How Do You Evaluate a Bible Translation?

I got the most recent issue of Christianity Today a few days ago, and found that they had weighed in on the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent resolution against the updated NIV. This is the best line of CT’s response:

The only criterion for a good translation is this: Does it accurately convey what the authors said and what the original listeners heard?

Matthew on the hunt for 'gender neutral' language in the latest translation

That is the issue, and attention to it is curiously absent in many conversations I have observed about new translations, especially the 2011 NIV and before it, the TNIV. Too many people are not asking whether a new translation accurately conveys the intent of the original. They are instead asking how a new translation compares to their current favorite translation. If the new translation doesn’t measure up, it is given the label “gender neutral” (as is the case with the SBC’s resolution, though it is not a label the NIV translation committee uses), “politically correct,” “revisionist” or even “postmodern.” I’ve actually heard all of these.

These labels aren’t helpful. It has been especially sad for me to see pastors and other influential people refuse to evaluate a translation based on its fidelity to the original languages, and instead evaluate it based on how it compares to other translations. If people don’t like the new NIV, or any other translation, fine. They don’t have to use it. Sometimes people just like translations to use, for example, “mankind” or “man” instead of “humanity” or “person.” It sounds Bible-ish to them. There’s no problem with that. But if people are going to argue against a translation like the new NIV, they should use a different argument.

My point is not that the new NIV is perfect. I have not read it from cover to cover, and I am not in a position to defend each and every one of its translation decisions. I don’t believe any translation is perfect, and I’m sure there are decisions made in the new NIV that I will disagree with. My point is that evaluation of a translation should be based on how it translates.

So how can someone without access to the original languages evaluate a new translation? By listening to scholars who thoughtfully examine translations based on how they convey the original. Even if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, you can still tell when someone is being evenhanded, and basing their evaluation on how a translation translates. I commend to you New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg’s evaluation of how the new NIV translates several texts. Readers may find some of them more convincing than others, but all of them are thoughtful, and all of them evaluate the NIV the way a translation ought to be evaluated. Here are links to the series on his blog:

Can Commas Be That Important?

Victims of Adultery

Wives, Women or Deaconesses?

Deferring to Others or Keeping Score?

Was Jesus Ever Indignant?

Did Philemon Practice Outreach or Inreach?

If you are interested in what I have said earlier on the subject of Bible translations, here is a post from 2008. If you know of any other evenhanded evaluations of recent translations, feel free to let me know.