Saturday, 28 July 2007

Lost in Translation: Inconsistencies of the NIV?

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned in passing my gripes with the inconsistencies of the NIV translation that I encountered in the process of writing devotional readings of John 17-21 for Asian Reflections 2008. In this post, I would like to highlight just one of them.

In John 18:18, NIV reads: "It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself." The passage is located within the context of Peter's denial of Jesus.

Moving on to John 21:9, NIV reads: "When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread." This context of this passage speaks of Jesus' restoration of Peter.

With the help of Bibleworks, I discover that the Greek word, anthrakia, translated "fire" in 18:18 and "fire of burning coals" in 21:9 is the same word. Anthrakia literally means "a charcoal fire" (BDAG, s.v.). However, NIV curiously omits "charcoal" or "burning coal" in 18:18 and simply translate it as "a fire." Unfortunately, this error remains uncorrected in TNIV.

This is surprising, and is another example to highlight one of the inconsistencies of the NIV translation. If one were to follow the flow of the narrative of the Fourth Evangelist carefully, one cannot help but to notice the deliberate choice of the word "anthrakia" in both the accounts of the denial and restoration of Peter. The smell of the burning coals is too strong to be missed. It is as if the Fourth Evangelist is using this word to conjure up the familiar smell of the burning coals to remind the readers that Jesus brings Peter to his lowest point of failure in order to bring him up to a position where he could be restored and recommissioned as a follower of Jesus by responding to the Master's call, "Follow Me" (21:19).

By mistranslating anthrakia simply as "fire" in 18:18 is to miss the point of the Fourth Evangelist. This is unfortunate. This particular inconsistency is even more obvious when a comparison is made with other translations. For example, ESV, NASB, NET, NLT, NRSV, and RSV all translated anthrakia as "a charcoal fire" both in 18:18 and 21:9.

Hopefully, this small example serves to illustrate the importance of the study of biblical Greek and the need to consult several translations if one were to carry out serious and in depth Bible study. There is simply no short cut if one wishes to dig deeper into the Scriptures. But the reward of drawing out significant insight and life-transforming truth awaits those who are willing to go deeper.


ionStorm said...

hmm...then what would be the closest and most accurate english translation available today?

on another note, maybe you can pioneer a new project..."learning greek as a 2nd language". just as the malays would have to learn arabic since std 1, you can spearhead a project which will encourage parents to send their children to greek class. 12 years later, you will have your first batch of 17 year olds, capable of reading and understanding the bible in greek. now...that would be interesting. :)

if you start a class for adults (in the church), i join. boleh? tapi jgn drill kita macam stm students la...HEHE.

blogpastor said...

Thank you for that insight which I never saw before.......and for pointing out the inconsistency. Yes though the NIV is a readable and therefore popular translation it is not as reliable. It shows up 'cracks' now and then when it comes to serious study, so lately I've been using ESV. Is that a good choice?

Kar Yong said...

Yes, I agree with you that ESV is a better translation - and like you, I have been using it lately.

As mentioned by Blogpastor, I think ESV is a better translation. If you have not got one already, go for it in the next Gladsounds, Canaanland or Evangel sale!

Greek ah...that will be learning Greek as 4th langauge (after mandrin, english, malay, and not counting hokkien and cantonese)...

Sure, we can explore the possibility of doing a class in the church - if there is sufficient interest, and if you promise me not to give up half way...! Ask Ruth how much (or perhaps how little) she struggles with Greek in STM... :-)

ionStorm said...

But that also depends on how "fast" and "deep" you decide to teach greek. To grasp it over a course of 12 years (ala school) is alot easier than over a course of...what...6 months?

Hehe...ok. I be the first to sign up. (omg...what have I gotten myself into...)

Btw...hokkien and cantonese is not a language. :P

rccnlj said...

Greek not that difficult... But my class mates might say otherwise. *grin*.. Who's teaching it makes a lot of difference too...
Kar Yong should be good. *cheeky grin* BUt he'll prolly drill you.

Kar Yong said...


OK - I got 1 convert now...we will see whethere there is sufficeint interest. A number of TEE students have also requested for such a course.

Let's further explore this.


You mean I only drill...?? Nothing else?

rccnlj said...

trying not to scare ionstorm away. Otherwise you have no converts. Anyways, I think it's a good idea and that ppl in church would be interested. Some of the young ppl were asking me about classes when they saw me reading the greek bible at CUG too...

pearlie said...

Thanks for the observation. It confirms for me even more the deliberate actions of Jesus to reaffirm Peter's position in the Lord, as were my study of the sermon 2 Sundays ago.

Yeah ... I use ESV quite extensively, I find it pretty good. And for those who use the eSword software, ESV is free courtesy from the Good News Publishers.

The Hedonese said...

ESV 1 - NIV 0

Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Pearlie, for the good tip!

Kar Yong said...


ESV - 2 NIV - 0 now!!