Thursday, October 04, 2007

TNIV - Worst Bit Ever

The other day, I came across what I suspect is probably the worst-translated bit of the TNIV. Whoever translated this one should probably be shot or something.

Hebrews 1 is all about Jesus and how much greater than angels he is. The author continues into Hebrews 2...

5Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6It has been testified somewhere,

"What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8putting everything in subjection under his feet."

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:5-9, ESV

That was the ESV, which is a pretty good translation. It's talking about Jesus, saying that the world to come will be subject to him; we don't see that yet, but we do see him crowned with glory and honour.

Now here's the TNIV, same passage:

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:

"What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
8 and put everything under their feet."

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:5-9, TNIV

I understand why they've done it, but it is really really stupid. It's because of two bits of translation philosophy, both of which they've mucked up big time.

The first is the idea of gender neutrality. If the original word translates as "person" rather than "man", they've tried to keep it gender-neutral in English. One problem with this is that they often do it by pluralisation rather than just using "they" as a third person singular pronoun, which is what modern English does. So in the quote from Psalm 8, the "Son of Man" has become "human beings".

The second is that where the OT is ambiguous, they don't allow the NT to influence translation choices, or they didn't in this case. So Psalm 8, treated without Hebrews, could be about people generally, or it could be about the Messiah. I've argued briefly that Psalm 8 should be understood as Messianic, even without the New Testament. But interpreting it as about people generally is not the Christian way to understand the Bible (I argue that from Patristics here). As Christians, we know it's about Jesus. So where there's two possible translations of the OT, and the NT makes one of them more plausible (as "Son of Man" in Psalm 8), then that's the one we should use.

Even given those, a better translation of Psalm 8 would be "What is a human that you are mindful of them, the mortal one that you care for them?" (with "Son of Man" footnoted as an alternative) Even then, Hebrews 2 could appear to be talking about Jesus rather than going off on what looks like a bizarre tangent about the authority of people that isn't anywhere in the original. The author of Hebrews thought that Psalm 8 was about Jesus. I'm not going to argue with them. But the translators of the TNIV seem to want to...

The translation of Hebrews 2 and Psalm 8 in the TNIV is not a Christian translation. (Oh, the NRSV does it too.)


Unknown said...

thanks for your interesting and amusing rendering of that passage. just for the record - what is your own first language?

John said...


Unknown said...

oh, i see. i though you must be quite a new english speaker. sorry. anyway, now i see that you meant the rendering as a joke. well done. perhaps you could work it into the college panto for xmas.

John said...

No - I just have an odd attitude to rules of English. In particular, I think it is perfectly acceptable to use "they" or "them" as a third person gender-indefinite singular pronoun, because it's the way it's commonly used.

Unknown said...

as in 'my dad came for tea so i gave them some'?

John said...

More like

"I met a really interesting person on the bus today."
"What was their name?"

John said...

The English gender-indefinite use of "their" only applies when the gender really is unspecified or in doubt.

Unknown said...

no, not good enough. you can't move from that colloquial, conversational use to one that needs more precision. and, i take it, you aren't suggesting that the writer of the epistle to the hebrews is in doubt of gender here. as i say elsewhere, you have a tin ear for language, which is a real problem for someone who hopes to expound biblical texts.

John said...

Unlike in French, "precise" English is defined by usage.

And modern usage suggests that "they" and "their" is perfectly acceptable as third person singular.

Actually, if you look, you said I had a "tine" ear for language, which is quite amusing, don't you think?

As you'd know if you'd actually let your brain process what I wrote, I think that Psalm 8 is (in the context of the book) about the Davidic king and thence the Messiah, so should be kept masculine even in a gender-inclusive translation.

That they make it plural as well as gender-inclusive is the problem.

Unknown said...

ah, someone who thinks typos are worth commenting on. well, ignoring your failure to understand language, if wycliffe hall is turning out ordinands who believe ps 8 is about jesus, then it ought to be closed down on academic grounds, let alone the intimidation of staff.

John said...

So you're another person who'd have failed the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews on theology, are you?

If you disagree with my assessment of patristic exegesis, feel free to debate it with arguments rather than assertions.

Unknown said...

i don't doubt that the author of hebrews believed that, but he was wrong.

when i was a yound man there was a piece or writing that was very popular. it's rather looked down on now, but i still value it. it says, amongst other things:
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

well, i've done that here.

it goes on:

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.

so i'm going to do that now.

John said...

If you aren't a Christian, why do you bother about Bible translation?

If you are, why don't you interpret it the way every single Christian Bible interpreter did for over a thousand years?

John said...

Strikingly, Psalm 8 is also quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:27, where it is again taken to be about Jesus. Here, the TNIV translators get the translation right - "has put everything under his feet", but that then means that it is different to the passage it's be quoting...

So they're inconsistent too.