When the King James Version (KJV) was the only game in town, it must have been nice to have everyone literally “on the same page” during corporate Bible study. Things couldn’t remain that way, however, because the KJV was translated using only 16 original language manuscripts and today we have uncovered 1000‘s, many of them older and better than those original 16.
By the time I was in seminary in the late 90’s, there were what I considered to be three real options: the Revised Standard Version (1952), the New American Standard Version (1971) and the New International Version (1978). I had grown up with the RSV but in Evangelical circles this version was suspect because it sought to incorporate liberal critical theory into the translation process (although many of my most conservative professors preferred the RSV and I continued to use it during seminary and for a time afterwards). As I began to preach regularly, I realized the RSV was not going to catch on in my particular church environment and figured it was not wise or helpful to continue to be out of step with the congregation. The NIV and the NASB provided two fairly different but widely accepted options. The NIV was created by translators leaning more to towards the “dynamic equivalence” translation philosophy, which seeks to re-say what the original text says in words and phrases that are natural to the host language. Dynamic equivalence translations are also more likely to make interpretive decisions in texts where the original language might be ambiguous (although most translations end up doing this because the host language sometimes has no easy way of maintaining the ambiguity). Such interpretive decision-making is why it matters on some level what the beliefs of the translators are. At any rate, this philosophy of translation resulted in a punchy, readable rendering of the original languages and I chose to use it because of its natural English feel and accessibility. Besides, I’d be studying with the original languages on hand and so would be getting the full breadth of translation possibilities. The NASB, on the other hand, was written with a bias for “formal equivalence” (sometimes inaccurately referred to as “word for word”). Formally equivalent translations can sound very wooden in English or even unintelligible as they seek to carry over the lexical and grammatical forms of the original language into the host language. But if translation is about making something intelligible, there is no guarantee that simply reproducing these forms makes it more intelligible; sometimes it has the opposite effect. So, in my mind, advantage NIV.
In the last decade, the translation options have further multiplied. The RSV was revised to become both the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) and the English Standard Version (ESV, 2001). Then came the New Living Translation (NLT, 2004), Today’s New International Version (TNIV, 2005), the New English Version (NET, 2005) and soon a revision of the NIV (2011, available online now). All these versions attempt to solve two primary translation problems: 1) how best to balance formal/dynamic equivalence translation philosophies and 2) how best to incorporate cultural changes in gender related language use. The NRSV is an update of the RSV emphasizing the use of gender inclusive language. Many have documented how some NRSV gender inclusive language decisions create theological confusion in places and so the NRSV has not been generally considered in Evangelical contexts. The ESV is also a revision of the RSV, striving to maintain a balance between dynamic and formal equivalence, but with a more conservative approach to usage of gender inclusive language (it does use gender inclusive language). The NLT is perhaps furthest on the dynamic equivalence side and, while certainly worth consulting, is not generally considered for corporate congregational use. The TNIV was a revision of the NIV that has already gone out of print due to controversy regarding its gender inclusive language choices. While this text was heavily criticized by the broad evangelical world, many conservative Biblical scholars who are highly trained in translation theory continue to hold the TNIV in high regard. In surveying the debate about the TNIV it seems that while it started as a discussion among the faithful about the technicalities of gender inclusive translation theory, it ended as a somewhat politicized dispute with the majority of evangelical leaders (whether or not they were schooled in science of translation) siding against the TNIV. While I’m not in a position to give a final ruling on that debate, it is now a mute point because the TNIV is out of print. A new revision of the NIV is due out in 2011 and will include a reassessment of all the passages that lead to the controversy. In the meantime, however, huge numbers of Bible readers have switched to the ESV which intends to be both faithful and readable and, as mentioned, has dealt more conservatively with the gender inclusive language question. In addition, the publishing of the ESV Study Bible in 2008, complete with comprehensive exegetical and theological notes, has further boosted the ESV’s appeal.
Sorting it all out, it would seem that, going forward, the 2011 NIV and the ESV remain the most generally accepted options. The question for a pastor in the daily grind of preaching and shepherding is two-fold. 1) Will the 2011 NIV be “better” than the ESV and 2) will it catch hold enough? The second question is hard to predict given the response to the TNIV and the move of many to the ESV. We won’t know for some years now. With respect to the first question, however, the 2011 NIV is available online now and can be compared to the ESV. So far, the conclusion is the same one that we get so often in biblical translation: each translation is better than the others in some ways and not in others. I don’t particularly like, for example, that the NIV has stayed with translating “flesh” as “sinful nature” (although, after an in-depth reading of the rationale behind it, I have a much greater respect for this decision). In other cases, it seems the 2011 NIV takes a more consistent approach to the inclusive language problem (cf. Hebrews 2:11 and 3:1 in ESV and 2011 NIV, for example). On balance, however, I moderately prefer the overall philosophy of the ESV (generally seeking to “interpret” less, maintain ambiguities and leave more for the reader to figure out). I can live with its imperfection (but I could live with the imperfections of the 2011 NIV and many of the other translations as well).
In all this, it is crucial to keep several points in mind. For the past months, I’ve been doing devotions and studying with four or five versions in parallel plus the original language text and have come to this conclusion: no translation is perfect. But, since I can’t mix and match my Bibles on the fly, I have to choose one. On balance, I choose the ESV. At the same time, I/we must remember what a luxury it is to choose! Instead of 16 lower quality manuscripts as was the case with the KJV, the Bible I read is based on 1000‘s of manuscripts, many of them of extremely high quality. Not only that, generations of scholars have combed through these manuscripts and wrestled deeply to determine the best way to express in English the words of the original language. This is a luxury very few Christians in history have had. Lastly, we shouldn’t be put off by all the different versions and their accompanying philosophical differences. What this says is that we are a people who take the word of God very seriously. We want to know it faithfully. We want to read it in the best possible way. As long as that remains true, we can only be hopeful.