NKJV Rev 22:18 For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
Some of you know that I have a thing for books and articles dealing with Bible translation; so it’s no surprise that I was drawn in to a series that Wycliffe UK’s Eddie Arthur wrote last month.
Many translation controversies begin with a perception that something has been removed or destroyed in what they believe to be their translation. It’s an us-versus-them issue, ‘Look what they did to our Bible.” The default reaction is always to attack a new Bible version rather than to embrace it or celebrate the availability of the scriptures in new languages, dialects and the communication modes of specific neighborhoods or demographic subgroups. Ears become inexplicably stuffed up when translators try to defend their word choices or phrase choices.
On Feb. 18th, Eddie wrote this on his blog Kouya Chronicle:
Over the last few weeks, a good deal has been written on websites, in emails and even in the press saying that Wycliffe Bible Translators has deliberately removed key concepts from the Bible so as not to offend certain audiences. Specifically, the charge is that Wycliffe (and others) have removed the terms “Son of God”, “Father” and other familial terms from the Bible. An online petition has been set up (which names me personally) to pressurize Wycliffe into changing these alleged practices. Rather sadly, many people have taken these allegations at face value and have been prepared to accept them, without seeking to understand any of the background information. It particularly saddens me, that people I know have been prepared to sign up to a petition which criticises me personally, without first of all talking to me.
In the same article, he links to an article by Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary which explains the nature of the issue and the reason why, in a particular edition, Wycliffe chose to go a different route than the one normally chosen for English readers.
Words do not match in a one-to-one fashion across languages. The difficulty is a general one, and is not confined to religious vocabulary. But meanings can still be communicated faithfully, provided we recognize a difficulty when it appears. We try patiently to find a way to express the meaning in the target language. But expressing the meaning faithfully may sometimes mean searching for the right expression, rather than immediately choosing an expression in the target language whose words seem to a native speaker of English to match English words at some points.
This is not unlike a discussion I once had with a specialist in youth ministry, who was overseeing a group of several dozen youth pastors. There was a particular popular worship song at the time which contained a word that would have a different meaning entirely to a high school audience than anything adults would think of on Sunday morning; and to make matters worse, that word was repeated constantly throughout the song. He advised — and I agreed — that the song was ill-advised for use at midweek youth groups; but probably most adults would not understand the decision since the alternative meaning would be completely foreign to any context to which they could relate.
Poythress goes on to remind us,
It is also worth saying that Bible translation achieves more or less accuracy, not perfection. We are thankful that people can be saved from hearing the gospel in a Bible translation, even though the translation has not captured every last ounce of meaning. The central message is still clear. The translation is still the word of God, because it does express the meaning of the original, even if not every last ounce. No translation is going to capture every nuance of meaning in the original in a perfect way; and that is one reason why we train some people in knowledge of the original languages, and why we have preachers to continue to expound the meaning. It does not mean that we give up on translation or underestimate its value.
On Feb. 19th, Eddie Arthur delved into an example of what we would regard as poor translation. It’s important at this stage to state that since both the science and current events in Bible translation are never discussed in church or small groups, you have to guide people through the process from the beginning. Most people have never read the two introductory books I generally recommend, How To Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss and The King James Only Controversy by James White (which has value far exceeding the book’s title.) The conclusion that day was this:
However, the important thing is that this discussion needs to be informed. The proper place for these debates needs to be within the host language community, involving people who know and understand the language being used and its implications. Even then, there will always be disagreements… [italics added]
On Feb. 18th he also got into the issue at hand:
The recent Bible Translation Controversy has revolved around the question of the term “Son of God”. Now, this is problematic because “Son of God” never actually appears in the Bible – it only appears in English translations of the Bible. The original actually says, υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ in the New Testament and something in Hebrew in the old…
…In English, the word “son” can have a variety of meanings, including:
- The male biological offspring of two parents.
- A legal or social meaning as in “an adopted son”.
- A social or familial meaning – my grandad used to call me son.
- An extended social meaning as when a football fan calls out to a player “go on my son!”
English speakers use these different meanings without ever really thinking about them – that’s how language works. It is an interesting exercise to think through which of these, if any, we mean when we call Jesus the “Son” of God.
The Biblical languages, also have a wide range of meanings for their equivalent words for Son. James and John were called the sons of thunder. No one actually believed that thunder (or perhaps the God Thor!) was their father…
…In this sort of situation, Bible translators have two basic choices:
- Use the ‘normal’ term for son, despite all of the problems and hope that over time Christian teaching will bring new meaning to the phrase.
- Find another phrase which more accurately captures the relationship between Jesus and the Father.
This is a dilemma which no one takes lightly…
…Decisions like these are never taken by expat translators alone, they always involve a long period of consultation with the people who will actually be using the Bible in the long run…
I remember years ago reading a book, The Translation Debate, by Clark Glassman, in which the author, who worked in translating the Bible into foreign language was struck by the angst that goes into these decisions. The phrase, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;” raised no concerns when in an equatorial climate it was switched to “…they shall be as white as fungus;” despite how that grates on ears accustomed to the KJV. But “the cross” was sacrosanct and he said something to effect that ‘sooner or later people would have to be told that this was the method of execution in that culture.’
Bruxy Cavey, pastor of The Meeting House, Canada’s fastest growing church movement with a dozen satellite campuses, often speaks of people being “emotionally bonded to certain words and phrases.” He will speak about “missing the mark,” and then be told off after the service for never mentioning “sin;” or he will preach about the “kingship of Jesus,” and then be reprimanded for not teaching, “the sovereignty of God.” But Cavey knows his audience — seekers, lapsed church attenders, and those hostile to church — too well to use language that will just confuse them.
Archbishop Cranmer points to where the politics of translation come to the fore: In protest and censuring the agency involved:
Wycliffe Bible Translators must surely understand the imperative of witnessing to the truth in a postmodern age of aggressive secularism and relativism. Yet they stand accused of producing an Arabic Bible that uses ‘Lord’ instead of ‘Father’ and ‘Messiah’ instead of ‘Son’. They produced a Turkish translation that uses ‘guardian’ for ‘Father’ and ‘representative’ or ‘proxy’ for ‘Son’. There is also concern that God is rendered ‘Allah’. And in the Bengali Injil Sharif, references to ‘Son’ were rendered ‘Messiah’, and the succinct ‘Son of God’ becomes ‘God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One’. The allegation is that by excising these terms from Scripture, they fail to portray God as who He is: the familial, eternal, loving God the Father, Son and Spirit: ‘The deity of Jesus is obscured, and thus the self-sacrifice of God on our behalf.’
This has led a US group called Biblical Missiology to sponsor a petition for the retention of the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ in the text of all translations. His Grace has some sympathy with the observation of John Harrower, Bishop of Tasmania, who said:
This is an impoverished and incorrect attempt at contextualization which results in syncretism: the mixing of belief systems/religions that produces a new belief system/religion that is not true to any of the original belief systems/religions. Changing fundamental words of Scripture such as “Father” and “Son” will also fuel the Muslim claim that the Bible is corrupted, full of errors and has been abrogated by the Qur’an and example of Muhammad. For the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, please stop this malpractice.
I would contend that the message of the gospel, the message of grace, is so unique, that no use of common-ground terminology is going to undermine the uniqueness of that message. Syncretism? Perhaps it’s the target group that ought to be leveling that charge, crying, “They’re stealing our terms;” or “They’re disguising their true message.” But instead, the charges come from within our own ranks, questioning the very people we’ve set aside to devote their entire lives to this discipline.
My goal here is to whet your appetite for this subject, to inspire you to want to engage in thinking about these issues. If I’ve succeeded — and I’ll know checking the stats — I hope you’ll click on the individual links here and read the articles in full. Consider taking a half-hour to pour over the back catalog of subjects on Eddie and Sue Arthur’s blog. Finally, on this particular issue, here are two other sources that Eddie linked to:
- Bible Translation Blogger, Joel Hofman, weighs in on the subject; here and here.
- The International Journal of Frontier Missions has a whole issue devoted to the question, which includes the standards by which all Bible translation projects are checked.
…Finally, a confession about the verse I chose to introduce this article. Does it apply to the Bible as a whole or Revelation specifically? The revised NIV uses, “the words of the prophecy of this scroll;” which would refer specifically to either John’s writings on Patmos or particular scrolls that were opened during that great vision. But ever provocative, I chose the NKJV which allows for the wider meaning; since it’s one of the “clobber verses” that comes out every time a controversy like this one emerges.