Bible Translations: NIV vs. TNIV

For some of you, that might be the most boring title for a blog entry that you’ve ever seen.  For those of you still reading: thanks.

When I began at CrossWay last May, I decided to preach from the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) translation of the Bible.  Beginning in 2008, I switched over to the NIV (New International Version).

I’m not one of those people who insists that there is one perfect English translation of the Bible and that anyone who uses any other translation is in cahoots with the devil.  But I do like to use primarily one translation at a time.  Since I’m just not a very complex person, it seems simpler to me to have one translation–even one Bible–that I use for most of my study, reading, and preaching.  It’s less confusing.  So even though I’m switching from the TNIV to the NIV, that doesn’t mean I’m condemning the TNIV and championing the NIV.  I guess that means that the “vs.” in this post’s title is a little misleading.  Sorry ’bout that.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic thrown in the mix.  When it comes to Bible translation, there are two dominant theories.  One is formal equivalence, or a word-for-word (or “literal”) translation.  The other is dynamic equivalence, or thought-for-thought translation.  I would add a third: personal interpretation.  Some people will “translate” the Bible but throw their own commentary into it.

The idea of a literal translation is nice, but not realistic for multiple reasons:

  • For one thing, words are used to convey meaning, and meaning is sometimes actually lost in a literal translation.  Once I was at a church outreach for a Hispanic community, and this church was giving away free hot dogs.  Someone translated the signs into Spanish, which was a nice thought.  Unfortunately, the sign for hot dogs said “Calientes Perros.”  It’s true that this is a literal word-for-word translation: “calientes” means “hot” and “perros” means dogs.  But that means that “calientes perros” refers to canines that are either feverish or engulfed in flames.  Not too appetizing.  (By the way, want to know the Spanish term for hot dogs?  Answer: “hot dogs.”)  When the Bible is translated word-for-word, the result is sometimes incomprehensible English.
  • Grammar.  In the above example, the adjective (hot/calientes) is placed before the noun (dogs/perros).  But in Spanish, the noun usually comes before the adjective.  So even if “calientes perros” made sense, it should be “perros calientes.”  Other languages, such as Latin, have even stranger word order.  Differences in grammar mean that a word-for-word translation would be nonsense.
  • Words often have multiple meanings.  For instance, in keeping with the “hot” theme, it means different things to say that it’s hot outside (the temperature is high), a basketball team is hot (they’re on a winning streak), a sauce is hot (not high in temperature, but burns your mouth), a person is hot (they’re attractive), an album is hot (popular), or an angry person is hot (enraged).  So if you said, “The tennis player is hot,” what do you mean?  That he’s got a fever?  He’s on a winning streak?  He’s attractive?  He’s popular?  He’s mad?  The same is true for Bible translation–sometimes there are many words that could be chosen, and the translator has to use context.  We can’t say that one word in Hebrew is always another word in English.

The dynamic equivalent approach also has problems:

  • In going thought-for-thought, it’s easy to stray from the author’s intended meaning.
  • The Bible says that every word from God is important, which is hard to figure into dynamic equivalence.
  • Accuracy can suffer as the translator has more license.
  • It can be difficult to study a word in the original language as it appears throughout Scripture, because it could be translated using various words or even phrases.

Conclusion: God’s Word is perfect, but there is no such thing as a perfect English translation.  One problem with both theories of translation is that language changes quickly.  Psalm 23:1 in most English versions says: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  In this context the word “want” means “lack,” but we don’t use it that way anymore.  Since language constantly changes, the translator’s work is never done.

Translators from both schools of thought strive to be faithful to God’s Word.  They just have slightly differing opinions about the best way to do that.

Anyway, I was supposed to be talking about the TNIV and NIV.  Both of them subscribe to dynamic equivalence, but the TNIV takes some liberties.  About 7% of the NIV was altered into the TNIV.  The TNIV changes some spellings, which is no big deal, but it does two things that make a difference: it bends over backwards to be gender neutral, and it re-translates some theological terms in an attempt to make it more understandable for today’s readers (which might sound like good translation, but in this case I find it unnecessary).

I have no problem with gender neutral references as long as it’s true to the author’s original intended meaning, but sometimes it makes for some really awkward statements.  For instance, one of our church’s theme verses is Mark 8:34.  In the NIV, this verse reads:  “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'”  In the TNIV, this same verse reads: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'”  That has all kinds of problems with it.  For one thing, it doesn’t even make sense grammatically, as it alternates between singular and plural.  For another thing, it has to actually change the meaning of the original (switching into the plural) in order to remain gender neutral, and that’s crossing the line of honest translation.  For yet another thing, it sounds horribly awkward.

The second change I mentioned is that the TNIV replaces some words of theological significance for the sake of what its translators believe is clarity.  But I think this is misguided.  For example, it replaces the word “saints” with “God’s holy people.”  Sure, the definition of “saints” is “God’s holy people.”  So why not just use the word?  Seems to me like it would make more sense to reclaim the word and its actual meaning rather than insert the word’s definition.  Otherwise, what happens when the word “holy” is not widely used or understood?  Do we then translate the word “saints” as “God’s people who are set apart for His use”?  That’s a neverending spiral.

The TNIV has its strengths.  So does the NLT (New Living Translation), which I used for a while before the TNIV.  There are good qualities about most of the English translations out there, and none of them are perfect, but I’ve decided to primarily use the NIV for my preaching and study.  It goes word-for-word when possible, but when faced with a choice between literalness or conveying meaning, its translators opt for the latter.  I’d like to see the NIV updated without making the sacrifices that the TNIV made.  Until then, I’ll read, study, and preach mostly from the NIV.

Since no translation is perfect, it can be helpful to consult several translations to get a clearer picture and fuller understanding of a passage’s meaning.  The closest to a literal translation in English would be either the NASB (New American Standard Bible) or ESV (English Standard Version).  The NLT is a mix between a translation and a paraphrase (which is someone’s rewording or interpretation of the Bible), but it’s good for reading–especially reading out loud–because it’s worded in such a way that it sounds more natural than most translations.

To check out a vast multitude of Bible translations, you can check out Bible Gateway here.

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Published in: on January 29, 2008 at 5:59 am  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting post, Nathan. I appreciate your open attitude.

  2. Nathan, you know that “saints” means “God’s holy people”, but most people in this world, and probably even most in your church, think the word refers to a few especially holy Christians with haloes round their heads.

    Actually it has been demonstrated that TNIV is generally slightly more literal than NIV.

    Are you the kind of person who downgrades a computer from a new software version to an older one, or trades in a newer car for an older one? That’s what you have done in switching from TNIV to NIV. You have gone back from a 21st century version, complete with the latest scholarship, to something from the 1970s.

  3. Thank you Wayne and Peter for the comments!

    Peter, I think most of the issue you raised was already addressed in the post. But in response, I guess I should point out that yes–I would gladly trade in my Windows Vista for XP. And I wouldn’t hesitate to trade my Malibu for my brother-in-law’s much older Corolla. Newer and better are not the same thing.

    Like I said, however, I would make the switch from NIV to a more updated NIV if it didn’t have the annoying problems (like the grammatical atrocity I mentioned in the post) that the TNIV has.

  4. Nathan thanks for your blog. I was looking everywhere for the difference and nothing made it as simple to understand as you blog does. And yes, I must agree, I would also gladly downgrade from Vista to XP, in a heartbeat. Fortunately though, I am on OS X.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Steve! Glad to hear you’ve got the OS X thing going on.

  6. Hi Nathan – trying to work out which version to buy as a Study Bible. You’ve made up my mind for me.

    As a 50-something year old I was already uneasy with the statement on the TNIV site that “The TNIV is the most accurate translation for 18- to 34-year-olds because it is written in today’s language.”

    It’s the NIV for me – many thanks.

  7. I actually prefer the TNIV. My studies of Romans, especially, show that the TNIV improves the meaning of the words of St Paul. Or is that ‘holy person Paul’?? 🙂

  8. Heheh, thanks for the smile!

  9. I could not agree with you more about the NIV “tightening up” to the TNIV with the exception of the “over-emphasized” gender nuetrality. I read through the TNIV and just could not get past it’s over usage, and sometimes it’s just out of place and not required. Also, in Isaiah instead of translating “…not one of his bones will be broken” the TNIV reads it “…not of their bones will be broken” and this clearly is wrong and changes the entire meaning of the passage, and their is no reason for it except to prove that it is the most gender nuetral Bible on the planet. Again though, I wish the NIV would revise itself on some of the other finer renditions of Scripture that the TNIV does.

  10. Well said!


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