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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.

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