Clarity On Wycliffe/SIL’s Involvement In The Bengali Injil Sharif

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As part of their “Pledge to Transparency,” Wycliffe posted a series of “Answers to Commonly Asked Questions[1] on February 15, 2012, relating to a controversy over translation of the divine familial terms, i.e. “Father,” “Son,” and “Son of God.” One question related to a translation in Bangladesh known as the Injil Sharif: “What was Wycliffe or SIL’s involvement in Injil Sharif (also known as the Bengali Bible)?” Wycliffe answered that “Neither Wycliffe USA nor SIL had any involvement in the Injil Sharif project. This particular translation was led by a different organization and included non-SIL consultants.” Biblical Missiology offers the following response to the categorical statement that Wycliffe/SIL did not have “any involvement.”

First, we must be clear that Biblical Missiology has never claimed that Wycliffe/SIL directly produced or translated the Bengali Injil Sharif. Rather, as pointed out in our Fact Check,[2] the translation was cited in the petition to show SIL’s general and specific influence on other agencies doing translation work. For years, Rick Brown of SIL has advocated for alternative wording for the divine familial terms, and his articles have often been referenced as a general, authoritative justification for this controversial practice. But he has also had specific influence, offering advice on key terms at critical moments, especially in regards to the translation of “Father,” “Son,” and “Son of God.”

Such is the case with the Bengali Injil Sharif, produced by Global Partners For Development.[3] Rick Brown, an SIL translation consultant, spoke at a May 2002 conference in Bangkok sponsored by Global Partners. In his two sessions, he presented his argument that Arabic demands that “son” can only mean a biological offspring, thus giving Muslims the mistaken notion that Jesus was the result of sexual intercourse between God and Mary. What, then, does “Son of God” actually mean? According to Brown at the time of the conference, the meaning of “Son of God” is equivalent to the New Testament terms “Messiah” and “Christ.” Based on Brown’s arguments at the conference and in his articles, Global Partners justified translating “Son of God” as “Messiah” or “Christ.”

And that is exactly what Global Partners did. At the time of the Bangkok conference, Global Partners and a team of Bengalis were translating the gospel of Mark, which replaced “Son” with “Messiah.” For example, in the English Standard Version, Mark 1:11 reads, “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.'” But in Global Partners’ translation of Mark, this verse says, “You are my beloved Messiah.” This replacement of “Son (of God)” with “Christ” or “Messiah” continued throughout Mark, as well as the other gospels and Acts in the 2005 Bangla translation known as the Injil Sharif.

In an unsolicited 2011 letter to the Presbyterian Church in America about a PCA overture that referenced the Injil Sharif, Wycliffe said, “the Overture is complaining about a trial translation choice that was tested and abandoned in 2005.”[4] According to World magazine, 10,000 copies of the 2005 Injil Sharif were printed and distributed.[5] But 10,000 copies of the Injil Sharif cannot be termed a “trial translation.” Rather, the Injil Sharif project was a campaign to broadly distribute Bibles to Muslims that translated terms like “Son of God” in less offensive ways. These copies remain in circulation, and we know of no effort by the publishers to withdraw or reject them. Due to the destructive impact of its distribution, Bengalis voiced strong objections to this translation in a short video called Unheralded.

According to Wycliffe’s letter, after the 2005 Injil Sharif was published, “a PCA missionary in Bangladesh informed Rick Brown about the translation and expressed concerns. Rick explained the rationale for using a functional equivalent that expressed the Mediatorial/Messianic meaning of the term, rather than a phrase understood by Muslims to be sexually suggestive and an unforgivable insult to God.”[6] Brown clearly defended the Injil Sharif’s use of a “functional equivalent” for “Son of God.”

However, Brown had apparently modified his “Son of God = Messiah” equation by this time, and he wrote to Global Partners advising them to edit their wording for this key term. Such direct involvement–beyond even his earlier workshops and articles–clearly constitutes “involvement in the Injil Sharif project,” and thus it would be most helpful to hear Rick Brown’s own words regarding his counsel. That came in 2011.

In a February 18, 2011 SIL post by Rick Brown titled “Comment on article in Christianity Today,” he expressed concerns that a February 2, 2011 article in Christianity Today[7] “misrepresents what I described translators as doing.” In the post, he explained his involvement with the Injil Sharif project, saying

“This rumor about translating “Son of God” as “Messiah” seems to have originated from the work of a group of local translators in south Asia, unconnected to any Bible agency, who drafted and tested a trial version of the Gospel of Mark that used “Christ/Messiah” in place of “Son of God.” I heard about this from a missionary, and I sent word that this was not an acceptable translation because (1) it omitted mention of the relationship to God (2) it lacked a note providing a literal translation of “‘Son of God” and an explanation of its original meaning in the passage concerned, in accord with the consensus of evangelical biblical scholars and (3) it interpreted the term the same way in all passages. I recommended that the local team use the services of a translation consultant to help them test and find acceptable alternative wordings and explanatory notes. This was done, and after extensive testing of different wordings, the local translators settled on a phrase like “God’s Holy Beloved Chosen One,” and in a few passages “the One close to God,” along with an explanatory note that presents the original-language phraseology of Father and Son. In this way the translators could impart the original meaning to an expression used in the translation, whereas a literal translation had been unable to convey that meaning because it already had contrary a meaning [sic].”

Thus, it would be incorrect for Wycliffe/SIL to assert they did not have “any involvement” with the Injil Sharif project, when Rick Brown said he “sent word” explaining why “Christ/Messiah” was not an acceptable translation for “Son of God” and recommended the translators “find acceptable alternative wordings.” The Injil Sharif translators heeded Brown’s recommendation to find an alternate term, ultimately settling on a phrase like “God’s Holy Beloved Chosen One” as the “better way” to translate “Son of God.” In the 2011 letter to the PCA, Larry Chico of SIL similarly explained Rick Brown’s counsel on the project, adding that Brown also sent the Bengali translators an article explaining his translation philosophy:

“Rick then wrote to the translators explaining that the translation would be inadequate if it failed (1) to mention the relationship to God inherent in the use of huios tou theou and (2) if it did not present and explain huios tou theou in the introduction and glossary. He sent them a pre-publication version of an IJFM article that urged this very point, and encouraged them to acquire the services of a translation consultant.”[8]

Wycliffe’s letter to the PCA also had the effect of informing people of this second edition of the Injil Sharif and Wycliffe/SIL’s association with the revision, even if only to advise Global Partners to “find acceptable alternative wordings.” This letter also informed the PCA that the revised edition would now translate “Son of God” with a phrase that means “God’s Uniquely-Intimate Beloved Chosen One.”[9] However, Bengali Christian leaders emphatically reject the new wording as an “acceptable alternative” over the Bangla term for “Son of God.”

Biblical Missiology wishes to reiterate: we do not claim or imply that Wycliffe/SIL directly produced or translated the Bengali Injil Sharif. However, it is clear that Wycliffe/SIL had both a general and specific involvement in the project, through Rick Brown’s workshops, articles, and counsel on key terms, which even led to a re-translation of “Son of God.” We appeal to Wycliffe/SIL to retract their current response to this question and acknowledge the full extent of their involvement in the Injil Sharif project.

 


[1] http://www.wycliffe.org/SonofGod/QA.aspx

[2] http://bibmiss.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/LostInTranslation-FactCheck.pdf

[3] http://www.worldmag.com/articles/17944

[4] http://www.reformation21.org/Towards%20A%20Faithful%20Witness.pdf

[5] http://www.worldmag.com/articles/17944

[6] http://www.reformation21.org/Towards%20A%20Faithful%20Witness.pdf

[7] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html

[8] http://www.reformation21.org/Towards%20A%20Faithful%20Witness.pdf

[9] http://www.reformation21.org/Towards%20A%20Faithful%20Witness.pdf

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About Author

Scott Seaton is the pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA). Prior to his current ministry, Scott served as a PCA missionary, a church missions pastor and the director of the PCA's international ministry to Muslims. He also is the lead author of "A Call To Faithful Witness," the PCA's 2011 overture related to Muslim Idiom Translations.