How the “Lost in Translation” Petition on Change.org Came to Be

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What I hope to communicate

If you have no awareness of the Petition in the title of this essay, you’ll probably find this essay irrelevant. If you know about it, perhaps you even signed the document, but you will want to read the following very brief explanation of the process of how the Petition came into existence.

This essay will not discuss the merits or demerits of the Petition (although to be fair, I have signed the Petition and am a regular part of the Biblical Missiology community). My two-fold goal is simple: first, let’s make the reasons clear for why the Petition exists; and second, I want to examine the biblical standard that applies to such a Petition.

 

The beginning

Wycliffe Bible Translators has a policy about translation of the familial terms, Father, Son, and Son of God. They will translate  “the accurate meaning by using terms that clearly have familial meaning but do not imply a procreative relationship.”[1] It is our contention that the text must remain as it is in the original, that is with Father, Son and Son of God translated as they are regardless the meaning the host culture may give the words. Meaning begins in the mind of the author (God) as opposed to the audience (if one thinks otherwise, postmodernism may be the cause). The paratext or notes and commentary that accompany the Bible can explain this to the fullest extent necessary.[2] This proved to be of some concern to many who actually gave the policy some thought.

Rick Brown, Wycliffe Bible Translator’s main proponent of Muslim-Idiom Translations, stated to a conference last summer he no longer believed translators should substitute other terms for Father and Son. He promised this group to write an article stating as much. About three months later, he did, but he didn’t. That is, he wrote the article, but he didn’t do what he said he would. Along with Leith and Andrea Gray, Brown wrote that Father and Son should be used in translations, except when they might mean something not intended by scripture.[3] In other words, this exception rule simply reconfirmed the previously held view. We had been told to expect correction of some wrong translation principles of the past. Those of us who were at the conference felt annoyed, some felt betrayed. We realized nothing had changed. More conversations ensued between Biblical Missiology representatives and others with Wycliffe. Nothing was resolved.

The final straw was a Turkish translation of the Bible produced by Frontiers some time ago. Wycliffe Bible Translators/SIL published it on their Sabeel website in November 2011. This showed us that Wycliffe was committed to circulating these translations. It is a translation that puts into practice the “except clause” as previously announced.

The Petition came about when it was clear that Wycliffe Bible Translators was recalcitrant. There was no movement toward understanding our concerns, leaving us no viable recourse. Wycliffe’s views had already been made public. Believing these views are misguided, we also believe these translation principles may lead to heresy.[4] Therefore the Petition must be seen as a public response to a public Wycliffe document. The Petition was an electronic, digital comment on electronic, digital comments previously made by Wycliffe.

Some have decried the Petition for its divisiveness. Others have chided us for bringing a private matter into the open. But these claims are based on a misunderstanding of Matthew 18, so let’s see what Jesus said.

 

Matthew 18 is not appropriate here

Some believe this situation should have been conducted according to Matthew 18:15-17. Why? Let’s look carefully at the passage.

“If your brother sins,” Jesus says–and some manuscripts add “against you.” This is personal, private, not generally known to others. How do we know it’s personal? Jesus adds, “Go and reprove him in private.”

The actions of Brown, the Grays, and Wycliffe are not personal by definition. In spite of that fact, it is true that there was an attempt by those who disagree with Wycliffe to approach them privately several times. So notice the irony: in a situation that does not require a Matthew 18 solution, when Matthew 18 is applied, it did not work. It was not designed for a situation in which a public wrong, an openly admitted action, demands correction.

Wait, Wycliffe has done something wrong? Well, yes, it’s pretty clear especially if we look at what’s going on in the following way. Wycliffe is altering the Bible at times by translating Father and Son as terms that are not familial by nature in their host language. This changes teaching of the Bible.

How? If God is no longer our father, there is no son. The very nature of our triune God is not depicted in these translations. Therefore it is rightly said that altering scripture as some Wycliffe translators have done may lead to nothing short of heresy. How does Matthew 18 apply to changing scripture, altering what it teaches about the character and nature of God himself? Matthew 18’s context is not concerned with a possible path to heresy, but personal relationships.

 

If not Matthew 18, then what?

I want to consider two occasions in the New Testament that are relevant to this situation of the Petition: Acts 5:1-11, Acts 15:1-35. My comments will not be exhaustive or deeply exegetical, rather expositional.

 

Acts 5:1-11

The context: In the early days of the church some were selling their personal property in order to help the new community of Christians meet the needs of the poorest among them. We are given two examples: Barnabas (the positive role model) and the couple, Ananias and Sapphira.

The problem: Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property (v. 1) and gave part of it to the church (v.2). It is clear from vv. 3-4 that their sin was not the amount given but their lying about the total price. Their sin was against God (“You have not lied to men, but to God”) in that they wanted to appear more generous than they were. So the two lied about giving all the funds to the church.

It should be noted that the strategy of “deny, deny, deny” was employed by Ananias and Sapphira. Peter was right to confront them publicly. There was more at stake than money; this lie to the Holy Spirit needed to be openly confronted and rebuked.

The resolution process: Peter acted quite prophetically by calling out Ananias and Sapphira publicly. It is significant for our purposes here to notice that he did not take the couple aside privately and reprove them. Why? It was not a sin against Peter; this was a very public sin against God: “Why is it,” Peter declared to Sapphira, “that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” What strikes me about the incident is Peter’s demands. His public rebuke was a way to call for repentance

The result of the process: There was a call for repentance (cf. vv. 4 and 9), but neither one of the wayward couple was willing to admit their sin. “Ananias fell down and breathed his last . . . she [Sapphira] fell immediately at his [Peter’s] feet, and breathed her last” (vv. 5, 10). The most important result was that “great fear came upon all who heard of it . . . great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.” (vv. 5, 11).

 

Acts 15:1-35

The context: The apostles, Barnabas and Paul, had seen many Gentiles become Christians (chs. 13-14). The Judaizers expected all new Christians to become Jewish in their observance (v.1); the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, did not (v 2). And so a conference was called. A public disagreement required a public conference and discussion.

The problem: The disagreement concerned salvation. The question boils down to this: “How are we saved? Does being saved mean we keep the Law of Moses (with implications of maintaining the Talmud Torah, essentially becoming Jews) or does it mean finding “the grace of the Lord Jesus” just as it had happened to the Jewish believers (v. 11)?

The resolution process: The public disagreement required a public discussion. “The brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue” (v. 2). Apparently no one believed this problem should have been handled in private.

I sense a principle developing here: private, personal grievances require private and personal processes (Matthew 18) whereas public, corporate grievances require public and corporate processes (Acts 5 and 15).

The result of the process: After some rounds of discussions and debate (vv. 4-12), a decision was made. Gentiles were not required to become Jews in order to follow Jesus and be part of the Body of Christ. The decision was as public as the entire process, even being written as a letter to be read to the churches (vv. 19-31).[5]

 

Now what?

These two passages share at least one thing in common: a public problem that demanded a public response.  Matthew 18 works from a different perspective: the problem is a personal sin committed against a brother. This must be worked out privately, then with witnesses, and finally with the help of the church. It is worth noting that even the Matthew 18 scenario will go public if its initial steps fail to bring repentance. The organizers of this Petition did exactly that–we went privately to Wycliffe Bible Translators with our concerns when biblically, this was not required.

Outcry from the worldwide church evidenced by respondents to the Petition, and from those who are dealing with the fallout of these translations cannot help but force us to conclude that these translations are perpetrating a public, church-wide nuisance. These translations sow confusion among Christians (look at the division in the church caused by these translations); they diminish the honor of the Body of Christ (instead of acting as the spotless bride we are behaving like spineless brats if we fail to confront and change these translation practices); and they make evangelizing more difficult (Muslims are now right to charge us with an altered scripture).

We believe the Petition to be an honorable method of resolution. Since most of us are not prophets who can call down the fire of God upon anyone–nor would we want to–we are doing what we know we must do. We are publicly Petitioning Wycliffe Bible Translators to stop producing translations that remove, alter, change or mistranslate the familial terms of scripture. Now.

 

The petition can be found here:  http://www.change.org/petitions/lost-in-translation-keep-father-son-in-the-bible (Accessed 8 February, 2012).

Acknowledgements:  I want to thank the following for their contributions to the essay: Roger Dixon, David Harriman, Joie Pirkey, Scott Seaton, and Adam Simnowitz.


[1] http://www.sil.org/translation/divine_familial_terms.htm (Accessed 9 February, 2012).

[2] http://www.wycliffe.org/TranslationStandards.aspx.  See in particular item 9 (Accessed 8 February 2012). Explain the text, by all means, but keep the explanations in the footnotes. Keep the familial terms in the translation.

[3] “A New Look at Translating Familial Biblical Terms.”  http://www.ijfm.org/archives.htm (Accessed 8 February, 2012).

[4] Some on the Biblical Missiology website believe these principles will lead to heresy.

[5] There are at least two other passages that teach us the same principle: 1 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 2:11-21. For the sake of brevity I am not making observations from them other than to say they apply to a public problem being handled in a public manner.

 

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13 Comments

  1. Pingback: Part 3 The Sad Saga Grows! -Wycliffe-Gate: Pakistan Bible Society Ends Relationship with Wycliffe over Son of God Controversy « Truth with Snares!?

  2. I would like to respond to two of the statements in this article which seem to lie at the foundation of all the other verbiage, and also are the rationale for the petition it seeks to justify. In the first paragraph of the section titled The beginning are these assertions:

    “It is our contention that the text must remain as it is in the original, that is with Father, Son and Son of God translated as they are regardless the meaning the host culture may give the words. Meaning begins in the mind of the author (God) as opposed to the audience (if one thinks otherwise, postmodernism may be the cause).”

    First, I would have to ask, “Does the author contend that all translations of the New Testament must contain the English words, ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Son of God’ at all relevant points?” This seems an absurdity, but if the answer is “No”, then the wording of the article is relatively incoherent in its core contention. The English words “Father”, “Son” and “Son of God” do not exist in the original, so what am I to understand is to “remain”? The Greek words which are original perhaps, untranslated? But there’s the bit says, “translated as they are”. What are we to make of this confusion?

    This is the point I’m trying to make. It would seem the author imagines that there will be words in Language X which are the exact analogues of the English words “Father”, “Son” and “Son of God” (which, of course, in this thinking, are exact analogues of the Greek originals) and that a translator’s job is to just find those analogues – no others – and put them in the translation without fail. Otherwise the charge is leveled that these words (which words exactly?) have been “removed” from the text.

    But translation does not work like that because language does not work like that. Language X does not match up in a word for word pairing with any other language. Anyone who has been engaged with actually doing translation in whatever domain – school, mission field, industry, whatever – learns very early on that what is commonly called “literal” translation is not possible. For those who have not done translation themselves it should still be obvious if they have ever read certain instructions on packaging translated say, from Chinese to English, or translations done by a web application like Google Translate. These often come off imperfectly, usually because “literal” translation has been attempted. What you are saying above “must” happen simply cannot be mandated – your stipulation is impossible to accomplish. (You may wish to refute my argument by examples of close match-ups in certain languages, but I need only provide a counter-example from one of the 6,900+ languages in the world, a trivial task, to invalidate your categorical contention.)

    The second glaring issue here is the notion that words have meaning outside what the speakers of that language give them. This is not a post-modernist ideological stance, just simple observation. You understand the English word, “son”, to mean something in particular because that is what speakers of your variant of English tend to think when they hear or read that word in that context. It’s a blend of what you were taught it means and how you personally interact with the contexts in which you’ve heard or read it. It has no separate, abstract reality outside of your culture and experience – where would such a meaning reside? You assert that meaning begins in the mind of God – well and good, but as soon as it is communicated via human language it enters into the vagueries of human experience. Or do you suppose, like the Muslims, that Scripture was given in some sort of celestial language that is by nature untranslatable?

    This is the way language and culture work: meanings of words are generally negotiated by speakers of the language who use them. Those meanings are not infinitely variable, but they are dynamic, changing over time and across geographic distribution, and for completely explicable sociolinguistic reasons. One can wish that a word meant something in particular, but that doesn’t make it so, certainly not if the one wishing is a speaker of a different language.

    Every translator has to operate within the constraints of the language and culture they are working in, seeking to communicate as accurately and clearly as possible the message of Scripture. One of the realities that has to be factored into the translation process is how the receptor culture understands the words. It’s not the only controlling factor, and it is not a pandering to theological or ideological prejudices, but that general cultural understanding must be taken into account if anything at all is to be communicated effectively.

    What you and your fellow petitioners are demanding is an impossibility predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is and how translation is done. Along the way you have done your best to besmirch the good name of some fine Christian brothers and sisters who serve the cause of Christ sacrificially, some in great peril. And you have attempted to put roadblocks in the way of the most effective means of giving people access to God’s word. It is not my place to judge you, sir; it’s not me who will have to stand before God and explain why you’ve done what you’ve done, but you will. So it is my advice to you, in all Christian sincerity, that you repent of “perpetrating a public, church-wide nuisance”, withdraw this petition, and apologize to all those trusting, but equally ill-informed people you’ve led down this path of error. It serves no-one’s cause but that of our common enemy.

  3. regarding point two I meant to write:

    2-that these terms are not divinely-inspired and must NOT be literally rendered in order for both translation and intended meaning to be conveyed.

  4. skanderson, you write: …”no one else to my knowledge, has offered a realistic alternative way to translate familial terms into Arabic in a way that would be properly understood by a Muslim reader.”

    This is based on several assumptions:

    1-that Muslims do not properly understand the terms “father” and “son.”

    2-that these terms are not divinely-inspired and must be literally rendered in order for both translation and intended meaning to be conveyed.

    Your examples from William Tyndale is the proverbial “apples to oranges” comparison and by appealing to the interlinear you admit that the other translation does not have this terminology. Thank you for further confirming that the charges in the petition are valid.

  5. Salaam-Corniche on

    Dear Mr. Anderson:
    I am not a Phd-lingo-linguistic-philologistic-anthopologistic person. Just a man of God who trembles at His Word (see Isaiah 66:2)
    I worry about your starting point, namely what does the end-user think? Would it be possible for you to take a few minutes to mull over this quote by Albert Martin?
    He had nothing to do with this present discussion, but he saw the link between the fact that Scripture is essentially God’s words as he chose to reveal them, and not our “translations of convenience” as the Pakistani Christians dubbed some of these supposedly more-sensitive–to whom? more accurate–on whose terms? translations.

    “”A word is nothing but a verbal symbol. A word has no meaning in and of itself. If I stand up here tonight and say “Get the ‘utengat’ you say “What’s that?” and I tell well an ‘utengat’ is a word that we use down in New Jersey for your overcoat. So if I say it enough and you get the idea, I can say to you ‘utengat’ and that becomes overcoat, that piece of material that goes on your back. You see a word has no meaning in and of itself. The meaning is in the mind of the author, and wherever there is communication verbally, it is the responsibility of the one who hears the word to ascertain what was in the mind of the one who spoke the word, and it’s deformist for the one who hears to say, “here comes that word ‘utengat’ what shall I make it mean?” “Fish?” “Caviar?” “Vacation in the mountains?” “What shall I make it mean?” Well you have no right to put your meaning on it. I have something in my mind when I use it and you are responsible if you really are serious about knowing about what I mean by the word to use every means possible to discover it. It the same way when we come to Holy Scripture. God has been pleased to communicate to us in verbal form, therefore it is incumbent upon us to seek to discover what did God mean by the use of that word and believing that the Scriptures are perspicuous, that is clear and that Scripture is its best and only infallible interpreter. We want to find out what does the Bible mean when it uses the word… ”

    Shalom.

  6. Pierre Houssney on

    skanderson:

    By what authority or knowledge do you claim that the “Arabic word for Father that has a biological/procreational context”? Do you speak Arabic?

    The word “Ab” in Arabic does not have any more of a biological/procreational connotation than does the English word “Son”.

    It’s a very common misunderstanding that Muslims understand the words “Father” and “Son” as sexual. The only reason the translators can claim that is because the “did God have sex with Mary” question is a widespread polemic argument among Muslims to combat the idea of the Fatherhood of God and the Sonship of Christ. This issue is absolutely non-linguistic, meaning that, in Arabic and in all the other languages prevalent among Muslims, the words “Father” and “Son” do not have sexual connotations, and they are often used figuratively. Even the qur’an uses the phrase “ibn assabeel” (son of the road), and nobody wonders who had sex with a road- they understand that it means “traveler”.

    The fact that Muslims accuse Christians of believing that God had intercourse with Mary shows that they are aware that Christians claim that Jesus is the Son of God. This, coupled with the fact that Muslims have widely been taught that the Bible has been corrupted and changed by Jews and Christians should be enough to demonstrate how problematic it is to remove “Father” and “Son”, because if they read a Bible with those terms removed or changed, they will be confirmed in the belief that the Bible has been tampered with and is not reliable. They will also be convinced that Christians are liars.

    To Muslims, just like 1st century Jews, calling Jesus the Son of God equates him with God. That’s actually why the concept is/was offensive to both groups. In both Hebrew and Arabic, Christ’s Sonship = Lordship = Divinity. So, in the light of Romans 10:9 (“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”), Jesus’ Lordship (Deity, Sonship) is necessary for salvation.

    If Jesus is just savior and not Lord, then he is nothing but a scapegoat, and not a demonstration of the self-sacrificial love of the Father. We shouldn’t be asking the question of whether we can remove such a crucial part of the Gospel, and still “get Muslims saved”.

    But, honestly, even if that argument is not compelling, and the Fatherhood and Sonship is not crucial for salvation, it does not justify removing it from the Bible, the Word of God. One of the problems with the translational theories that have led to these errors is pragmatic thinking. We’re trying to figure out what we can do to get people saved, even at the expense of God’s Word, rather than trusting God’s Word to do it’s work, even though Christ’s person, deity, crucifixion, and resurrection are all ‘stumbling blocks to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’.

    Many people think that saying Jesus is the Son of God just makes Muslims close their minds and it ends the conversation. I have not found that to be true in my own conversations with numerous Muslims. In my experience, when this issue comes up, it rarely takes more than saying “Son does not mean physical son – God forbid! no Christian in the world believes that!” to convey to them that it’s a spiritual sonship. That often opens up the conversation, and gives an opportunity to explain what we really believe.

    Translations for Muslims should definitely include an explanation in the footnotes, but should never ever change those terms. The vast vast majority of converts from Islam are completely opposed to the removal of “Father” and “Son of God”. It’s sad that they have been ignored, and even silenced, in favor of the imposition of Western translation theories. I’m glad that this petition is giving many of them a platform to be heard. You should look through the “reasons” on the petition, and see how many Turks, Arabs, Pakistanis, Iranians, and other former Muslims have testified.

  7. It is easy to complain, but I notice that the author, and no one else to my knowledge, has offered a realistic alternative way to translate familial terms into Arabic in a way that would be properly understood by a Muslim reader. Do those who have signed the petition really want to continue to use an Arabic word for Father that has a biological/procreational context that Muslims regard as an abomination? I think not. So, I would love to see someone offer a reasonable alternative way to translate the words they question. By the way, my understanding is that these translations DO use familial words and include clear explanations of their word use that sound orthodox to me. I invite the author of this article to quote Mark 1:1 from these translations.

    On a related note, this is not a new controversy. In the early 1500s, the Catholic church vehemently protested when William Tyndale substituted “overseer” for “bishop”, “elder” for “priest”, “congregation” instead of “church”, and “love” instead of “charity”. The church went so far as to martyr Tyndale. I hope those who have signed this petition don’t have similar plans.

    What do these purists have to say about the use of LORD and Jehovah in place of YHWH in the Old Testament? One could argue that these substitutionary words take away from the humanly inapproachable divine character of Almighty God, and thereby are heretical changes if one were to apply the logic expressed in this article and by the sponsors of the petition.

    For those reading this, please DON’T sign the petition until you have read for yourself an interlinear rendering of the texts in question

  8. Pingback: Wycliffe-Gate: Pakistan Bible Society Ends Relationship with Wycliffe over Son of God Controversy | shepherds-heart-bible-study.com

  9. Pierre Houssney on

    Wleman- What changes would you recommend should be made to the wording?

    To me, sure, it’s great that they have said they are talking about it, but that doesn’t indicate that this problem is really going to get fixed. They got themselves into this state of affairs by lots of internal discussions. So are lots more internal discussions going to change things?

    The only acceptable outcome will be if they say “ok, these translations are not faithful, so we’re pulling all of them and we’re going to revise them to be accurate, and we’re going to be transparent about the process, and which translations are affected.”

    Until that happens, let the outcry continue…

  10. The petition letter states, “With this petition I am asking you to commit in writing that your agency will not support any translation that replaces or removes “Father,” “Son,” or “Son of God” from the text, when referring to God the Father or God the Son.”

    Not even taking into consideration the doublespeak within Wycliffe’s Feb. 6 news release, it is not a commitment to retain the literal translations of Father, Son, and Son of God, but a deceptive statement that gives the appearance of “hearing” the concerns of those who have raised questions. Yet in other communications, they have attributed such concerns as attacks of Satan and an extension of his influence.

    Perhaps WBT-SIL have been jealous of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ monopoly on the right to pervert Scripture. Well, with the elimination of the divine familial terms, I dare say that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been bested. Move over Charles Taze Russell, you have finally been de-throned!

    The demand of the petition has not been accepted by Wycliffe Bible Translators-SIL. There is therefore no reason to reword the petition.

  11. Pingback: Pray for Wycliffe and SIL and the 340-Million Problem | Cracks in the Crescent

  12. Jeff,

    Thanks for writing this. It helps us to see that those behind the petition are not simply taking this issue lightly. Your brief exposition of those Scripture passages and footnote reference to 1 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 2:11-21 really make the case that issues dealing with the integrity of the Gospel must be handled publicly. Here are a few more relevant Scriptures that show Paul openly naming people and commanding Timothy to publicly rebuking those who sin:

    1 Tim 1:19-20
    Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

    2 Tim 4:14-15
    14 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. 15 You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.

    1 Tim 5:20
    Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.

    John, the “Apostle of love” also publicly named someone who was opposing the Gospel:

    3 John 9-12
    9 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. 11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

    I am amazed that WBT-SIL, Frontiers, and others are getting a “pass” on this inexcusable practice of not literally translating Father, Son, and Son of God. Willful mistranslation of the Scriptures used to be the prerogative of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Move over Watchtower Society, you’ve got competition.

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