Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV) easy-to-read Bible translation for young readers and English language learners has more than 8.5 million copies in print worldwide, being jointly published by Zondervan and Biblica since 1996.
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Tell us about yourself and your work.
Michael J. Williams, PhD: I taught Old Testament and ancient Near East languages and literature at Calvin Theological Seminary from 1995 until I retired in 2018. I continue to write, teach, and collaborate in these academic areas. I became a member of the Committee on Bible Translation (the translation team for the NIV) in 2005. My wife, Dawn, and I live in Grand Rapids, MI, and enjoy travel and hiking.
How long have you been on the NIrV translation committee and why did you decide to become a part of this committee?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: I became a member of the NIrV committee in 2011. When I became a Christian in my late 20s, I had a steep learning curve to overcome because of my biblical illiteracy and my ignorance of the meaning of theological terms I had never heard before. I was excited to participate in the work of the NIrV because the translation helps people who are as new to the faith as I was, who struggle to understand the Bible or the theological terms it contains, or who would simply like to read a Bible that is rigorously faithful to the original texts and yet communicates the meaning of those texts in the clearest possible English.
Michael J. Williams, PhD: My area of expertise is in the Old Testament. Because I’ve taught Old Testament and the languages in which it was written (Hebrew and Aramaic) for over 20 years, I’m able to ensure the NIrV remains completely faithful to the meaning of the original texts. The other NIrV committee members help me to nuance the translation of these Old Testament texts with their own areas of expertise.
How has your involvement with the Committee on Bible Translation, the group that oversees the NIV text, helped you as you’ve been working on the NIrV translation committee?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: The NIrV is based on the NIV, and therefore benefits from the scholarship of that most read and trusted translation. But the NIrV then takes the NIV translation to a comprehension level more beneficial to those for whom the English language is more of a challenge. But doing this is not always easy! It’s often necessary to understand the rationale the NIV used for the translation of a particular word, phrase, or verse. Being a member of the CBT and being a part of the discussion that produced the NIV enables me to understand that rationale and ensure the NIrV is communicating the same sense as the NIV, though in a more accessible way.
What translation philosophy was used for the NIrV?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: Simply stated, the NIrV takes the NIV translation (on which it’s based) to a comprehension level more beneficial to those for whom the English language is more of a challenge. This often involves a reexamination of the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts to ensure they’re being represented as plainly, naturally, and as accurately as possible so they’re understandable by as many as possible. The goal is always to open the door to understanding the Bible far wider so that more can come in.
What was the intended purpose for doing the NIrV and how did it get started?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: Opening the door to understanding the Bible for more people has always been the goal of the NIrV since the need for such an accessible Bible became evident to Jeri Ryskamp during her work in 1976 with Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing to the US. She wanted to communicate the gospel to them but was hampered by the lack of a Bible translation that could be understood by those who were just beginning to learn English as a second language. Her ministry with children, those in prison, and troubled teens only further underscored the need for a translation that communicated to these populations.
Jeri expressed her frustration to her husband, Bruce Ryskamp, who was providentially in a position to do something about it, having been named President and CEO of Zondervan in 1983. Zondervan, working together with the International Bible Society and the Committee on Bible Translation (the team of translators who produce the NIV), was able to answer this need and eventually see the creation of the NIrV translation of the Old and New Testaments in 1996. As a result, there’s now a complete translation of the Bible that anyone with only a third-grade level of English comprehension can understand and use.
How does the NIrV differ from other easy-to-read Bibles?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: Because the NIrV is based on the NIV, it benefits from the ongoing and cutting-edge scholarship of that translation. The translation team for the NIV meets every year to incorporate advancements in biblical scholarship and changes in the English language. Each year, the NIrV committee incorporates those advances into the NIrV. The NIrV has also been “field-tested” by running potential translations of problematic texts past third graders to get their input on which reading is more understandable to them.
Who do you feel are the audiences that benefit most from using the NIrV?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: The audiences that would most benefit from the NIrV are younger children, people with learning difficulties, people whose first language is not English, people who are unfamiliar with the technical theological terms found in the Bible, and others who for whatever reason struggle to understand English at the level represented by most English Bible translations or who would prefer a translation that’s easier to read but that also remains faithful to the original texts.
What translation challenges has the committee faced while working on the NIrV?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: The NIrV adapts the text of the NIV for reading at a third-grade level. To accomplish this, we keep sentence length short (15 words or fewer); we also eliminate any expressions that only a native English speaker would understand, such as idioms, figures of speech, nation-specific allusions, and terms with which anyone not raised in the church would be unfamiliar. You can imagine how difficult that can be to accomplish for some theologically heavy passages. But the exercise of doing this has improved our own understanding of the Scriptures in addition to clarifying them for others.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: This is a hard question because there are so many to choose from! One of my favorites is Lamentations 3:22–23. The NIrV translation is:
The LORD loves us very much
So we haven’t been completely destroyed.
His loving concern never fails.
His great love is new every morning.
LORD, how faithful you are!
In the difficult times I’ve experienced (as indeed we all have), it’s comforting to know that though life can change, God will not. Our world may fall to pieces, but God will still give us peace. The goal of the NIrV is to make this message of divine salvation and comfort available to and accessible by as many people as possible.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: These resources are doing in their own way what the NIrV is also trying to do: make the Bible accessible to as many as possible. I myself use the resources of Bible Gateway frequently in comparing Bible translations as part of the process of determining how to best communicate the truth of God’s word in the clearest way possible.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Michael J. Williams, PhD: It’s so encouraging to see Christians working together to spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The NIrV does this by means of a more accessible and understandable translation. Zondervan and Biblica do this by publishing, marketing, and distributing different Bible translations. Bible Gateway does this by making these materials available in convenient platforms for Christians to deepen their understanding and faith, and for non-Christians to explore. May the church continue to come together in such ways to fulfill its calling to bring the gospel to all people (Matthew 28:18–20)!
Read interviews with the other translators of the New International Reader’s Version:
The New International Reader’s Version (NIrV) is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Until his retirement in 2018, Michael Williams taught Hebrew, Old Testament, and ancient Near Eastern languages and history at Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and has also spent time teaching in Kenya, Russia, and Poland. Dr. Williams is proficient in seven ancient languages, including biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Sumerian.
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