Translation Accuracy: TNIV vs HCSB

As a computational linguist recently involved in Bible translation, I have watched the furor over the TNIV with both interest and alarm. Interest because I read Greek and am professionally competent to deal with the translation issues, alarm because the argument is really not about translation accuracy at all, but rather political considerations.

Bible translation is about accurately representing the meaning of the original text in the native language of the reader. King James English is not the native language of any person living today. For a large number of English-speaking people today, masculine pronouns refer primarily and exclusively to male persons, and the language has other ways to refer to persons of unknown or non-specific gender. The TNIV and many other good translations accurately use the language of these people in translating the Bible for them to read. The Southern Baptists appear not to be so enlightened:

The Southern Baptist Convention questioned the integrity of the Today's New International Version New Testament at the denomination's annual meeting in St.Louis on June 11-12. In the convention's resolution, Southern Baptists expressed "profound disappointment with the International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House for this inaccurate translation of God's inspired Scripture" and said the denomination cannot recommend its use.
Critics accuse TNIV translators of "erasing gender-specific details ... in the original language"... Critics say the TNIV "inserts English words into the text whose meaning does not appear in the original languages."
Meanwhile, Southern Baptist leaders are calling attention to another the New Testament, produced by SBC publishing house Broadman & Holman, called the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
"This is an important thing for Southern Baptists to do," R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press, "if for no other reason than that we will have a major translation we can control."
Christianity Today / August 5, 2002 / p.17
It seems we have two criticisms against the TNIV translation of the Bible:

1. It does not retain gender-specific details from the Greek text, and
2. The translators are motivated by political considerations other than accuracy.

For accuracy, I refer you to SIL Bible translator Wayne Leman's detailed comparison of 16 English translations, including both TNIV and HCSB. Out of 78 texts he compared, the TNIV scored 78.2% accurate, while the HCSB scored only 59.0%. As for political considerations, one need look no farther than Mohler's remark, quoted in the Christianity Today article cited above. I have seen similar remarks in personal communication from other people involved with the HCSB translation.

The gender-specific issue, however, needs some additional consideration. My favorite verse in this regard is John 14:17. The HCSB translation does not follow its own guidelines in this verse: it erases the (neuter) gender from the Greek pronouns in this verse, and inserts English words (masculine pronouns) into the text whose meaning does not appear in the original language. The TNIV does the same thing, but at least it is consistent with its own guidelines, which call for using gender words appropriate to the referents (masculine for God and human males, feminine for females, and non-specific where the Greek text does not refer to a specific person of known gender).

I believe it is important to distinguish the message being communicated from the language used to communicate it. The TNIV uses a gender-neutral language to communicate a gender-specific message. This is the essence of translation. Scripture itself gives us examples of this distinction, for example in 2Kings 18:28, where Sennacherib made it clear that he was using the Hebrew language to explain to the people that their confidence in Hebrew institutions was invalid. Of course Sennacherib was wrong about his own army's power over Israel, but that was not due to his choice of language. Similarly and more importantly to us, God communicated to sinful and mortal humans in the person of His Son, who exhibited the glory of God by becoming a mortal human like us; if Christ had been incarnated as a brightly shining angel, the message would have been lost: "He's an angel, what does he know about my (human) condition?" In exactly the same way, the TNIV (and the other modern translations, HCSB not included) uses the same language spoken by the people it is trying to reach, to communicate the message God has for them. The medium is not the message.

When a critic of the TNIV can show us and approve a translation in the natural language of the people it is intended to be read by, and that applies the same logic to the pronouns in John 14:17 as it does in the other verses for which the TNIV is criticized, then he* will have earned the right to criticize. It appears to me that the Southern Baptists have not yet earned that right.

Tom Pittman

* I used the masculine pronoun "he" here, because all scholars both competent and willing to criticize the TNIV appear to be of male persuasion. Regardless of their personal gender, a chief point of their criticism also seems to be the preference for male pronouns to refer to arbitrary persons, so I doubt that any of them will be offended by this pronoun. Ordinarily I would use the gender-neutral pronoun "they" in this context, as preferred by nearly all scholarly publications (except some of those devoted to this topic) and by most popular media.

Rev. 2002 August 2