Monday, February 20, 2012

There is a sharply-worded post at “Seasons of Grace” relating to biblical translation and especially biblical translation undertaken by Wycliffe Bible Translators for Muslims.  This is from the post:
“Seasons of Grace” states that “Father” and “Son” are being translated otherwise and improperly, such as with the words “Allah” or “Messiah” to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities. The issues raised by this post have to do with significant issues in bible translation in general, missionary activity, missionary activity with Muslims, and the manner in which one presents the Gospel message. These are issues that defy simplistic or simple answers, regardless of the black and white manner in which it is presented at “Seasons of Grace.”
In an over-reaching gesture of solidarity that boggles the mind, some mainline Christian organizations are changing their Holy Scriptures to avoid offending Muslims.
Three well-known Christian translation organizations—Wycliffe Bible Translators, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and Frontiers—have decided that, rather than risk offending adherents of Islam, they should modify the Christian Bible to make it more palatable to nonbelievers.

Here is the context for these issues from Wycliffe Bible Translators themselves:

The Wycliffe Global Alliance organizations and their personnel are not omitting or removing the familial terms, translated in English as “Son of God” or “Father,” from any Scripture translation. Wycliffe continues to be committed to accurate and clear translation of Scripture. The eternal deity of Jesus Christ and the understanding of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father must be preserved in every translation. The Alliance is supportive of the dialogue and research taking place among Wycliffe Global Alliance participating organizations and partners to ensure appropriate translation practices and to foster greater understanding of translation issues. Wycliffe personnel from nations around the world are committed to working alongside language communities and other partners to translate God’s Word with great care from the original languages of Scripture into the languages of the world’s people so that all may know the redeeming love and glory of God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Susan van Wynen at the Wycliffe site goes on to say about bible translation in general,

Translation is complex because language and thought are complex. Even when it is possible to do word-for-word translation, the meanings those words carry for different audiences may differ.  A translation team’s goal is always to allow the audience to understand the original intended meaning of the text.
We are committed to translating the Scriptures accurately, without losing, adding to, or changing the meaning of the original text. The original text was written many years ago in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. These languages spoke directly to the readers and hearers of those times and cultures.
Each generation and each language community needs to be able to hear and understand God’s Word, just as those original recipients did. Even then it did not come easily. The apostle Paul shaped the Gospel message differently for the Gentiles than for the Jews in order to convey the same meaning.
We are committed to translating clearly and naturally, so the speakers of the language can understand the message. Language, culture, history and context all contribute to meaning and understanding. Even within one language, there may be a range of cultures and understanding. This is why it is critical to have translators who are skilled mother-tongue speakers of the language. It is why translation teams and consultants need to understand the language community and do extensive testing of translations in the community.
This is true, and please see the site for more comments on translation and the philosophy behind translation of the Bible.Wycliffe clearly denies that it is engaged in anything other than its regular process of Bible translation in which intercultural sensitivities are considered and weighed as are unique linguistic issues.

People might clamor, as they have for instance with the recent Missal translation in the RC Church, for more ‘word for word’ translation, instead of ‘dynamic equivalence,’ but the bottom line is that you cannot translate any language ‘word for word,’ even if you make that your goal and have genuine understanding. There is a reason translation is essential: we are dealing with different languages. In fact, the German word for “translation,” ubersetzen, gives us a good example. My family was trilingual and German and Russian came before English. If someone in the younger generation could not understand the German, you could often hear one of my Uncles say, as a joke, “Do you need that word to be 'over set'?”  That is, of course, the “direct” translation of  ubersetzen, but it does not work in English. Apart from that were the German jokes that my Grandparents, Parents and other relatives assured us “could not be translated.”

Here is a more formal example the Kouya Chronicle:

As I’ve mentioned more than once, languages are tricky things. Words and phrases slip and slide all over the place and end up meaning something very different to what you might imagine. Just think about the way the phrase “yeah, right” can turn through one hundred and eighty degrees just by a little shift in intonation.
This sort of thing makes translation very difficult; no matter how much you might want to, you can rarely translate word for word. Take this simple example between English and French.

I run
Je cours
I run
The motor runs
Le moteur marche
The motor walks
I run a company
Je gère une entreprise
I manage a company
My nose runs
Mon nez coule
My nose flows
I run an errand
Je fais une commission
I do an errand

In this simple example, the English word run has to be translated by five different French verbs. I dread to think what a literal French translation of “my nose runs” would actually mean!
Things become even more complicated when you realise that words don’t just have simple dictionary definitions, they also have all sorts of emotional and other resonances which don’t match from language to language.
Please see more on these linguistic issues at the Kouya Chronicle. Clearly, a significant issue in this dispute is how to do proper biblical translation and this is complex no matter into what language you are translating.

Translating the Bible for Muslims, though, raises the difficult issue regarding the Trinity, which, of course, is already an issue at the time of the writing of the Quran.  That is, this is not a new issue, but one which is central to the Muslim critique of Christianity. The realities related to the Christian and Muslim views of God are at the heart of the issues which divided Islam and Christianity. See, for instance Fred Donner's book Muhammed and the Believers for an overview of the early treatment of these theological issues (212-214). The Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas presents theological statements on many of the theological issues which divide Muslims and Christians, including points of agreement, points of disagreement and points for further discussion. The statement on God/Allah has these concluding statements, written by a Muslim theologian (Adil Ozdemir) and a Christian theologian (Terence Nichols):

Points of Agreement
Muslims and Christians agree that God is the Creator and sustainer of the universe, that God is not a being or entity within the universe, and that God is not contingent. In both religions, God is seen as infinite, all-powerful, all knowing, as well as personal, just, merciful, good, loving, wise, provident, and so on. Indeed, Christians should be able to affirm every one of the ninety-nine names which Muslims attribute to God. Both religions agree that God reveals Godself through prophets. Both would agree that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (as well as others) were true prophets. The Roman Catholic Bishops, at Vatican II, acknowledged that Muslims profess the faith of Abraham and worship the true God: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (Lumen Gentium 16).
Points of Disagreement
The greatest point of theological disagreement between Christians and Muslims is the doctrine of the Trinity. Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet, but argue that only God can be called divine. To call a human being or creature divine is to commit the sin of shirk, or idolatry, by associating a creature with God. The Qur’an states many times that God has no consort or Son. However, Christians do not think of Jesus as a son in a polytheistic sense, as if he were another God besides the Father. There may in fact be a parallel to Christian thinking on the trinity in Muslim thinking on the Qur’an. For Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God, and can be said to have preexisted in the mind of God before it was revealed to Muhammad. A debate arose in Muslim history as to whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated. This seems to be a close parallel to the debates in early Christianity concerning Arianism: was the Word of God (which became incarnate in Jesus) a creature, as the Arians claimed? Or was it one with God?-- uncreated in other words. Christians chose the latter. But in the same way, many Muslims believe the Qur’an existed in God from all eternity, uncreated, like the Logos in Christianity. 
Points for Further Discussion
An obvious point for further discussion is the Trinity. The Muslim criticism of the Christian claim that Jesus is the eternal Logos of God who has taken on a human nature is that this is idolatry, that it amounts to the worship of a human being. Yet Christians have always denied that their worship is idolatrous and asserted that in worshipping Jesus they are in fact worshipping God. But is there such a thing as “Jesus-olatry” in Christianity, that is, a worship which worships the humanity of Jesus instead of his divinity? This should be explored in mutual discussion. (See the Muslim article on “Jesus.”)

Another point for discussion might be the parallel between the Muslim conception of the Qur’an, and the Christian conception of Jesus as the incarnate Logos.
Since theological dialogue is already being discussed amongst Muslim and Christian theologians, especially on the issue of the Trinity, should there simply be more dialogue on this issue not attempts to “hide” the differences in Bible translation? Is Wycliffe simply translating according to principles of  intercultural sensitivity? Or do the translation techniques of Wycliffe in this case hide the authentic Christian teaching and openness about who and what Christians are? I, too, have faced confusion regarding the Trinity while in Turkey, with a dialogue partner insisting Mary is a part of the Trinity and I insisting that as a Christian I was quite certain that Mary is not considered a person of the Trinity.

Given the long history of relations between Muslims and Christians, from the beginning of Islam frankly, and the poor treatment both religions have received from the other at various times in history, should not the goal be dialogue? Open, honest, clear discussion? Is the Bible translation in this case representative of sensitivity to Muslim views of God,  ignorance of the historical relationship between Christians and Muslims, or is covert missionizing is going on? Are new Bible translations the best means of discussion? How does this impact indigenous Christians in Muslim countries? These new translations might be the best approach in terms of translation, and it might be an attempt to introduce Christian theological concepts in a non-offensive manner,  but will it wind up creating even more confusion, which already exists in Muslim countries regarding the Trinity?

Is this just an issue of  Bible translation? An issue of inter-religious dialogue? Or a chance to create even more confusion?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. I found my inbox "assaulted" this morning by folks upset with Wycliffe. As I began sifting through the rhetoric, I found that, in my opinion, it was another case of massive reaction to a rumor. I've given up trying to get these folks to check facts before they fire off a salvo. Would that all that energy be applied to sharing the Gospel. ...
    With that said, I'm trusting my brothers and sisters at Wycliffe to continue to translate the Gospel so it can bring the reader to a knowledge of God and his forgiveness. I've seen NOTHING from them that indicates they are compromising their beliefs in Jesus the Son Of God nor their values.