NIV Turns 50: An Interview with Douglas J. Moo

[Repost and discussion of an interview by Books at a Glance.]

One of the wisest things a Bible interpreter can do is become familiar with the best translations of Scripture in his or her own language. The NIV (New International Version), whether or not you agree with every aspect of its approach, is certainly one of the best in English. Credit for that goes to its thoughtful and informed translators–people such as Douglas J. Moo.

Moo is one of my favorite NT commentators. (His name appears seven times on my list of recommended commentaries.) He also serves as current Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), the body of translators that produces the NIV translation.

I’m posting this interview with Moo here because I think it gives helpful insights into the mindset of the NIV translators. If we understand the NIV’s translators better, we can make wiser use of the NIV translation.

Moo says lots of useful things in this interview. I especially noticed this sentence about translation philosophies:

“The key tension here is not form vs. meaning but, in practice, form vs. natural English.”

I find that sentence interesting because it avoids the fallacy that a translator needs to choose between (a) accurately conveying the form of an original text or (b) accurately conveying the meaning of the original text. Too often that is exactly the claim that you hear, especially from proponents of functional equivalence translations (otherwise known as dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought–translations such as NIV or, more radically, the NLT).  Moo avoids that fallacy. Instead, he correctly understands that (a) all good translations aim to convey meaning accurately, and (b) all translations must continually make choices between following the form (sentence structure, etc.) of the text in the original language or the forms of natural English.

I also admire the way he expresses the NIV’s goals regarding decisions about gender:

To put it simply: our “agenda” on the CBT is clear and single: to put the meaning of the Scriptures into accurate, natural, and contemporary English. We view our gender decisions in this context – and only in this context. To render expressions in the original text that clearly refer to human beings in general with words such as “man,” “he,” etc., is to betray our mandate to put the Bible into accurate English.

Three things in response: (1) I think the updated NIV can be a great help in alerting readers to passages where gender decisions must be made, and to where they may have had false assumptions about what a passage actually says about gender (see here for an example from my own experience). (2) I think the NIV would do well to balance its valid concern for gender accuracy with an increased emphasis on other equally valid translation concerns, such as the concern to properly transmit number (singular vs. plural pronouns, for example). (3) I think it is time for those of us who have some legitimate concerns about the NIV’s gender choices (see 2) to stop insinuating they have an egalitarian agenda. The truth is, the CBT contains both members of egalitarian persuasion and members of complementarian persuasion, who agree on their goal to translate Scripture faithfully. We may (should) discuss the extent to which they achieve their goal, but I don’t think it is helpful to question their good intent.

Here is the beginning of the interview with Moo, hosted over on Books at a Glance:

If you’ve kept an eye on the headlines at all you are aware that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the NIV, an enormously successful and influential Bible translation. To mark the celebration here at Books At a Glance, we are very pleased to have our good friend Dr. Douglas J. Moo, Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) here to talk to us about their work.

And here is Moo’s final sentence in this interview:

At some point – perhaps 8-10 years from now – we will probably release a new edition.

–>Read the rest of the interview here<–

 Random Addendum
(hey, that sounds nice!)

I’m reading through Galatians right now (repeatedly–about nine times in the last ten days or so), and I’m reading it in a variety of translations (ESV, NASB, NLT, NIV, plus a wee bit of Greek). The ESV is the translation I use most (see here), but here, for the record, are several places where I like the NIV translation of Galatians at least as well or maybe even better than the ESV:

Galatians 1:16 — Here the NIV actually follows the Greek more closely than the ESV does, relying more on immediate Greek vocabulary and less on contextual interpretive clues in its translation choice.

  • ESV: “to reveal his Son to me” (footnote: Greek in)
  • NIV: “to reveal his Son in me”

Galatians 3:16 — Here I don’t know which translation I prefer, but the NIV, interestingly, chooses a word that is more suggestive of the underlying Greek word (σπέρματι, or spermati, which was used to refer to, among other things: plant seeds, sperm, offspring, or anything possessing vital life force).

  • ESV: “to Abraham and to his offspring”
  • NIV: “to Abraham and to his seed”

Galatians 6:1 — Here the NIV, though less word-for-word (a slight negative), does a better job of recognizing that Paul is still talking about walking and living by the Spirit, as he was in the immediately preceding verses of chapter 5.

  • ESV: “you who are spiritual”
  • NIV: “you who live by the Spirit”

Thoughts about this interview, Douglas Moo, or the NIV translation? Share them in the comments below!

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9 thoughts on “NIV Turns 50: An Interview with Douglas J. Moo”

  1. I believe every translation, even your translation of my English words into the meaning you give them, cannot completely capture the intentions of an author. Words are not concrete truths, words are representative of thoughts that are often murky, loaded up and abstract. Both author and reader have slightly different meanings for the same words. So, then add the added complexity of archaic language, missing cultural context and it is amazing we can even get close with any Biblical translation.

    It is interesting, because the Septuagint is quoted in the New Testament, so we have translation upon a translation in some of that and we don’t often get too wrapped up in questions of if the Septuagint was a reliable translation or would be good enough by our own methods.

    Translation, again, is murky business, it takes more than just ability to understand individual words, it takes understanding how words are used in a particular context and a whole load of humility about what we do not know.

    I’m glad for men who are dedicated to the task. I’m glad for a variety of translations. But most of all I’m glad that we can go directly to the primary source of truth without a book between us.

    1. Joel, I agree with much of what you are saying here. The use of the Septuagint (and NT quotation of the OT in general) is indeed interesting and leads me to conclude that we have legitimate precedent for functional equivalence translation. And yes, translation is challenging work and face-to-face communication has distinct advantages over written correspondence (as Paul frequently noted in his letters).

      But I’m perhaps not quite as pessimistic as you sound (“murky”) about our ability to communicate with written words. I think, for example, that I understand you quite clearly here–and that my ability to understand you comes in part because I’ve read a lot of your written words in the past. (We have not communicated face-to-face very often, and never of such topics.)

      Words, of course, can be misunderstood even in face-to-face communication. Yet words, whether written or spoken, whether in the Bible or in the voice of Jesus, the proclamation of the evangelist, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are the primary vehicle God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity. Central to all communication in even its most intimate forms, such as between husbands and wives, are words. In Revelation we read that there will “no longer” be many things in the eternal state (“they will need no light of lamp or sun,” etc.). But we do not read that our need for words will end. Even the Godhead (or the divine court, if you prefer) is pictured in Scripture as speaking to each other with words. I thankful for the Holy Spirit and all the ways he speaks, including through his written words that communicate effectively “between” God and us just as these words do between you and me. (Please notice I gave “you” the honor of being set in parallel with “God” in the previous sentence.)

      Thanks for the comment, and for reading!

  2. You and I may differ in our understanding of “murky” and I almost avoided use of the word for fear it may be loaded up ‘wrong’ in your mind.

    I am a bit pessimistic about all human endeavors. However, I think you are too optimistic to assume you understand “quite clearly” or I may be reading too much into your quite confident assertion.

    All this said, we may be nearly completely able to interpret each other in simpler concepts and things we have shared experience in. But, as we move more towards abstraction, towards metaphor and non-literal word usage, that’s where the breakdown in communication will begin.

    The problem with words is that the more precise and accurate you get the more words you need and the more words you need the more opportunity there is for miscommunication along the way. Most people aren’t wordsmiths.

  3. Something interesting perhaps; I recently started preparing to teach some Sunday School classes on Job. In my background research I read that there are many words and terms used in the Hebrew of Job that are not found in other Biblical Hebrew. One source said that there are a large number of lines of text missing in the Septuagint version of Job, possibly because the translators were not sure of the meaning of the Hebrew text.
    When I read this post, I became curious about how the ESV & the NIV handled these uncertainties.
    It appears that there are a large number of footnotes in the ESV showing, “The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain”.
    The NIV also has some of these footnotes, but, at a brief glance, much fewer.
    I don’t know if that adds anything to the discussion.

    1. Interesting. I had not noticed that. I wonder if it fits with how the NIV is more likely than the ESV to make an interpretive decision for the reader in difficult passages. That said, the NIV is also usually pretty good at including footnotes to acknowledge alternatives.

      …Based on my own quick comparison of the first 12 chapters of Job now, I think you are correct, and the ESV does seem to include slightly more notes of any kind altogether. However, (a) I did see at least once where NIV included such a note but the ESV didn’t, and (b) I saw at least once where the NIV did not include such a note but included instead a possible alternate translation. So maybe there isn’t as much difference as it first appears?

      1. My own comparison was very rudimentary and I am not prepared to make a judgement based on that. You are probably correct in your observation. The scan I made seemed to suggest that where the ESV had a footnote saying; “The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain”, the NIV had either a) a similar footnote, b) a footnote giving an alternate reading, or c) no footnote.
        Again this would seem to agree with your observation on the NIV’s tendency to make interpretive decisions.
        In the instances where the particular footnote was used in the ESV, their interpretation of the particular word did seem to make sense in the context. I didn’t spend much time in the NIV.
        I also wasn’t sure if certain passages in Job seemed to warrant more footnotes than others, possibly depending on who was speaking. Or perhaps it was my imagination. Again, I didn’t take a large enough sample to make a judgement call.
        All this on Job is just a curiosity, not something I feel we/I need to spend a lot of time and energy on.

        1. It sounds like you are having a good time studying Job! I confess I haven’t really dug into Job yet this SS quarter. Too many other irons in the fire. Do you broadcast the SS class you are teaching? 🙂

          1. Broadcast? Hmmm, not that high profile an event.
            I do enjoy studying Scripture, especially to the depth needed to teach it well enough to make lights go on in other people’s minds. Not possible by my power or wisdom…the lights going on in other people I mean.
            There are thoughts in 2 different Scripture passages that I try to be faithful to when preparing to teach SS or Bible Study. They are; Ecclesiastes 9:10, (out of context I guess:-)) and Nehemiah 8:8. Probably not always successful.

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