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Do Bible Translators deliberately Mistranslate?

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I came across a blog post the other day that said the NIV translators deliberately mistranslate. While this is not my normal blog topic, I thought I would chime in. As I was the NT Chair of the ESV for ten years and am currently on the CBT, I have quite a lot of experience in translation committees.

I can say quite honestly that I have never seen a translator "mistranslate" any verse in the Bible based on his or her beliefs. When a blogger uses words like "Deliberate Mistranslation," they are saying that translators “know” the verse means one thing, but that they choose to make it say something else. That simply is not true, at least not in my experience.

As I read on the rather lengthy post, I quickly realized that the author had confused interpretation with deliberate mistranslation. Basically, it seems that wherever the blogger held a different interpretation of a verse, that the NIV had deliberately mistranslated. Apples and oranges.

For example, the blogger said: “Ephesians 2:20–22 — The Greek says ‘you are being constructed into a habitation of God in spirit (en pneumati)’, but the NIV interprets this as ‘in the Spirit’ (i.e. the Holy Spirit) without textual warrant. [See BeDuhn, p. 151.] Throughout the epistles, the NIV shows a theological bias to translate ‘in spirit’ as “in the (Holy) Spirit” wherever possible.”

One of the difficult points in translation is how to handle πνεῦμα. Since Greek was originally all capitals, the written form of the text simply does not give us a clue as to whether the author is speaking of "spirit" or "Spirit." You have to make a choice, and in this case they are mutually exclusive choices. But that is a far cry from saying it is a deliberate mistranslation.

Or how about an example from a passage I am quite familiar with? The blogger wrote: “1 Timothy 3:2 — The RSV correctly reads ‘Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.’ For some reason, the NIV has obscured the possibility of polygamy by changing it to ‘Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife.’”

First of all, while Gene Getz makes a good case for the verse being a prohibition of polygamy (among other things), no translation or significant commentary takes this position. The Greek is notoriously obtuse. The prohibition is that the elder be "of one of woman man (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα), or, "of one of wife husband." The text is far from clear as being a prohibition of polygamy. To make matters worst, the construction occurs nowhere else in Greek literature, so it is really difficult to know what it means. But "deliberate mistranslation? And I would add that a man who is "faithful" to his wife would, by definition, not be polygamous, so polygamy is certainly included within the now standard translation of the phrase.

The only way you could show a deliberate mistranslation is to find a passage where there simply is no debate on the meaning of the passage, especially as reflected by the different translations, and then show the NIV taking an interpretive position that the Greek could not bear. But none of your examples fit in the blogger’s category.

I enjoy debate. I enjoy the sharing of ideas, even if it means we don't agree. But I would never impugn a person’s motives since I couldn’t know them, and I would never accuse a person of deliberately mistranslating a text when all they are doing is the best they can in conveying the meaning of the Greek into English. Sure, there are going to be disagreements, but that is a far cry from intentional mistranslations.

Let’s not mix apples and oranges.

Comments

This case sounds as though someone has learned just enough Greek to be dangerous. Bill, I'm thankful to you for addressing Bible translation and related subjects. It is quite helpful to those of us who readily admit we don't know Greek well enough.

I've noticed a certain amount of paranoia surrounding the concern that "liberals" will highjack NT texts and intentionally mislead unsuspecting folks into false beliefs. I read an appalling and lengthy personal attack n Bruce Metzger of the Princeton Theological Seminary, now deceased, which pretty much charged this kindy old scholar with being a tool of Satan for his interpretation of the Pauline letters. Somehow, spreading dissension within the Body of Christ seemed okay to Prof. Metzger's angry critic who was probably jealous of not having achieved the position Dr Metzger had earned in the academic world. Or something! Lot of paranoia out there anyway.

Bill - There is no link (Reply) to this comment site from the Mondays with Mounce emails that are sent out. Thus getting here is quite cumbersome. In contrast, I believe there is on Thurs. Is it possible to streamline that process? Thanks Avid Reader Greg Logan

Bill I appreciate the thought that translators may not "deliberately" mis-translate though I have found so frequent the English translation obscuring the text rather than a more literal Greek translation that this is now simply routine. That being said - I remain at loss at the NIV Phil2:6 translation of "morphe" as "nature". I cannot fathom how that would not be an intentional mistranslation with the intent to secure the late dated hypostatic union Christological model into the text. The clear implication is to use a word in conjunction with modern Christological statements about Jesus being in the nature of God.... However, one would think of "the form of godliness - rather than the nature thereof" as just an example of how skewed that translation is - must less - just what does "nature of servant" even mean in an ontological sense???? Greg Logan

Dr. Mounce, thanks for the post. I am the author of the page you refer to and am always interested in feedback from professional Bible translators. Furthermore, I own your Greek textbook and have used it to study Greek, so I am already in your debt to some extent. I will reexamine the two examples you give and consider softening my language, thanks to feedback from you and others. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion that the NIV seems to be deliberately misleading in places. This view is fairly widespread among scholars, and several have endorsed my page through links, blog posts, etc. I have also heard anecdotal stories of NIV translators being upset with the tendencies of their colleagues to massage or alter the text, so I don't think this is merely a matter of interpretational difficulties. Some of the NIV's translation choices are simply not defensible by any reasonable measure, as I see it. What began as purely a project of personal interest has become far more widely read than I ever expected, as the hundreds of comments attached to the article can attest. My readers often have conflicting views of how much benefit of the doubt I should give the NIV on various verses.

Thanks for the note. I have posted a reply on your site and haven't seen it posted yet. I think you are making a serious and damaging mistake to say that the translators "deliberately mislead." Do you know any of us? If not, how can you know it is deliberate? And your view is not widespread among scholars. Just because there are a few that will sign on to your position, I know of not a single, serious, academically qualified scholar who would agree. They certainly will disagree with some our decisions, but to question our honesty is something totally else. And you may have heard anecdotal stories, but I am on the committee and I am telling you that you are wrong. "Not defensible by any reasonable measure." Really? Do mean there would not be a single competent commentary that would agree. Again, I really urge you to re-think your language when talking about people that you don't know and basing your statements on undocumented stories.I know -- why don't you give me one of your examples that you think is indefensible, and let's see if that is accurate. Okay?

I have an offer for you from Doug Moo, Chair of the CBT. You give me a list of the passages that you think we deliberately mistranslated -- not simply differences of interpretation -- and the CBT will look at them. How's that?

I have been trying to ascertain why ζηλοῦτε in 1 Corinthians 12:31 is translated in the imperative rather than the indicative. (The NIV does have a footnote indicating the indicative translation.) The context of the passage is that χαρίσματα are bestowed by God for the building up of the Church. That all are important else the body becomes a monstrosity. That the parts of the human body as the parts of the body of Christ (the Church) are both diverse and interdependent. The continuation of Paul's argument in chapter 13, although most often used as a wedding reading, is an integral part of Paul's contention that the FRUIT of the Spirit trumps the GIFTS of the Spirit. For it is this fruit that brings the gifts into correct focus.

I am not really sure how the indicative would function in this verse, as seen in most translations. However,I am in TOTAL agreement about the FRUIT being more important than. the GIFTS. I think this is one of the more important dangers of the Charismatic movement with its frequent emphasis on power and not faith, on gifts and not fruit. Not all, of course, but quite common in my experience.

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Comments

This case sounds as though someone has learned just enough Greek to be dangerous. Bill, I'm thankful to you for addressing Bible translation and related subjects. It is quite helpful to those of us who readily admit we don't know Greek well enough.

I've noticed a certain amount of paranoia surrounding the concern that "liberals" will highjack NT texts and intentionally mislead unsuspecting folks into false beliefs. I read an appalling and lengthy personal attack n Bruce Metzger of the Princeton Theological Seminary, now deceased, which pretty much charged this kindy old scholar with being a tool of Satan for his interpretation of the Pauline letters. Somehow, spreading dissension within the Body of Christ seemed okay to Prof. Metzger's angry critic who was probably jealous of not having achieved the position Dr Metzger had earned in the academic world. Or something! Lot of paranoia out there anyway.

Bill - There is no link (Reply) to this comment site from the Mondays with Mounce emails that are sent out. Thus getting here is quite cumbersome. In contrast, I believe there is on Thurs. Is it possible to streamline that process? Thanks Avid Reader Greg Logan

Bill I appreciate the thought that translators may not "deliberately" mis-translate though I have found so frequent the English translation obscuring the text rather than a more literal Greek translation that this is now simply routine. That being said - I remain at loss at the NIV Phil2:6 translation of "morphe" as "nature". I cannot fathom how that would not be an intentional mistranslation with the intent to secure the late dated hypostatic union Christological model into the text. The clear implication is to use a word in conjunction with modern Christological statements about Jesus being in the nature of God.... However, one would think of "the form of godliness - rather than the nature thereof" as just an example of how skewed that translation is - must less - just what does "nature of servant" even mean in an ontological sense???? Greg Logan

Dr. Mounce, thanks for the post. I am the author of the page you refer to and am always interested in feedback from professional Bible translators. Furthermore, I own your Greek textbook and have used it to study Greek, so I am already in your debt to some extent. I will reexamine the two examples you give and consider softening my language, thanks to feedback from you and others. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion that the NIV seems to be deliberately misleading in places. This view is fairly widespread among scholars, and several have endorsed my page through links, blog posts, etc. I have also heard anecdotal stories of NIV translators being upset with the tendencies of their colleagues to massage or alter the text, so I don't think this is merely a matter of interpretational difficulties. Some of the NIV's translation choices are simply not defensible by any reasonable measure, as I see it. What began as purely a project of personal interest has become far more widely read than I ever expected, as the hundreds of comments attached to the article can attest. My readers often have conflicting views of how much benefit of the doubt I should give the NIV on various verses.

Thanks for the note. I have posted a reply on your site and haven't seen it posted yet. I think you are making a serious and damaging mistake to say that the translators "deliberately mislead." Do you know any of us? If not, how can you know it is deliberate? And your view is not widespread among scholars. Just because there are a few that will sign on to your position, I know of not a single, serious, academically qualified scholar who would agree. They certainly will disagree with some our decisions, but to question our honesty is something totally else. And you may have heard anecdotal stories, but I am on the committee and I am telling you that you are wrong. "Not defensible by any reasonable measure." Really? Do mean there would not be a single competent commentary that would agree. Again, I really urge you to re-think your language when talking about people that you don't know and basing your statements on undocumented stories.I know -- why don't you give me one of your examples that you think is indefensible, and let's see if that is accurate. Okay?

I have an offer for you from Doug Moo, Chair of the CBT. You give me a list of the passages that you think we deliberately mistranslated -- not simply differences of interpretation -- and the CBT will look at them. How's that?

I have been trying to ascertain why ζηλοῦτε in 1 Corinthians 12:31 is translated in the imperative rather than the indicative. (The NIV does have a footnote indicating the indicative translation.) The context of the passage is that χαρίσματα are bestowed by God for the building up of the Church. That all are important else the body becomes a monstrosity. That the parts of the human body as the parts of the body of Christ (the Church) are both diverse and interdependent. The continuation of Paul's argument in chapter 13, although most often used as a wedding reading, is an integral part of Paul's contention that the FRUIT of the Spirit trumps the GIFTS of the Spirit. For it is this fruit that brings the gifts into correct focus.

I am not really sure how the indicative would function in this verse, as seen in most translations. However,I am in TOTAL agreement about the FRUIT being more important than. the GIFTS. I think this is one of the more important dangers of the Charismatic movement with its frequent emphasis on power and not faith, on gifts and not fruit. Not all, of course, but quite common in my experience.