Some people get very, very worked up over Bible translations. As it turns out, I’m one of those people! But what gets me fired up is not whether a translation is super-friendly to a pet doctrine, but whether it’s accurate to the original text, and what it’s intended for. So, recent news about the Wycliffe Bible Translators watering down language about God because some of those ideas “don’t make sense” to the intended Muslim audience is doubly troubling.
Here’s the (brief) story from the AP:
One of the largest Bible translators in the world is undergoing an independent review after critics claimed language in some of its translations intended for Muslim countries fail to present God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Critics say substituting words like "Messiah" for "Son" and "Lord" instead of "Father" distorts the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in a misguided effort to avoid offending Muslims, who believe Allah has no son and Jesus was a prophet.
Wycliffe Bible Translators responds that concepts relating God to family members don't make sense in some cultures, so the language needs to reflect that. Wycliffe is involved in more than 1,500 Bible translation programs in 90 countries.
The World Evangelical Alliance is appointing a panel of scholars to review Wycliffe's translation policies. Wycliffe president Bob Creson says the organization won't publish any disputed materials until after the panel releases its findings.
For all the flak this is sure to generate over the Trinity, or other theological ideas, the most important issue is also the most fundamental: why on earth would someone deliberately translate it differently than it’s written? This isn’t a question of using the closest equivalent words (like “birds” in the OT), or parsing an obscure idiom (like “god’s nostrils flared” becoming “God was angered”). This is blatant revision. And, of all things, revision because the intended audience isn’t used to thinking of God in that particular way.
As an apologist, I know how important it is to communicate with people in language they understand. But Muslims know what fathers are, and they know what sons are. Whether or not they’re used to thinking of God in familial terms is not the point – the point is that that’s exactly how the Bible describes God. If the translators are worried that’s going to be “weird” for Muslims, then they should add a footnote, for crying out loud.
One reason Muslims might have trouble understanding the idea of the Christian concept of God is that they’re steeped in a culture where Allah doesn’t love you, and has not real connection to his people other than authoritarianism. How many people do you see printing versions of the Koran where Allah becomes a loving, sacrificing God who cares as much as He judges for Westerners used to that general sense of God? The particulars of who God really is and how He interacts with His children is key to understanding the message of the Gospel.
Let’s not forget, either, that there are plenty of other cultural / theological concepts in the Bible that “don’t make sense” to a North American in 2012, especially if one has no prior experience with it. It’s a matter of finding the context. And, of course, having someone to bring that message to you. The Great Commission wasn’t to go and print Bibles, but to preach. Think of Stephen and the Ethiopian (Acts 8:30-31): sometimes an explanation is in order. Imagine how hard it would have been for the Ethiopian to learn anything if the text he was reading had been neutered for the sake of “culture”. If it’s hard to understand in your native language, why translate it wrong (on purpose) and force them to go to a non-native language to get the real meaning?
The most damaging part of this is that a Bible warped for “cultural” purposes is useless to everyone – critics, seekers and believers alike. Without getting the real story, how on earth are you supposed to know how to respond to it? Thankfully, it seems the materials so translated aren’t yet in publication. Hopefully, more rational heads will prevail and Wycliffe will stick to translating the Bible, not remaking the Bible in some politically correct parody.
As it turns out, Wycliffe got so much criticism over this they felt the need to affirm their statement of faith. I don’t think that was necessary. I have a bad feeling some knucklehead(s) spun this from translation techniques into questions about people’s eternal destiny. As I said above, the most important point is not about doctrine, it’s about purpose. At any rate, my “footnote” thought seems to be their solution as well.
As quoted from Wycliffe.org:
In light of recent discussions of Bible translation practices, particularly for Muslim contexts, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Inc. makes the following statement.
8. In particular regard to the translation of the familial titles of God we affirm fidelity in Scripture translation using terms that accurately express the familial relationship by which God has chosen to describe Himself as Father in relationship to the Son in the original languages.
9. In particular regard to Bible translations done for Muslim contexts we affirm that in the majority of cases a literal translation of “Son of God” will be the preferred translation. In certain circumstances, specifically where it has been demonstrated that a literal translation of “Son of God” would communicate wrong meaning, an alternative form with equivalent meaning may be used. The alternative form must maintain the concept of “sonship”. All translations for Muslim audiences should include an explanation of the meaning of the phrase “ho huios tou theou” (the Son of God) when it refers to Jesus Christ. This may be in a preface, in one or more footnotes, or as a glossary entry, as seems appropriate to the situation.