejection of the NIV.

The SBC has said that it “cannot commend” the 2011 New International Version Bible translation because of its use of gender-neutral language. This comes as no shock to those of us who watch the SBC and are familiar with its systemic approach to making sure women stay out of leadership roles. It does, however, give us a good opportunity to talk about translation techniques. There are two basic translation techniques: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.

Formal Equivalence
Formal equivalence can be thought of as “word-for-word;” that is, the thought goes, each word in the source language has an equivalent in the target language. Formal equivalence places the emphasis on the source language, following the syntax and sentence structure of the source language and merely using words from the target language. Look at Matthew 6:9-10 as an example of how rigid a formal equivalent translation can be.

Father of us who in the heavens, be holy the name of you; come the kingdom; become the will of you as in heaven and upon earth.

The problem with a highly formally equivalent translation is that just because one word is used in two different places it does not mean that the word should be translated the same way in both places. Take, for example, the English word “read.”

Susie liked to read while the other kids played during recess.

Susie was sad because before recess was over she had read her entire book.

The word “read” has two different meanings/ideas in the two sentences above. It is the context and our knowledge of the nuances of the English language that help us know this. In a similar way, context often determines how a word should be translated. Translation is not a code; that is, there are not 1-to-t equivalents, no matter how much we would like for there to be.

Dynamic Equivalence
Dynamic equivalence, on the other hand, can be thought of as “thought-for-thought.” It is not as rigid and tries to translate the basic sense or idea of the text in a way that comes through in English without necessarily being strict about the syntax or word choice. Dynamic equivalence places the emphasis on the target language. The thought is that since the text is going to be read by people who only know the target language, it should be readable along the standards of the target language, not the source language. Most translations lean toward dynamic equivalence because they understand that most of their readers will not be reading the text for scholarly or academic purposes.

The potential problem with translations that are highly dynamically equivalent is that they risk losing the sense of the original text. One can certainly find multiple creative ways to state an idea in a text so that it is easier for those who will ultimately be reading the translation, but it is easy to lose the sense of the source language if one is not careful. A common aspect of dynamic equivalence is substituting a metaphor from the text for a modern-day metaphor that current readers will quickly grasp. This is problematic because the translator has to be sure that she/he understands the original metaphor (a task that is more complicated than it may seem) and that the replacement metaphor gets across the same idea without pushing an idea too far or not taking far enough.

All translations fall somewhere along the continuum between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence with the translators (often a group) determining the best way to translate each passage. A saying that I constantly remind myself of when I am reading translations and doing translation work myself is that all translation is interpretation. All translators make judgment calls based on their background, knowledge of the context and worldview of the original text, and their facility with both the source language and the target language.

There are some, like the SBC, who will say that only strictly formally equivalent translations are accurate, but since there is no such thing as a strictly formally equivalent translation (even Young’s Literal has to make dynamic translations from time to time) they aren’t making a real statement. Because of the nature of the translation process translators are forced to make judgment calls on how a certain word, phrase, or passage should be translated.

In its resolution the SBC stated that they were profoundly disappointed with the NIV publishers (Biblica and Zondervan Publishing House) for their “inaccurate translation of God’s inspired Scripture.” The assumption, of course, is that the SBC knows how to accurately translate the text. The even deeper-seated assumption (misconception) is that there is one right way to translate the text. The myriad of translations available today should tell the casual observer that that must not be true. Further, the SBC is making this statement based on one issue, that of gender-neutral language, so let’s look at this issue.

Gender-Neutral Language
The practice of substituting gender-neutral language (i.e. brothers and sisters) for gender-specific language (i.e. brothers) is a practice that has been around for some while. The idea behind this is based on a well-known aspect of many ancient languages of defaulting to the masculine gender.

For instance, let give the word “group” the ability to convey gender by putting either an “m” or an “f” after the word in parentheses to convey the gender of the word. If a text talks about a group of just men the word would be “group(m).” If the text talks about a group of just women the word would be “group(f).” But, if a text talks about a mixed group containing both men and women it would not be “group(n)” (neuter), but instead would be “group(m).” A masculine form of the word would be used to describe even a group that was composed of men and women. Knowing this, many translators will choose to use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language based on the context.

Additionally, though, for many translators that choose to use gender-neutral and/or gender-inclusive language they have chosen to do so based on their personal convictions; namely, that the text was produced in patriarchal societies and since we are not a patriarchal society we do not need to reproduce the discriminatory language. These translators fall closer to dynamic equivalence on the continuum on this issue, but, it should be noted, they will often fall closer to formal equivalence in many other instances (often being more accurate translations than those that claim to be literal).

So, has the NIV produced an “inaccurate translation”? No. They have simply provided one that in some cases falls closer to dynamic equivalence on the continuum.

I generally opt for translations that work as hard as possible to be formally equivalent but are not afraid to engage dynamic equivalence when the text demands it and when the readability of the translation would suffer without it. As I said earlier, all translation is interpretation. Even those of us who prefer formal equivalence to dynamic equivalence cannot think that we are immune to this, for their is just as much interpretation involved in both translation techniques. One is not “better” than another. They represent different schools of thought on the translation process and absolutely none of them will be 100% “accurate.”

NB: This has been written with the average reader in mind and thus has not employed non-English examples even though they make the various points much more convincingly.

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