Thinking Out Loud

March 11, 2012

The Politics of Bible Translation

Filed under: bible — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:06 am

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.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks.

    Comment by meetingintheclouds — March 12, 2012 @ 1:11 am

  2. Dear Thinking out Loud- I have enjoyed your comments and the wonderful links that you have posted over the years. I find it interesting that you have stepped up and defended these attemptsy Wycliffe to mistranslate the word of God…and it would seem the reason is that you give is that this has been done in the past translations. I recently picked up an NIV to discover that this translation has also been changed several times without notification to the public. The 2011 NIV prompted me to write this article. I would think you may not agree…and thats fine…but will you post this? Probably not…because like most, you have a bias to your blog. But perhaps you may read this. I will be praying for you that you take a more serious view on the word of God….to suggest that the Bible never says Son of God (while literally that is true only because this is the literal word for word of the Greek, suggests that a translator has the option of saying what they want when it comes to the word of God. I do not believe that God gives us that option. Anyways….here is my article.

    What Bible was that?

    OK. That does it. Normally I’m pretty quiet and not too loud about which Bible translation you use. After all, I speak English, and the Bible was never originally in English. You know the standard comments; the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There’s a smattering of Roman names too. And so I am the first one in the discussion to make it clear that I am not in that group that defines themselves as King James only. The King James 1611 and its subsequent editions are wonderful in their literary style; and their attention to the manuscripts from which they were obtained. But, the English used is now 400 years old, and needs to be understood. Old English words and styles lend very little to the modern ear. Now here’s my beef-

    In an attempt to get more people reading the Bible back in the 1970’s and 80’s western Christianity first adopted paraphrases Bibles. Not true translations, but using modern phrases and words these were an attempt to update the Bible to modern times. There was the Philip’s version and then the Ken Taylor version which later morphed into the Living Bible. Suddenly people that had never read the Bible before were saying how readable and understanding this version was. During the time of the ‘hippies’ the vogue was to bring a green leather like Bible to the meeting, and read out of “The Way” or the Living Bible. Of course, Ken Taylor always said that his Bible was simply a paraphrase and really wasn’t a translation at all. He always insisted that he had taken liberties to help in the understanding; and that his translation was not word for word, but rather, idea for idea. His answer to his critics was that people, and especially youth and children, could now grasp what the Bible was really saying. He explained his translation by saying that since some of the phrases we used today communicate an idea (example- he looked like he had sucked on a lemon as a way to describe a scowl or an pained look) it was perfectly OK to translate the Bible this way. This concept that God didn’t give, and didn’t preserve the actual words of the Bible, but rather the ideas was what he was basing his paraphrase on. But this concept has now gone even one step further. Let me explain.

    The other day while visiting with a senior, when wanting to read scripture to this gentleman, I asked if I might read from the large print Bible I had earlier given him. He was OK with this, and I took my reading from Hebrews 2:5-12. This is how this large print NIV read:

    “It is not to angels that he was subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

    What is mankind, that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet. In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus who was made a little lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for who and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. But the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says; I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.

    Here’s my problem with this translation. Firstly, it isn’t. This version (claims to be a NIV) but even disagrees with most older NIV versions. It does not actually translate the Greek to English but instead substitutes for the Greek word ‘anthropos’ which is normally translated as man to ‘mankind”. ( a more pluralistic and gender inclusive word) Yet when the Greek says son of man in reference to Jesus; (using the same Greek word ‘anthropos,’ this version does not say ‘son of mankind’. So we can say as a translation, this NIV is certainly not consistent. Why? well, I suppose it is OK to talk about man as mankind; but not if we use the term ‘son of mankind” to describe the Lord. That might really offend a Christian. The term ‘son of Man’ was a messianic term used for God and applied to Jesus. But there’s more.

    The writer to the Hebrews is actually quoting Ps . 8:4-6. to prove that Jesus fulfills a messianic prophecy. You can easily miss that he is quoting this Psalm when reading this NIV translation, for it bears so little resemblance. to Psalm 8. When you translate man into mankind, and then remove all the male terms. (his, brethren, man, and children and then change the words to mankind, them and brothers and sisters) this version may appeal to those who have adopted a so called Christian feminism, but it is not faithful to the message that the New Testament writers gave. Jesus as the perfect man meets all the qualifications of this messianic Psalm as being made ‘lower than the angels’. This means He has entered into our humanity and history and feels our suffering. To change the word from man to mankind, misses this prophetic fulfillment. There were not many who fulfilled this messianic Psalm; only one!

    There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Tim 2:5. When I went to this NIV to see how this verse was translated, it was identical to all the other NIV’s and even the KJV. This version of NIV doesn’t alter the translation to ‘there is one God, and one mediator between God and mankind (anthropos) , the mankind, (anthropos) Christ Jesus. Yet if they were to be consistent with how they treated Heb 2:5-12, they should have!

    Now, you say; what’s your problem? You are just picking on the NIV, and all the English translations have their problems. True enough. But here’s the rub. When we claim to be a translation, and actually change the meaning, are we not tampering with what God actually said? Are we not now substituting words, trying to make it conform to our own modern times? Have we not at this point, added to God’s word? ( There is a strong warning in Rev. 22:18 to those who add to God’s word- ” I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book. Again in the Old Testament, the warning is also made- Deut 4:2 says”You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.) Does not this translation add to God’s word, and as such must be avoided as error?

    Now there are those who will say, we cannot be sure of the original text, so that in their mind means anything goes. They think something like this:

    “If I don’t like the meaning of traditional translations; I am free to change it to read the way I want.” After all, no one really knows what the original said, and no one has the original texts anyway. Of course the problem with this, is that this view discounts the more than 5000 manuscripts and texts that are in existence today which virtually agree with one another on the majority of all texts. And to argue that we can change it any way we want to, is certainly not the way others over the past two thousand years have practiced.

    I read this evening of an article stating that a modern Arabic translation has changed substantial words in the New Testament. Here’s part of what this article said: “For example, the verse which Christians use to justify going all over the world to make disciples, thus fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) reads,

    “Cleanse them by water in the name of Allah, his Messiah and his Holy Spirit” instead of “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    The argument given is that it’s OK to translate the Bible this way, for only by so doing will the modern Islamist even read the Bible. Paul states in 2 Cor. 11:4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. Again he says in Galatians 1 “6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! Paul seemed to think what we preach, and our Gospel needed to be clear and without error. Yet today, any translation is fine with most English believers regardless of accuracy of translation to the written word.

    I can just imagine a person going and buy a new vehicle in a foreign land using a translator; and when we said that we were ready to sign for $20,000 surprised to find that the contract read $25,000. When we asked why had they changed our words the interpreter replied; “I knew you couldn’t get it for that price, so I just said that you had said $25,000 which was what the person wanted. You got your van; so don’t be upset. But we would be upset; because the interpreter had lied. Today, we need to be sure that the interpreter doesn’t lie when it comes to translating the Bible into modern English of today.

    So, what should we do? Should we just get rid of all our NIV’s or other Bibles? Well, I do use these other translations for comparisons but not for personal study or teaching. I generally prefer the NKJV as my favorite version at present for study and for preaching. I also use the E.V. or the N.A.S.V. in my studies. But if you are using the NIV, just remember, that it may actually be the TNIV that you are reading. I was very surprised that this version was listed on the front cover as a NIV, when it was in fact conforming to the TNIV (the version which has been rejected by most modern western evangelicals because it is gender inclusive and in fact tampers with Gods’ word.) We need to take greater care in our attempts to bring God’s word to the masses!

    Now, one final comment. Having a good translation to study God’s word is great but something might still be lacking in your life. Revelation 1:3 says “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” Notice the three words; reads, hears and heeds. It is not enough to simply read and hear…there must the a corresponding heeding or doing. May God help us to heed the words and obey all that God has written!

    David Jenkinson,
    Jan 30, 2012
    (Permission granted to copy and distribute if this is copied in its entirety.)

    Comment by David Jenkinson — March 12, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    • (I apologize for taking nearly 12 hours to approve this comment, but I honestly didn’t see it until just before midnight local time.)

      I now see the wisdom in posting short comments as somewhat analogous to radio talk show hosts who force callers to limit themselves to a single issue.

      I think my primary goal here is not to defend any particular organization or translation, but to allow my readers a window through which to see the process of translating unfold, and hopefully also to somehow catch a glimpse of the heart of the people who labor in that particular vineyard. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the parameters that guide their processes and the great trouble they go through to present the meaning of each passage as clearly as possible to 21st Century ears, without overly distorting necessary structural forms, or including their own biases, or adding commentary to text. No translation is 100% perfect, so I can’t offer an absolute 100% endorsement of any particular version, and yet, paradoxically, I do find myself willing to offer an full endorsement of the men (and women, if they’re on the team) who do their utmost to bring us God’s Word in the ever-fluid language that is English. They don’t “change things any way they want to.” No, not at all.

      Honestly, I can’t take the time right now to respond point-by-point, but I think we really need to agree to disagree.

      Augustine: ‘There is much to be gained from a variety of translations.’ (as quoted in KJV-1611 translators’ marginal notes)

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 12, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

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