Caution That Must Be Taken In Translating The Bible

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Recently there was an attempt made by the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopian (ECFE) and Biblica Ethiopia (formerly called IBS, International Bible Society) to translate or as they call it to “adapt” the Bible in collaboration in the way, our Muslim brothers understand it easily. (1) I really admire and appreciate their zeal of making the Bible easily understandable, even though in my judgment their zeal was without knowledge and lacks wisdom. Moreover, their trial translation, which is distributed among some evangelical church leaders, is scary and lacks professional consultancy and very dangerous. Therefore, as a Bible translation student I decided to show the danger of the present path and indicate the right direction by showing the effort taken by some best English translations as an example. In this short article among many issues, I will restrict myself on God’s name only (2), which I suppose must be carefully analyzed in the process of Bible translation. First, I will show how the Standard English translations translates God’s name both in the Old and New Testament. Then, I will show how ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia, attempt to translate the name of God in their trial version. Finally, I will show the caution that must be taken in translating the Bible.

English Standard Version (ESV) in its preface says, “In the translation of biblical terms referring to God, the ESV takes great care to convey the specific nuances of meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek terms.” (Page, ix) Every translation should attempt to express the original meaning of the word of the sources language, either Hebrew or Greek into the receptor language, in our case Amharic. Regarding the name of God ESV, NRSV, NASB, and most English versions render consistence translation of the Tetragrammaton (YHWY) by LORD (capital letters) to distinguish it from “Lord” (Adonai) and Elohim (God). In the Old Testament, when “LORD GOD” or “Lord GOD” occurs, it is usually a rendering of a dual name for God “Adonai YHWH.” The Hebrew term “YHWH Sabaoth” is usually rendered “Lord of Hosts.” The Hebrew terms “YHWH Shaddai” is usually rendered “LORD Almighty.” The Old Testament uses many different names and titles to refer to God, to emphasize certain aspects of His person and attributes. When being translated, this can result in confusion, but in the original Hebrew, it was done entirely in an effort to glorify and magnify God’s name. Therefore, those translations instead of generally translating God’s name by the word “God” they carefully distinguish the personal name of God and Generic name of God at least in the Old Testament.

The usage of “Lord” and “God” in the New Testament is much less complicated. Almost universally, “God” is a translation of “theos” the general Greek word for deity. Also almost universally, “Lord” is a translation of “kurios,” the general Greek word for a master. Whenever “theos” is in plural form, they translated it as “gods.”

In ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia’s trial translation of the gospel of Luke it seems that they used consistently “Allah” for the Greek term “theos” and “Lord” for “kurios” (3) (the second one is in my assumption because they did not offer the “adapted” word.) Even though there are some explicit mistakes on translating “Allah” for the word “kurios” in verses like Luk 1:25, 2:15, and 5:17 it is more or less consistent in their translation of the word.

But the problem of this trial translation is the sources language, from which the “adaption” of this trial version was made used two words for the Greek term “theos” such as “Egziyabher” (God) and “Amelak” (God or god). By doing that it avoids the problem that is caused when the word “theos” is in plural form (Jon 10:34; Jon 10:35, Act 7:40; Act 14:11; Act 19:26; Act 28:11; 1cor 8:5; Gal 4:8). I assume that the trial version will face this grammatical problem when it proceeds to other New Testament books because it translates the word “theos” with “Allah” only.(4) Therefore, the translation will not have consistency if it uses other term to overcome this problem.

The difficulty I faced regarding the proposed translation is their use of “Allah” for God’s name. It is possible to translate “theos” as “Allah” at least in the New Testament because both terms are generic name designating for deity. However, the word “Allah” is loaded with religious and political meaning, therefore, caution must be taken before regarding it as equivalent translation of “theos.” There is one Amharic comic story on the air that can illustrate the perception of the society concerning the name of Allah. “Allahen yefter Egziyabher yemesegene” (May God, who created Allah, be blesses). This kind of joke is an indicator for what people think about these two names of deity. Most people, both Muslims and Christians, who live in Ethiopia, distinguish “Egziyabher” (God) from “Allah” (Allah). This differentiation shows that those words are not equivalent in people’s mind. The Arabic name of God might be equivalent translation of “theos” if we only consider the Lexical meaning of the word but we are not Arabians or dominantly speaking Arabic language, we are Ethiopians. Indeed both “theos” and “Allah” are equivalent words in terms of Lexical meaning but even though it is crucial, task of Bible translation not only based on Lexical study of the word. The connotation of the equivalent word in the given society must be studied. If we translate the Bible and use “Allah” for the name of God, I believe it causes confusion in peoples mind. Because in one hand the God who is revealed in the Bible is different from the one who is portrayed in Quran(5) and in other hand the denotation of the word in peoples mind does not show that these terms are interchangeable. Bible translation is not just a matter of finding equivalent word and translates it but it also requires socio-cultural study of the word. Therefore, rather than taking the Arabic meaning of the word “Allah” based on lexical study of the word it is better to examine the understanding of the people about the specific word.

Finally, honestly speaking I did not get the rationale behind the proposed translation. In fact, ECFE tries to prove the relevance of the translation by showing how many recent converts, with Muslim background and the urgency of Bible for those people in their worldviews. Apparently, the justification given seems convincing but these people presented as validation are from Afar, Somali, and Silte people group. Realizing the fact that these people did not speak and read Amharic, why this translation is started in Amharic instead of in their language? Therefore, the translation or the adaption program, in spite of the technical problem it has also faces feasibility problem.

In addition to Lexical study of a word, a Bible translation process also requires social and political study. ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia seems have done Lexical study on the word Allah and came to conclusion that “Allah” and “theos” are equivalent terms intermesh of Lexical meaning; therefore they came to conclude that “theos” can be translated as “Allah”. Nevertheless, their conclusion has deficiency because the meaning of a given word is not only based on Lexical meaning but also from the usage of the word in the society (social context). In addition to social-cultural study of the word, the political implication of the word must be studied thoroughly before imparking to Bible translation. Moreover, in bible translation consistency of word usage is critical, so great care must be taken.

Therefore, as Bible translation student my advice is Bible translation requires attentive word study of both from Lexical and socio-cultural perspective because improper understanding of the word might lead to erroneous translation of the Bible and dilute the true message of the Bible and also it can be a cause for great doctrinal problem. Thus, any attempt made to translate the Bible should follow Lexical and socio-cultural word study, and the translators should use the word consistently throughout their translation.

Footnotes:
1) I wrote this article to address Insider Movement attempt to translate or “adopt” the bible in Ethiopia.

2) There are other issues, which must be dealt in this ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia’s trial version of the gospel of Luke. The objectionable issue, which should be carefully analyzed, includes Holy Spirit, Messiah, Cross, John’s Baptism, Jesus and so on.

3) Luk 1:6, 8, 16, 19, 25, 26, 28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 47, 48, 62; Luk 2:1, 3, 14, 15, 20, 27, 28, 38, 40, 52; Luk 3:2, 6, 8, 38; Luk 4:1, 3, 8, 9, 4, 12, 34, 41, 43; Luk 5:1, 17, 21, 25, 26; Luk 6:4, 6, 12, 20; Luk 7:16, 28, 29, 30; Luk 8:1, 10, 11, 21, 28, 39; Luk 9:2, 11, 20, 26, 43, 60, 62; Luk 10:11, 27, 28; Luk 11:42, 49; Luk 12:6, 8, 9, 20, 21, 24, 28, 31; Luk 13: 13, 18, 20, 28, 29; Luk 14: 15; Luk 16:13, 15, 16, 17; Luk 17:18, 20, 21; Luk 18:2, 4, 7, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19; 24, 25, 27, 29, 43; Luk 19: 11, 37; Luk 20: 21, 25, 36, 37, 38; Luk 21:31,; Luk 22: 16, 18, 69, 70; Luk 23: 47, 51,; Luk 24: 19, 24, 53

4) “Allah” does not have a plural form. In the New Testament the Greek word, “theos” is found in plural form in the following passages John 10:34f; Acts 7:40; 14:11; 19:26; 1 Cor 8:5; and Gal 4:8. In addition to the above-mentioned difficulty, they will face also other theological problems when they jump over to other part of the New Testament like Gospel of John.

5) Some people think that “Allah”, which is portrayed in the Qur’an and “God”, who revealed himself in the Bible are the same God with different names. Nevertheless, the question we have to ask ourselves should be is the attribute of “Allah” in the Qur’an and “God” in the Bible identical. As it is attested by their revelation both may have similar attribute but not identical. Therefore, both names designate different being.

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About Author

I was born in 1979 in West shoa zone in Ethiopia. I was atheist until August 15, 2003 but I became a Christian on August 2003. From September 2003 up to now, I am serving the Lord in the church of the Nazarene Horn of Africa Field as Literature Coordinator, Bible School Teacher and as book Translator. In addition, I was ordained as elder of the Church (Rev.) of the Nazarene on October 2008. I graduated from Evangelical Theological College in June 2010 with Bible Transition as Major. Currently, I am first year Master of Biblical and Theological Studies at Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology.

12 Comments

  1. Foibled, you cry “straw man” in regards to the phrase “Muslim Friendly” and then raise your own “straw man” when you claim that others “make it sound like any bad translation will do.” This is a claim that no one has made.
    Let’s first examine your claim that “Muslim Friendly” is a phrase that is being used as a “Straw Man” as opposed to being a real and legitimate concern that people have with these new translations. First, these translations are technically known as “Muslim Idiomatic Translations” or MIT’s and “Muslim Friendly” is a very good non-technical description of an MIT. Second, these new translations are primarily being used by “insider” proponents who teach that Muslims who come into the kingdom of God should remain Muslims. Third, these new versions are used precisely because they are friendlier to the Muslim ear and can be more easily incorporated into the Muslim worship experience. I believe that for most who oppose the “insider movement,” it is the syncretism that is most troubling and that is what people are trying to convey with the phrase “Muslim Friendly;” these new translations are simply one of the many ways this syncretism is being expressed.
    Now let’s look at the “straw man” you have raised by claiming that other believe that “any bad translation will do.” If that is truly what people believed then there would be no opposition to MIT’s; people oppose these translations precisely because they believe them to be bad translations and want the people to have translations that more accurately convey the word of God into their native language. In other words, they want precisely the opposite of what you have claimed.

  2. Foibled, you’re are correct in saying that no other person can know what motivates a translator to produce a translation that is contextualized in the way that MIT’s have been, but not knowing the motivation of the translators is not a reason to refrain from rejecting their work. The motivation of the translator for producing an MIT does not make the MIT translation any more “right.” I personally have a friend that I have known for many years who is one of the leading advocates for “insider missions.” He is a warm, loving, and caring individual who has a passion for the Muslim people; however, the ministry choices he has made to reach Muslim’s are wrong and unbiblical. Knowing him, I struggle to understand his motivation for making the compromises that he has made, but that doesn’t make his compromises any less serious. I may not understand why he is doing what he is doing, but I do understand that what he is doing is wrong. Very consistently I have seen insider proponents try to blur the distinction between judging a person’s actions and judging their heart. We all need to recognize that only God can judge a person’s heart, but we also need to recognize that Scripture calls us all to recognize sin and lovingly confront it when it arises in the body of Christ.

  3. Carl Medearis is right when he says that “muslim-friendly” translations is almost always a straw man. It amounts to “I don’t like your method, so even though you are a brother in Christ I will tell the world what your motives are without any reference to what they actually are.” What if those of us on the other side said did the same to you and said that your motives were to obscure the Bible message? The words “muslim-friendly” imply a motive on the part of the translator, and they therefore have not part in debate conducted between brothers in Christ, unless the translators themselves have so identified their translation.

  4. In reply to John Span, I agree with you that a “reader-friendly” translation cannot undo “by some miraculous method, the rebellion in the human heart against the Sovereignty of Jesus.”

    You wrote that a someone did not read the Bible because he understood it. I would like to dig into that. Did someone verify that he really understood it? In many cases, people claim to understand the Bible, but they do not understand it in reality. Then they develop objections based on their false understanding.

    I am in Bible translation. We recognize (at least most of us) that the job of the translator is not the job of the Holy Spirit. However, it is the job of the translator to translate in a way that the objections of the reader are objections to the Bible message, not to some messed-up understanding conveyed by a faulty translation.

    You make it sound like any bad translation will do and then the Holy Spirit will fix that.

  5. Pierre Houssney on

    Markomus,

    Would you mind explaining what you mean? How would the word “Christians” cause confusion?

  6. So if “Allah” should not be used as a translation, in that language, for “theos”, since it might lead to confusion, should we also, in our English translations, not translate “christianos” as “christians”, since that might lead to confusion?

  7. Greetings Mr.Duguma:
    I came across a very comprehensive critique of what used to be called “Dynamic Equivalence’ translation theory. It touches on translation for Muslim contexts, and I believe it will also address Mr. Medearis’ concerns about over-simplification and his worry about straw-man arguments.

    The article is long and very detailed, but worth the mining for the gold that is in it. Here is the reference.

    Michael Marlowe , “Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence'” (revised in 2000)
    http://www.bible-researcher.com/dynamic-equivalence.html
    Be sure to get his footnotes at:
    http://www.bible-researcher.com/dynamic.equivalence.notes.html

    Marlowe’s conclusion reads as such:
    “We have shown that the dynamic equivalence method represents a departure from tradition, and from the principles of translation used by the Biblical authors themselves. Its pretensions to “scientific” principles of linguistics are dubious, as has been pointed out by numerous linguists and biblical scholars. It results in a simplification of the text in which important features of the Bible are erased. It proceeds from false assumptions about the relationship of Scripture to the Church and to the reader. Finally, as a practical matter, we have seen that the versions produced with this method cannot “get along” with other versions already in use.

  8. Carl Medearis on

    The issue has never been “friendlier” versions. That’s just
    a straw man argument. It’s always been about “accurate”
    translations. Conveying the heart of a matter and it’s equivalency
    in another language is the issue. If we agree that our hope is for
    our Muslim friends to actually understand the Bible – not just read
    words – then we need to do whatever it takes to actually translate
    those words into a language the Muslim reader can understand –
    while maintaining theological integrity. Within the above
    parameters, there are many options. Simply saying “people don’t
    want to repent so it’s okay if they’re offended” is simplistic and
    offensive to the heart of God to reach all people.

  9. Muslim groups are often very culturally different from their Christian neighbors, and words might mean something different to them. Thus, a “Muslim” translation need not be motivated by watering down the message, but by using words that communicate the concepts better to their worldview.

    A question I would want to ask is this: What do the Muslims understand when they hear the terms, “Egziyabher,” “Amelak,” and “Allah”? The term Allah might convey distinctively Muslim connotations, but perhaps the alternatives might convey even worse connotations — A god whose people are worldly, a god who is not holy, a god who is not to be respected, or a god who treats Israelis as superior to Arabs. I would think that no matter how you translated it, you would run into problems of translation.

    I’m also curious about why the same word in Greek or Hebrew needs to be consistently translated by the same word. There’s not always a one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages. For example, πνεύμα and רוח can mean wind, spirit and breath. Words have different meanings in different contexts.

  10. Regarding John Spam’s comment, point a. I remember back in the 1970s when there was some activity in translating the Bible, one of the workers described an experience he had with a non Christian. That person’s comment was that he doesn’t read the Bible because he doesn’t understand it. Rather he doesn’t read it because he does understand it. The rebellion in the human heart is not overcome by “friendlier” translations but by a consciousness of sin and separation from God.

  11. Naiegzi H. Tsige on

    Dear Tekalign,

    I have argued with same stand point, though you have elaborated it well. I had also a discussion with my professor who is well informed in all matters regarding language, theology, Middle East…. He beliefs the name Allah can be used in the Arab or Arabic speaking society to substitute God. However, it will be weak in the meaning it will convey.

    I think, in countries like Ethiopia, where the people consciously make a difference between the two religions and culture (to the extent of not eating in one another restaurant), substituting Allah for God can be taken as a blasphemy!

    There are few things I would like to comment on regarding some words you used; let it be saved for the time we meet face to face.
    It would be interesting to know how the new converters responded to this trial version.

    Blessings

  12. Dear Mr. Duguma:

    It was with interest that I read your article. It seems like you are feeling the wave of
    “Muslim-friendly” Bible translation. Your analysis was very wise. As to the question to rationale, I think that a few different dynamics are at play:
    a. I can’t help but wonder if it is presupposed that by making the Bible more “reader-friendly” then by some miraculous method, the rebellion in the human heart against the Sovereignty of Jesus will somehow disappear. Yet, “the unspiritual man cannot and will not comprehend the things of God.” (I Cor 2:14)
    b. Might it be presupposed that by scrubbing out any words that the translator in his infinite wisdom deems to cause offense to the hearers—even though the Holy Spirit put them in the Bible— then by some miraculous method things like the offense of the cross will melt away and presto, add another number to the so called converts or sales of the translation?. It would seem that this is a clever combination of presumption, pragmatism and self-congratulation., all under a spiritual guise.
    c. Might a lot of this “user-friendliness actually be a statement that we really do not believe in the power of the gospel unto salvation?. Maybe it needs some help.
    d. At times I wonder if some translators give much credence to the fact that the Bible is really the book of the church, and it is in the context of the word preached and expounded that the text comes “alive” so to speak.

    May God continue to give you great wisdom and boldness as you “contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” Foreign consultants with their smooth talk and statistics will come and go, but the Word of the Lord will stand forever. Continue to think Biblically as you do. Thank you for being an asset to your country.

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