A question of translation

I have a dilemma and I am not quite sure what to do about it.

For many years I have used the New International Version of the Bible, 1984 edition. It has served well as a good translation which balances the need to translate words literally and convey the overall sense of the text. Of course every translation reflects to a greater or lesser extent the times in which it is drafted, and it’s only to be expected that in the fullness of time the NIV (1984) would be replaced.

And that’s what happened in 2011 when the new edition of the NIV came out. So if you go into a bookshop and get yourself a New International Version, you will almost be certainly be buying a 2011 version. Because with the arrival of the 2011 version, the 1984 version was pulled almost overnight.

The only problem is, I have some real issues with this updated translation. For example, whereas the NIV (1984) uses the word “brothers” the NIV (2011) uses the term “brothers and sisters”. Now I can understand the reason why this has happened. We live in an age which is sensitive to gender equality and which stresses inclusivity, so I can fully understand the translators’ goal which they explain more fully in this article.

But what looks on the surface a fairly harmless piece of updating actually brings its own set of problems:

Firstly, and most obviously, the original Greek word referred to both brothers and sisters – it was one word referring to both sexes.  Of course the translators wanted to reflect this, but there is a danger you are importing into the text a piece of terminology which simply is not there. The word “sisters” only appears in the Greek in one very gender-specific passage (1 Tim 5:2) and it’s also striking how few times individual female believers are called “sister” (Rom 16:1, 15, Phlm 1:2). Clearly the writers of the New Testament could use the word sister (see Jam 2:15) if they wanted to, but they chose not to. They preferred an inclusive term which covered both genders.

And this leads on to what I believe is the second and most crucial point, that by using the term “brothers and sisters” we are actually saying something very important about the early church. We are implying that there were two groups of people being addressed, those who thought of themselves as brothers, and those who thought of themselves as sisters. Actually the distinguishing of the early church was its unity which transcended gender, race and class (Gal 3:28).

Thirdly, the overall effect can sometimes be more than a little clumsy. For example 1 Cor 3:1 reads in the NIV (1984):  Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. In the NIV (2011) this reads: Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I fail to see how this represents progress over the past 30 years. Now don’t get me wrong – parts of the NIV (2011) represent real improvements, but overall I find the changes quite disappointing.

All this might sound quite theoretical and nitpicking, but here’s the rub. At St Michael’s we are in a position where we urgently need more Bibles. Some years ago we stepped out in faith and bought 30 NIV (1984). Now we need some more. But no matter how hard I have looked, I cannot find any more NIV (1984). So do we buy something in their place, and if so, what? I am at the moment struggling to find a suitable alternative. There is also the question of what to do with the older Bibles many of which are donated in the memory of someone dearly beloved. For the time being we will carry on using these Bibles, and hopefully encourage some sharing (!), but in the long run there is a serious question to be addressed.

Your comments and suggestions would be welcome.

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