To help readers navigate the changes that have been made to the NIV text, the Committee on Bible Translation have created a document that explains the guiding principles behind the update. The document contains example texts and a wealth of insights into the translation process.
We are happy to be able to reproduce the introduction to the translators’ notes below. You can read the complete document by downloading the PDF here.
When the original Bible documents first emerged, they captured exactly what God wanted to say in the language and idiom of ordinary people. There was no friction between hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant. The original audience experienced a unique fusion of these two ingredients.
Readers of the Bible today, however, can no longer experience this fusion. The passage of two thousand years has turned the Greek and Hebrew of Bible times from living languages into historical artifacts that only scholars can understand. If we had the original documents in our hands today, they would still represent exactly what God wanted to say. But the vast majority of people would no longer be able to understand them.
In 1611, the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible sought to bring English readers back as close to that original fusion as possible. As with all translations, the transition from the original languages to Elizabethan English involved some loss of transparency to the original documents. And yet that small loss in transparency was more than made up for by a tremendous gain in comprehensibility: People could hear God’s Word in their own language! The result propelled the body of Christ into a new era of personal transformation and global reformation.
But, just like the original documents, the KJV was unable to escape the effects of time. The English language changed. The “thys” and “thous” and “whosoevers” of the KJV became less and less the language of everyday people and more and more the language of a bygone age. The KJV’s ability to present God’s Word the way it was written, while at the same time allowing readers to understand it the way it was meant, began to decline.
In the last century, a number of excellent new English Bible translations have emerged to occupy different points in the space vacated by the KJV.
Some translations place a particularly high priority on hearing God’s Word the way it was written — giving the modern English reader the opportunity to see much of the form and structure of the original documents. Ease of understanding varies from verse to verse and from book to book according to the complexity of the source material. But all verses and all books adhere to a high standard of transparency to the original languages.
Other translations place a particularly high priority on understanding God’s Word the way it was meant — helping the modern English reader to grasp the content of the Bible in their own words and their own idioms. Transparency to the form and structure of the original documents varies from verse to verse and from book to book. But all verses and all books adhere to a high standard of comprehensibility.
Since its first emergence as a complete text in 1978, the New International Version (NIV) has stood as the modern pioneer of a different approach — an approach that mirrors the balance of priorities held by the KJV translators four hundred years ago. The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience: providing the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning in every verse. The NIV is founded on the belief that if hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant were the hallmarks of the original reading experience, then accuracy in translation demands that neither one of these two criteria be prioritized above the other.
Built upon this philosophy, the NIV has experienced much the same reaction in the church and beyond as its beloved predecessor whose values it seeks to emulate. Thirty years after its first publication there are more than four hundred million NIV Bibles in print.
But, unlike its predecessor, the NIV was designed from the very start with a built-in mechanism to defy the attritional effects of time. Since 1978, the NIV translation team has continued to meet, year after year, reviewing developments in biblical scholarship and changes in English usage — revising the translation to ensure that it continues to offer its readers an experience that mirrors that of the original audience, and periodically releasing those revisions in updated editions of the text.