This article is about the New International Version [NIV] as Bible translation. The goal of Bible tranlation and the relation of literal translation and the clarity of translation is also discussed.

Source: Clarion, 1996. 3 pages.

What about the NIV?

Goal of Translating🔗

In discussing the matter of translating we must be careful of false dilemmas. One such dilemma is reducing the norm for a good translation to whether it is a literal or not. Anyone who is in any way involved in translating knows that it is not that simple.

What is the intent of a translation? The goal of a translation must be to convey accurately and clearly the meaning of the original.1 The question of literalness, while very important, must always be subservient to the overriding goal of clarity and faithfulness to the original. Two simple examples can suffice to illustrate this point. The Dutch expression “daarmee is de kous af” literally translates “with that the stocking is finished”; but it means “that is the end of the matter.” The Dutch expression: “ze zijn er uit” literally renders “they are out of it”; but it means “they have solved the problem”! Anyone with a knowledge of more than one modern Indo-European language can multiply such examples. But now imagine the even greater difficulty of translating a language from one family of tongues like Semitic (e.g. Hebrew), into another language family like Indo-European (e.g. English). In the struggle of trying to communicate accurately the one language in another we are ultimately confronted by God’s judgment at the Tower of Babel. We must never underestimate the depth and wide-ranging implications of that curse.  Not just words were changed, but also mind sets, ways of looking at things, and the manner of expression. This is obvious when one compares languages from different language families. For these reasons the task of translating is exceedingly difficult and can never be reduced to the equation: if it is literal it is accurate. 2

This point can be demonstrated with some examples from the NASB and NKJV which generally wish to be as literal as possible, but which are not therefore necessarily accurate or clear. For example, in John 14 the Lord Jesus speaks of His going to the Father and in that context says “I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in me” (NASB). The NKJV is almost exactly the same. Now this may be literal, but what does it mean that the ruler of the world “has nothing in me”? Such a translation does not do the task of translation which is to make the original clear and therefore it is a poor rendering. The NIV is better. It has “I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me.” (The RSV is similar.) In Psalm 16:9 the NASB and NKJV translate word for word “Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices.” But what does “my glory rejoices” mean? As it stands that segment of the translation says nothing. The NIV translates that part with clarity: “my tongue rejoices,” in the line with the ancient Greek translation of the passage and the rendering used in Acts 2:26. More examples could be given, but the point is obvious. Literal translations can be less than clear and even meaningless.

Literal or Not?🔗

In light of the above it is not surprising that with all their expressed emphasis on literal translation, both the NASB and NKJV quietly translate in a considerable less than literal way as well. There is often simply no other way to get the meaning across. For example, in Numbers 15:30, the Hebrew: “with raised hand” is rendered by the NASB: “defiantly” (with no note indicating what the literal translation is). Similarly, on the same passage, the NKJV has “presumptuously.” These translations get the meaning across, but they are hardly literal. The NIV also translates “defiantly.”

Another example, in Amos 6:10, the Hebrew reads: “hush! For not to cause to remember in the name of Yahweh” which can probably be rendered most literally in understandable English, (while retaining the ambiguity of the original), by “Keep quiet. For the name of the LORD is not to be mentioned” (NASB). The NKJV has the freer “Hold your tongue! For we dare not mention the name of the LORD” (The KJV is very similar). The NIV has “Hush! We must not mention the name of the LORD.” In view of the criticisms that are sometimes voiced, it is ironic that the NIV has actually less interpretation here than the NKJV.

There is, understandably, sometimes disagreement on whether a word should be translated literally or not. In Job 16:13 the Hebrew reads: “my kidneys” (as inmost part of man). The NKJV has: “my heart (with a note: literally kidney).” On the other hand, the NASB and NIV retain the literal “my kidneys.” One can justify the choice of the NKJV, but again it is ironic that a translation priding itself on complete equivalence is the only one not giving a literal translation on this passage. A similar problem with “kidneys” in Psalm 7:9 is justifiably, but nevertheless non-literally translated “minds” by the NKJV. The NASB and NIV do this as well. 3

All this illustrates how difficult translation can be and that we should be careful with too easily saying that one Bible translation is literal and the other is not. It is a matter of degrees.4  The overriding concern should be for accuracy and clarity. All translation involves interpretation. Happily, the NASB, NIV, and NKJV all share conservative presuppositions and the translation decisions that are made are usually acceptable.

The NIV🔗

This does not however exclude the fact that every translation has weaknesses and remains the work of human beings. This is also true of the NIV. There are instances in the NIV where a more literal translation would have been quite clear and thus preferable. For example, in Job 31:1, the NIV has “look lustfully at” a girl, whereas the NASB has “gaze at” and the NKJV “look upon.” The Hebrew in question indicates “to give careful attention to.” The NIV “lustfully,” although justifiable from the context, is not necessary and should have been left out to retain the ambiguity of the original. Where a translation that is as literal as possible is clear for the understanding, there is no need to “improve” on the original. Another example: In John 21:5, the NIV has “friends” while the Greek indicates a child. Now the NIV rendering can be justified by noting that when Christ so addresses his disciples he does not focus on their age, but on the affection and endearment he has for them. 5 Yet it would have been better, in my opinion, to render “children.” Indeed, the NIV’s translation here is surprising because it is inconsistent. Elsewhere, where adults are addressed with a Greek term meaning “child,” the NIV renders “children” (1 John 2:13, 18, 28; 3:7).

On the other hand, the NIV greatly enhances our understanding of the original by not always translating in a slavishly literal way. An example is the NIV rendering of 1 Corinthians 4:9. Let us first read the passage. The NIV version follows that of the NASB in order to allow for easy comparison. Words that translate the same Greek words are coded similarly. 6

NASB: For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.

NIV: For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.

If one compares the coded passages, the differences are obvious. The NIV explains the meaning of the Greek by supplying words not specifically mentioned in the original so that the modern reader can know immediately what the flavour of the Greek vocabulary is. Now one has to be very careful with this sort of rendering so that one does not to go beyond what is in the original passage. But, given our distance from the world of the New Testament, if a Bible translation wants to protect itself against possible misunderstanding, it has little choice but to give some explanation in the translation. Now in the case at hand, there is to our knowledge no argument about the correctness of the NIV’s rendition. Indeed, a procession and arena are in view here and the Greek vocabulary indicates that. 7 One cannot know that from the NASB and NKJV. Only those who know the Greek language well will know the connotations associated with the vocabulary used, connotations which the NIV brings out in its translation. This makes the translation more accurate and prevents to some degree at least the creation of wrong impressions as to the meaning of the text. Technically no additional meaning is really added. The NIV is thus to be commended for this. Its great clarity is a great asset to the faithful transmission of this part of the Word. 8

Another example – in this case one in which the original allows for more room for interpretation – is 1 John 5:18. The NIV renders the first part of this passage: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” Where the NIV translated “does not continue to sin,” the NASB simply renders the negative with the verb “sins.” (Similarly 1 John 3:6, 9). From a grammatical point of view it is difficult to say that the one is right and the other is wrong. The NIV rendering is consistent with a long standing Reformed interpretation of this passage, but those who think that believers never fall into sin again and hold to a form of perfectionism will disagree with this rendering. 9


Many more examples could be given,10 but we must come to a conclusion. The Committee that recommended the NIV to Synod Abbotsford noted in its report that, when compared with the NASB and the NKJV, the NIV;

is simply the finest translation when all the criteria and the relative importance of the different factors are taken into consideration. Furthermore, this translation takes all of Scripture into account and is true to the Word of God.

The clarity and readability of the NIV may spark a renewed interest in personal Bible reading and study among young and old and stimulate anew the exploring the treasures of God’s Word. It is somehow difficult to imagine the English of the NASB and NKJV sparking that kind of response.


  1. ^ See on this point the position of B. Holwerda as related in the excerpt from the report of the Bible Translations Committee, “Faithfulness in Translating,” Clarion 44:6 (1995) 136.
  2. ^ For these issues, also see Committee on Bible Translations, Report to Synod Abbotsford 1995, 6-10, 75-77.
  3. ^ See further Committee on Bible Translations, Report to Synod Abbotsford 1995, 65-77.
  4. ^  One can, for example, also point to places where the NIV is more literal than the RSV. See for instance, 1 Samuel 2:1, 10 where the NIV renders literally “horn” and the RSV more freely “power" and in 1 Kings 4:24 where the NIV has the literal rendering “-river” and the RSV translates “Euphrates.”
  5. ^ See on this point, J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Vol. 1 (1989) 110. 
  6. ^ See on this example The Committee on Bible Translations, Report to Synod Abbotsford 1995, 82-83.
  7. ^ See, e.g., on this passage the notes to the Dutch Staten Vertaling, Calvin, and L. Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (TNCT 7; 1958), 80. 
  8. ^ This principle (that a mere literal translation may not be good enough to accurately convey the meaning) is one that has also been defended in our own Reformed heritage by, e.g., Prof. B. Holwerda. For this reason, Holwerda wanted to see official notes attached to a Bible translation, as was done with the Dutch States General Bible (Staten Vertaling), although Holwerda did not want something quite that extensive. Holwerda insisted that with the translation of Scripture we must avoid creating misrepresentations. (Holwerda in his Populair wetenschappelijke bijdragen, 83). Today we are in no position to have official notes added to the Scriptures. The approach of the NIV in attempting to convey the exact flavour of the original is therefore to be applauded.
  9. ^ Cf. for the Reformed understanding, e.g., the note in the Dutch Staten Vertaling. See further Committee on Bible Translations, Report to Synod Abbotsford 1995, 158-159.
  10. ^ See further Committee on Bible Translations, Report to Synod Abbotsford 1995, passim and, e.g., H. M. Wolf, “When Literal is not Accurate” in K. L. Barker, ed., The NIV. The Making of a Contemporary Translation (1991), 127-136.

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