The New International Reader’s Version: What, Who, and Why

by Ronald F. Youngblood
(Bible Editons & Versions – April/June 2000)
Ten years ago, when I was first asked what I thought about the feasibility and possibility of translating the entire Bible into a form that an eight-year-old child could readily understand, many questions swirled through my mind: Is everything in the Bible suitable for children to read? Should they be exposed to the gruesome details surrounding the violent deaths of an Eglon (Judges 3:20-22), or a Goliath (I Sam. 17:48-51), or an Asahel (II Sam. 223)? Can the frank and vivid language of Genesis 38:9 or Ezekiel 23:20 or Amos 1:13 be softened enough so as not to scandalize needlessly the tender eyes and ears and hearts of children —or keep their parents from allowing their offspring to read those passages? Indeed, might not such language produce in the impressionable minds of little ones the desire to act out in real life what they have read in Holy Scripture? Would it not be better to omit questionable sections of the text in Bibles that are intended primarily for children?
Initially, my colleagues and associates at International Bible Society (IBS) and Zondervan Publishing House found it difficult to persuade me otherwise. They wanted me to become the executive editor of a children’s translation of the Bible — the whole Bible — aimed at a third-grade reading level. The New International Version (NIV), the world’s best-selling English Bible for many years, was evaluated as having a reading level of 7.8. This meant that children in the eighth month of their seventh year of elementary school would have no particular difficulty reading it, but that children in earlier grades would only be able to read it with great effort, if at all It would be my task to oversee the production of an edition of that Bible at a third-grade level to serve the needs of children four full grades earlier — and therefore four years younger than seventh-graders — who wanted to read the NIV but were not able to.
As I continued to weigh the pros and cons of whether young children should be provided with an unexpurgated Bible prepared especially for them, I was soon forced to reckon with the fact that in the 1990s the general level of juvenile awareness concerning sensitive matters was quite different than it had been when I was a little boy growing up in the 1930’s. The advent of television, video games, rated movies, and other forms of entertainment has inevitably exposed our children to visual and auditory experiences that I was shielded from almost completely. For better or for worse, our permissive culture and our wide-open society have made the average child today much more knowledgeable and articulate about sex, violence, and the like, than my rowdiest childhood peers ever were. I would be the first to insist that, for the most part, this is a situation to regret rather than to rejoice over, but to say that it does not exist would be to deny the obvious.
So I agreed, however reluctantly, to direct the project that produced what came to be known as the New International Reader’s Version of the Bible (NIrV). As it turned out, it was not long before my querulousness and tentativeness gave way to enthusiasm and gusto. No longer was it a matter of whether the task should be undertaken. I decided that it was high time to lay my unfounded fears to rest and to get on with the job.
Among the first issues to be addressed was what to call the proposed version. More than twenty possibilities were suggested, but we finally settled on “New International Reader’s Version” for several reasons: (l) The name immediately connects the translation to the NIV (high reader recognition and trust, among others, are desirable qualities associated with the NIV); (2) The introduction of the word “Reader’s” implies that the version is easy to read; (3) The name also suggests that the translation intends to make the Bible accessible to anyone who aspires to read it (as opposed to studying it); (4) The name allows for a target audience not restricted to children…it invites use by new readers, people who experience difficulty when they try to read, readers for whom English is a second language, and so forth; (5) As in the case of the NIV, the word “International” indicates that the version is intended for all..English-language readers.
The final product known as the NIrV is a full-fledged, complete Bible that attempts to put into third-grade language all the words in all sixty-six books of the Bible. It is not a condensed or expurgated text — although, of course, appropriate euphemisms are employed when necessary. Building on the proven excellence and positive reputation of the NIV, the NIrV preserves the wording of that version wherever it can.
Many qualities and characteristics of the NIV were deliberately replicated in its “kid brother.” Like the NIV, the NIrV was translated and edited by people who affirm the full inspiration and infallibility of Scripture; its inerrancy, if you please. They believe the Bible to be totally trustworthy and absolutely authoritative in everything it asserts and teaches. The result is a text that is reliable in every respect.
Like the NIV, the NIrV, in one way or another, explains everything contained in the text. It leaves nothing to chance. There are no obscure passages in it. We explained everything within the text itself, making use of circumlocutions, explanatory glosses, and the like wherever necessary. To put it another way, we refused to be satisfied by mere readability. Our goal was full understandability as well. Our guiding verse, as represented in its NIrV rendering, was Nehemiah 8:8: “[The Levites] read parts of the Scroll of the Law of God to the people. They made it clear to them. They told them what it meant. So the people were able to understand what was being mad.” Because we were determined not to be satisfied with anything less than maximum comprehension, even educated adults have found the NIrV to be useful for a quick check on the basic meaning of a particular passage.
Whatever other characteristics a Bible translation might have, accuracy is a quality of supreme importance. Keeping that in mind at all times, we wanted to make sure that the entire text of the NIrV would be not only clear but also accurate. Our watchword thus became “Get it clear and get it right.” Not simply, “Get it done.”
As I hinted above, the impetus for starting the NIrV translation project in the first place was the realization that children entering the seventh grade of elementary school often find the NIV a bit hard to read unless they consult a dictionary frequently. This means, of course, that children in earlier grades have an even harder time understanding what God is saying to them through the words of the NIV translation. The decision to produce the NIrV was prompted by a desire to provide an NIV-like translation for children as young as eight years of age. The NIrV can therefore be read for profit by all elementary-schoolchildren from the third through seventh grades, not just by third-graders.
Before our work got under way, we realized that other groups of readers could be helped by a translation like the NIrV. High on this list were people of all ages for whom English is a second language. We felt that many, if not most of them, would welcome an English-language version of the Bible that was easier to read than those currently available —including many so-called children’s versions. Another group of adults who might appreciate a version that features simpler English are those with low reading skills resulting from lack of education, various learning disabilities, and/or other impairments.
Thus the needs of many different subsets of people were kept in mind from the very beginning of the NIrV project. Zondervan, the commercial publisher of the NIrV, has produced adult and children’s editions in tandem from its outset. Those for children include devotional and study Bibles. They sport colorful, eye-catching covers and feature charming, captivating, many-hued paintings made especially for the NIrV. By way of contrast, the adult editions have a plainer cover and no artwork. All editions are set in easy-to-read type and include such helps as sectional headings and a brief dictionary that defines the relatively small number of technical words (for example, “apostle,” “blessed,” “circumcision,” “eternal,” “Passover”) that all translations at every reading level can scarcely avoid.
It was not particularly difficult to assemble a number of teams composed of stellar scholars and children’s literature experts who were eager to assist in the project. Basing our “modus operandi” on the four-tiered system developed by the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) that produced the NIV, we established four levels of activity: (1) a relatively large number of “rough-draft simplifiers”; (2) an Initial Simplification Committee (ISC); (3) three CBT Simplification Committees (CBTSims); and (4) a Final Review Committee (FRC).
As their title implies, the task delegated to the rough-draft simplifiers was to produce a simplified rough draft of one or more books of the Bible using the NIV as the basic text. Their mandate was threefold: to shorten NIV sentences wherever necessary (ten words or less was the ideal), to simplify the NIV vocabulary, and to leave the NIV text as it was whenever possible. The simplifiers’ backgrounds were quite varied. As might be expected, some of the best work was done by parents of young children.
The ISC was made up of three children’s literature experts. Their assignment was to modify the work of the rough-draft simplifiers in order to bring verbal, grammatical, and stylistic consistency to the text, and to incorporate the simplifiers’ varied expressions of the Biblical authors’ intents.
For the most part, the members of the CBTSims were (or had been) members of the NIV CBT. The others had been co-opted by the CBT in 1976-77 to assist that body in completing work on the NIV. All of the CBTSim members were intimately familiar with the translation principles that guided the CBT from the very beginning of its work in the late 1960s; principles that had been developed and honed as the years passed. The primary task of the CBTSims was to check the ISC draft documents to make sure that they faithfully rendered the original-language texts and that they were free of theological blunders. At the same lime they were encouraged to improve narrative flow, poetic balance, and rhetorical power as well as to remove stylistic inconsistencies.
Despite the admittedly excellent work done by the three CBTSims, it was essential to read and edit their manuscripts one final time before declaring the project concluded. We needed to make sure that literary, stylistic and theological consistency characterized the whole. We also wanted to be certain that the finished product was readable and understandable, at a third-grade level. Those tasks were assigned to the three members of the FRC. As executive editor, I chaired and gave overall leadership to the work of the committee. We labored over every verse of the Bible as submitted to us by the CBTSims until we were convinced that we had fulfilled our mandate. On February 1, 1996, four years to the day after the IBS board of directors had authorized us to begin the project, we completed the work.
Two examples will prove useful at this point. They are typical of how readability, understandability, and accuracy must interact with one another if beginning readers can reasonably be expected to comprehend what a text is saying to them. The first example is the use of the phrase “in Christ (Jesus),” which occurs 79 times in Paul’s letters, most frequently in Romans and Ephesians (13 times each). For purposes of brevity we will limit ourselves to the Book of Ephesians.
                     NIV                                                                 NIrV
1:1 the faithful in Christ Jesus                        1:1   Because you belong to Christ
                                                                                   Jesus, you are faithful
1:3 who has blessed us in the heav-             1:3   He has blessed us with every
      enly realms with every spiritual                         spiritual blessing. Those bless-
      blessing in Christ                                                ings come from the heavenly
                                                                                    world. They belong to us
                                                                                    because we belong to Christ
1:10 one head, even Christ                           1:10   one ruler. The ruler is Christ

1:12 the first to hope in Christ                       1:12   the first to put our hope in Christ
1:20 which he exerted in Christ when          1:20   God showed when he raised Christ
        he raised him from the dead                            from the dead
2:6 God…seated us with him in the             2:6    He has seated us with him in the
      heavenly realms in Christ Jesus                       heavenly kingdom because we belong
                                                                                    to Christ Jesus
2:7  expressed in his kindness to us             2:7   He has shown it by being kind to us
      in Christ Jesus                                                   because of what Christ Jesus has done
2:10  created in Christ Jesus to do               2:10   He created usto belong to Christ 
         good works                                                       Jesus. Now we can do good things
2:13  in Christ Jesus you...have been           2:13   you belong to Christ Jesus. He
         brought near through the blood                       spilled his blood for you. That has
          of Christ                                                            brought you near to God
3:6  sharers together in the promise             3:6  They share in the promise. It belongs
        in Christ Jesus                                                 to them because they belong to Christ
3:11 which he accomplished in Christ          3:11  He has worked it out through Christ 
         Jesus                                                                 Jesus
3:21  to him be glory in the church and in      3:21 Give him glory in the church and in
          Christ Jesus                                                     Christ Jesus
4:32  in Christ God forgave you                      4:32  God forgave you because of what
                                                                                      Christ has done
In all but one of the thirteen occurrences of “in Christ (Jesus)” in Ephesians, the NIV translates the phrase literally. The exception is in 1:10, where it is rendered in an explanatory sense (“even”). The NIrV follows suit (“is”). In two other cases the NIrV also echoes the NIV usage. It translates “put our hope in Christ’ (for idiomatic reasons) in 1:12, and in 3:21 it preserves the traditional phrase “in the church and in Christ Jesus” (even though the latter phrase remains anything but clear). In one other case the NIrV translates the preposition instrumentally (“through,” 3:11), and in 1:20 it is left untranslated because it is implied in the following clause (“when [God] raised Christ from the dead”). But in the rest of the occurrences it interprets Paul’s intent in one of two ways: Christians are “in Christ” in the sense that they “belong to him” (1:1, 3;2:6, 10,13; 3:6)or “because of what [he] has done” (2:7; 4:32).
My second example concerns a few of the typical phrases used by Paul to open each of his letters. I Corinthians 1:1-2a can serve as an illustration. In the NIV it reads: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth…” Because young readers could hardly be expected to understand the genre implications of that sentence, the NIrV spells out Paul’s intention in this way “I, Paul, am writing this letter. I have been chosen to be an apostle of Christ Jesus just as God planned. Our brother Sosthenes joins me in writing. We are sending this letter to you, the members of God’s church in Corinth.”
“If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” This statement — supposedly made to a learned clergyman and widely quoted in slightly varying forms — is attributed to William Tyndale, an early pioneer in the translation of Holy Scripture into the English language. It demonstrates his determination to make sure that the Bible was accessible to young readers in their mother tongue. Tyndale’s concern continues to be shared by equally sensitive and perceptive believers today.
The reason for the existence of Bible Societies has traditionally been to provide the Scriptures to the peoples of the world in their native languages. The production of Bibles tailored to readers in various age groups and at various levels of comprehension is a logical extension of that task. Indeed, Bibles written specifically for children have been available for generations. Currently there are many Bibles aimed at a fourth or fifth-grade reading levels that attempt to meet the needs of children and others. Among them are the International Children‘s Version, the Contemporary English Version, and the New Century Version.
What, then, is the justification for the New International Reader’s Version? Why did lBS and Zondervan feel that yet another children’s translation was necessary? A few summary statements are in order.
In the United States alone, thirty million children are under eight years of age. English is a second language for thirty-two million people in America, and them are forty million Americans who read at or below the fourth-grade level. In addition, there are upwards of twenty million illiterate adults in the United States. Meeting the needs of these potential Bible readers seemed to us to be reason enough for a new, up-to-date, easy-to-read, user-friendly translation.
Furthermore, the children’s Bibles now available have all been evaluated at a fourth-grade reading level or higher. We sensed that large numbers of people — children and adults alike — would profit from having a copy of Scriptures at the third-grade level, the one at which most children begin to read with meaningful understanding. Our goal was therefore a 3.5 level (third grade, fifth month). The final result exceeded our wildest expectations: The NIrV has been evaluated at a 2.9 reading level, a full year lower than its nearest rival.
The enthusiasm with which the NIrV has been received to this point has been gratifying to everyone who labored to produce it. Almost from the first month of its publication, it has ranked among the top ten best-selling Bible translations in the United States. More gratifying by far, of course, have been reports from people who have gained renewed understanding of the meaning of Scripture and have grown spiritually as a result of reading the NIrV. It would therefore appear to be meeting a genuine need in the lives of many readers, both young and old.
It is for the spiritual benefit of such readers that we dedicated ourselves to preparing the NIrV. Our hope and prayer is that it will play a small part in helping many young and beginning readers to reach something of the theological understanding exemplified in the following brief essay by eight-year-old Danny Dutton of Chula Vista, California:
One of God’s main jobs is making people. He makes these to put in place of the ones that die so there will be enough people to take care of things here on earth. He doesn’t make grownups. Just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make. That way He doesn’t have to take up His valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that up to the mothers and fathers. I think it works out pretty good.
God’s second most important job is listening to prayers. An awful lot of this goes on, as some people, like preachers and things, pray other times besides bedtime. God doesn’t have time to listen to the radio or TV on account of this. As He hears everything, not only prayers, there must be a terrible lot of noise going into His ears unless He has thought of a way to turn it off.
God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere, which keeps Him pretty busy. So you shouldn’t go wasting His time by going over your parent’s head and ask for something they said you couldn’t have.
Atheists are people who don’t believe in God. I don’t think there are any in Chula Vista. At least there aren’t any who come to our church.
Jesus is God’s Son. He used to do all the hard work like walking on water and doing miracles and trying to teach people about God who didn’t want to learn. They finally got tired of Him preaching to them and they cursified (sic) Him but He was good and kind like His Father and He told His Father that they didn’t know what they were doing and to forgive them and God said ok. His Dad (God) appreciated everything He had done and all His hard work on earth, so He told Him He didn’t have to go out on the road anymore. He could stay in heaven. So He did. And now He helps His Dad out by listening to prayers and seeing which things are important for God to take care of and which ones He can take care of Himself without having to bother God with. Like a secretary only more important, of course. You can pray anytime you want and they are sure to hear you because they’ve got it worked out so one of them is on duty all the time.
You should always go to Sunday School because it makes God happy, and if there’s anybody you want to make happy, it’s God. Don’t skip Sunday School to do something you think will be more fun like going to the beach. That is wrong, and besides the sun doesn’t come out at the beach until noon, anyway.
If you don’t believe in God, besides being an Atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can’t go everywhere with you like to camp, but God can. It’s good to know He’s around when you’re scared of the dark or when you can’t swim very good and you get thrown in real deep water by big kids. But you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you. I figured God put me here and He can take me back anytime He pleases.
And that’s why I believe in God.
“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).