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God Inspired Metaphors: Another Problem with the New International Version

December 10th, 2010
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A problem with modern Bible “translations” that intend to try to capture meaning, rather than translate the actual text of the Bible, is that they often destroy, or badly mangle, the metaphors in the original languages. Dr. Gene Edward Veith had a great comment about this on his blog site that I’d thought I’d pass along here:

In my earlier post about the even newer New International Version of the Bible, I complained about how that line of translations is indifferent to metaphor, poetry, and beauty of language. I cited as an example how the new NIV renders “the valley of the shadow of death” as “the dark valley.”

I would argue that sensitivity to literary qualities is necessary in an accurate translation. Metaphors are not just ornaments. They express meaning and are essential in expressing complex, multi-leveled, rich meanings that go beyond simple prosaic statements.

Consider these translations of Genesis 4:1: T

The historic English Bible, from the KJV through the ESV, keeps the Hebrew metaphor: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.”

The 1984 NIV thinks it has to explain what the metaphor means: “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.”

The 2010 NIV is more romantic: “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.”

The original Hebrew uses a profound metaphor that communicates important meaning about marital sexuality in God’s design: They “knew” each other.

Ironically, the other readings are just as metaphorical and even more euphemistic. “Lay with” is ugly and strangely old-fashioned, a version of “sleep with.” “Make love,” not too long ago, meant courting or flirting, not having sex (so that many contemporary readers of 19th century novels think they are much more racy than they are).

At any rate, “Adam knew Eve” is how the original language reads. If God inspired the words, He surely inspired the metaphors.

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  1. December 10th, 2010 at 07:12 | #1

    Then I assume the KJV and ESV also says that one’s kidneys rejoice, that God is long of nostrils, or that “it was hot for Cain” (Gen 4:5). Metaphor is what a language uses to communicate meaning – and the reason metaphor works is because, in the comparison, other details come into view and flesh out the meaning. But it’s ridiculous to say that a translator cannot put a metaphor into corresponding English in order to communicate meaning. A translator always makes decisions. A translator will always strive to bring out the full meaning behind a metaphor, but he is not bound to the literal words of that metaphor – because the target language (language a person is translating into) has its own set of regular metaphors for conveying meaning.

  2. December 10th, 2010 at 07:44 | #2

    Likewise, a distinction should be made between metaphor and idiom.

  3. December 10th, 2010 at 11:32 | #3

    Peter, I think the main point that Paul is making is not that a translator cannot use metaphors other than the originals to convey meaning. The problem is that the NIV is frequently using metaphors that actually obscure some of the meaning that the original (Hebrew or Greek) metaphors conveyed…

  4. December 10th, 2010 at 14:22 | #4

    If the original version locates human emotion in the kidneys rather than our “heart,” I want to know that. The Hebrew & KJV has the “bowels of compassion.” Yes, that’s funny to us, but we actually retain part of that when we say that “I felt it in my gut.”

  5. December 11th, 2010 at 22:16 | #5

    I’m no fan of the 2011 NIV, but still use NIV 1984 for personal study. I’d rather have a translation that communicates in modern English – simply because I’m speaking modern English. I’m not advocating a translation (paraphrase) as extreme as (e.g.) The Message. In general, churches have moved away from the KJV so that people would be able to understand the meaning of a passage on first reading. The pastor can then explain the text and what’s behind the text, rather than talking about and explaining 16th-century English. Metaphor and idiom may convey deeper meaning, or may be left on the cutting-room floor as exegetical curiosities. The NIV is not perfect – neither is the ESV. The 2011 NIV is unusuable. This very issue is why our pastors immerse themselves in the original languages – to be able to make these decisions and perhaps provide commentary where needed, regardless of which translation is used.

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