Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, September 14, 2009

The ESV and Dirty Dancing (Luke 17:35)

It is good to be back. I have had a good break over the summer, moved to Washougal, WA, and took a job as Vice President of Educational Development at (Disclaimer: I now not only write for Zondervan but am now a Zondervan employee.) Lots of cool stuff coming down the pike.

I am also starting to write my paper for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “Can the ESV and TNIV Co-exist in the same Universe?” This is in response to Mark Strauss’ invitation in his pape last year, “Why the English Standard Version (ESV) Should not become the Standard English Version.” So you will understand if my blogs for some time are comparing the ESV and the TNIV.

(And I have told Mark I am doing this and have invited him to comment on my blog as he sees fit and has time. We are good friends, and no translation debate is going to ruin that friendship.)

Of course, in light of the recent announcement, I am tempted to stand before the ETS crowd, read the title, answer, “Evidently not,” and sit down. Do you think that type of humor would go over in an academic setting?

The announcement, if you missed it, was two-fold. Zondervan will discontinue publishing the TNIV and TNIV related materials. Moe Girkins, the President of Zondervan (and my boss’s boss’ boss), said that the translation had divided people and this should not happen.

The second announcement was that Biblica (the new name of IBS, who owns the NIV; Zondervan has some print rights) was going to return to their original charter and continue to update the NIV in light of ongoing changes in the English language (and other reasons I am sure). Both Biblical and Zondervan were genuine (I believe) in their admission of past mistakes and their desire to move forward. It remains to be seen as to the nature of the battle that may or may not lume in front of them when the NIV 2011 is published, 400 years after the publication of the King James Version.

At the heart of Mark’s paper is the conviction that the only “proper” and “right” translation is a colloquial translation. Again and again he asks the fundamental question, “Would anyone speaking English actually say this?” “Is that how I would say it?” If not, then he labels it as “not English,” although at times Yoda it would appreciate.

There are many problems with this definition. Here are two.

1. On this definition, Shakespeare is not English. Keats is not English. Much of what is written for an academic meeting is not English, because we write things like, “It is I” (who says that anyway?), or we don’t end a sentence with a preposition (how pretentious: “With whom would you like to study?”) or split an infinitive (even though that is Latin grammar, not English). To confine “English” to a colloquial form does not give due credit to the true breadth of language.

2. Whose colloquial English? Someone from southern California, dude? Or someone from Texas? The deep south? New English? According to Henry Higgins, English hasn’t been spoken across the pond for years. Time and time again on the ESV translation committee I was shocked to find how different we all heard words depending on the subculture to which we belong (or is it, “we belong to”)?

One example Mark raised is the ESV translation of Luke 17:35. “There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” He says, “In contemporary English, ‘grinding together’ suggests seductive dancing or something worse.… Most versions clarify that this means grinding ‘grain.’ “

Whose contemporary English? I am 56, and that meaning never suggested itself to me. Call me naïve, but as I read that passage, in context, I never would have thought of a Patrick Swayze or a Kevin Bacon movie. One of the ESV translators was a pastor and acutely aware of how high school students would hear the words of the ESV. He never heard it.

And on top of this, one of our principles was not to do the work of a commentary, or in this case common sense, and so we felt no need to “clarify” its meaning. Its meaning is perfectly obvious

Is there a place for colloquial translations? Sure, although I wonder if a publisher would really want to invest millions of dollars in a truly colloquial publication that will be out of date within a few years, which is how fast language can change, or one that is limited to such a small subculture that you actually can identify “how would we really say this.” The answer to this question changes several times as you drive across the United States.

Let me go on the record as saying I was disappointed to see the death of the TNIV. It was a magnificent and artfully crafted work that consistently held to its translation guidelines. And part of its beauty was that it was not colloquial. It has a beautiful style that transcends many subcultures and one that doesn’t mind ending a few sentences with prepositions. May some day grammarians learn that English is not Latin. I need to go find an infinitive to split.