Bible Translation: More Complex Than You Think . . . Way More!

All major world religion have preserved the words of their founders in the very language in which they spoke them. All except Christianity.

Jesus spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic and except for a dozen or so words, none of the hundreds of thousands of words He spoke during his three years of ministry were written down for us in His own words. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first translators. They translated all the stories about Jesus, and all his teachings, from Aramaic to Greek. Ever since, Bible translators have been translating from Greek into other languages.

Most North American church goers don’t appreciate the fact that Christianity was started as a translated religion, and thrives only through translation into local languages. Nor do most people understand that the Gospel writers did not simply translate between to closely related languages such as English and French. Instead, they translated from the Semetic language family into the Indo-European language family. There is as much relationship between these two language families as there is between English and Mandarin Chinese. Besides that, they had to keep in mind they were translating from a Jewish culture to a Greco-Roman culture. Again, a huge difference.

Jack in late 1960s starting translation with Canela

Bible translation, therefore, is an extremely complex task, but one that God has blessed throughout the ages. Today I want to introduce as a guest blogger, a friend and Wycliffe colleague who knows far more about Bible translation than I do. Hart Wiens is Director of Scripture Translations for the Canadian Bible Society. He laid the groundwork for the translation of the Scriptures for the Kalinga people of the Philippines.

Hart’s article appeared in the June 6 issue of Christian Week and is reprinted with permission.

Tackling translation

In his widely acclaimed book, Translating the Message, Lamin Sanneh, professor of World Christianity and History at Yale University, wrote that, “The central and enduring character of Christian history is the rendering of God’s eternal counsels into terms of everyday speech.” This demonstrates that, “God does not absolutize any one culture.”

This is a radical departure from the tenets of the religion in which Sanneh grew up where authoritative communication from God was restricted to one language. Translation is key to the spread of Christianity.

Recently, though, disagreement over the faithful and sensitive treatment of certain key terms in a few situations where Islam is the dominant religion has sparked a controversy that has deeply touched the hearts of people engaged in and supportive of this work.

The controversy

While the U.S. branch of Wycliffe Bible Translators has been specifically named in this controversy, the issues raised have relevance for the broader translation community and for the Church.

There are two main issues involved. The first has to do with the use of the term “Allah” for God. Some of Wycliffe’s translation work used this word, which raised questions for many in the Christian community.

While there is legitimate debate in some languages over the use of this term by Christians, it is commonly accepted in languages where Islam is the dominant faith. Semitic languages such as Arabic commonly use “Allah” where English uses “God.” The word is actually closely related to the Hebrew term “El” and “Elohim.”

The second, more challenging, issue is how to translate familial terms for God as “Father” and Jesus as “Son” in languages where these terms are only understood biologically. If translators are not careful, serious misunderstandings arise about the nature of the Trinity. Unfortunately literal renderings have mistakenly been understood to imply that God and Mary had a sexual relationship.

In these situations translators struggle to find more accurate ways of communicating the true nature of the father and son relationship in the Trinity—a relationship of familial rather than biological intimacy.

The response

Wycliffe has given assurance that 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.”

Further, Wycliffe has agreed to submit to a review of its Bible translation practices through a formal review led by respected theologians, biblical scholars, translators, linguists, and missiologists from the global Church and conducted under the auspices of the World Evangelical Alliance.

Go forward in love

As we consider this situation, Paul’s words in Colossians 3 come to mind: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience . . . And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

It would seem advisable for concerned people to give the review process initiated by Wycliffe and the World Evangelical Alliance a chance to bear fruit so that the ministry of Bible translation can go forward and Christ’s Kingdom can flourish.

2 thoughts on “Bible Translation: More Complex Than You Think . . . Way More!

  1. I like what you said here, Jack: “Jesus spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic and except for a dozen or so words, none of the hundreds of thousands of words He spoke during his three years of ministry were written down for us in His own words. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first translators. They translated all the stories about Jesus, and all his teachings, from Aramaic to Greek. Ever since, Bible translators have been translating from Greek into other languages.”

    And what Hart Wiens said: “Translation is key to the spread of Christianity.”

    Good words!

    -Sharla

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