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Part IV: The Need for a Paradigm Shift in Bible Translation

Bible translation has experienced tremendous advancements on many levels. But there are serious problems, both in philosophy and practice. My own training in Psycholinguistics was with secular professors, some of them Muslims. My training in Bible translation was with Christian linguists, most of them with a background in Anthropology. Charles Kraft, Paul Hiebert, Tom and Betty Brewster, and others. My personal study of the subject included books by Nida, Wonderly, Taber, and others.

I would like to offer some of the insights I have gained over the years, hoping to contribute some positive, fresh, and new ways of thinking to the discussion on Bible translation. My hope is that the missionary movement would experience a necessary paradigm shift that would produce truly accurate translations of the Bible in all languages of the world, particularly among Muslims.

The Myth of Literal Translations:

Nida and his contemporaries made a very strong case against literal translations. I was taught that the problem with the Arabic King James Bible, the Arabic Van Dyck, and other traditional translations was that they followed a word-for-word formal equivalence philosophy of translation. I read and was told that accuracy was measured by the number of words and word order. Translators were instructed as much as possible to use the same number of words as in the original and try to stick with the word order of the original. The literature, as far as I can remember, argued that literal translations were not concerned with interpretation. This philosophy of translation was named by Nida and others as “Formal Equivalence.”

Initially, I agreed and believed this myth. So my translators and I were deliberately trying to avoid literal renderings even in minor and insignificant texts. For instance, in Matthew five, Jesus opens his mouth and speaks. We were told that this should not be translated literally because people do not talk like this these days. Below is a comparison of some translations and how they treat this imagery. Consistently, the “literal” translations retain the imagery of Jesus opening his mouth while the modern versions just cut it out, thinking that it was unnecessary and arguing that they are not following a word-for-word philosophy of translation.

Matthew 5:2 reads:

KJV: and he opened his mouth, and taught them saying.

NIV: and he began to teach them saying:

NLT: and he began to teach them:

ESV, ERV, ASV, ERV and other traditional translations follow the style of KJV.


Another place where modern translators just feel free to cut words out is in Acts 1:8

KJV: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

NIV: and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The KJV retains “both,” while NIV removes it without replacement.

We have to come face to face with this phenomenon and ask the question: Why? What is wrong with retaining certain words, images as they appeared in the original?

When I have asked this question, the resounding answer has always been: We do not do literal word for word translations. We are meaning based translators.

In my opinion this is a myth. A literal translation would look more like the interlinear.

ית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew reads

It would be awkward if we would retain the Hebrew word order and number of words:

NIV: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

Literal: “In the head carved gods the highs and the earth…”

There are no literal translations of the Bible anywhere to be found. Otherwise we would translate   Benjamin to “son of my right hand”, Abraham would be  “father of the womb אַבְרָהָ֖ם”

This is a myth and a straw man argument. All translation is interpretation. What we need is a better understanding of accuracy based on good exegesis and a submission to the Spirit of God.

There are many problems with the King James Bible. The language is archaic and sounds awkward to the modern reader. Many revisions have improved on it without changing the philosophy of accuracy.


The Fallacy of Meaning Based Translations:

The new movement in Bible translation theory dismissed the traditional philosophy of word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase translations of the Bible as inaccurate and uncommunicable. Translators argue that the word order in one language cannot be sustained while translating it to another language. The meanings of Biblical truths were to be presented not in a technical linguistic equivalence, but rather in a dynamic style equivalent in impact and effectiveness to that of the original language.

Thus the philosophy of “thought for thought”, Dynamic Equivalent and Functional Equivalent was born and the concept of accuracy was redefined. Accuracy is no longer measured by the degree of closeness to the original. It is rather measured by the degree to which the original meaning is communicated in the vernacular.  To do that well, translators argue that they need to implement the idioms and emotive expressions of the people for which the translation is prepared. The logical conclusion for this mindset gave rise to the Muslim Idiom Translations philosophy (MIT).

Qur’anic terms are preferred over traditional Biblical terms in translating the Bible to Arabic and other languages of Muslim cultures. For instance the Qur’anic name ‘Isa for Jesus was preferred over the Christian name Yasua. The reason given was that Muslim readers are more likely to read the Bible if they find familiar language in it.

The theory progressed to the point where centuries-old terms are being thrown out, even when their meanings and usage have not changed over the years. Father and Son are being either removed or replaced by alternate words that claim to retain the familial relationships in the godhead. In fact, Wycliffe scholars are now claiming that alternative words to Father and Son are even more accurate than the literal translation.


The Limitations of Functional Equivalence:

The translation theory of Functional Equivalence has been influenced by a modern and post-modern philosophies of communication. It makes a lot of sense that communication is supposed to serve the recipient. However, this can be taken too far which I believe is why we have the current controversy in Bible translation practices. It is right and good to be sensitive to the reader of God’s word in any translation. But the Muslim audience must not so influence the translation that Muslims become co-authors of the message. Communication is only partially about the recipient, but when the recipient and the message are at odds with each other, the message must win. We cannot appease Muslims and we in fact do them a disservice if we cater to their theology.


Non-Linguistic Factors Affecting Meaning:

The Bible can be read as literature. From a literary perspective it is a collection of history, prose, verse, prophesies, stories, parables, poetry, genealogy and more. But the Bible is more than literature. Words, phrases even all figures of speech are only the tangible or physical elements of the Bible. Meaning is embedded in the language of the Bible. But there is more than form and meaning to the Bible. There are external factos beyond forms and meanings. Here are a few of these factors:


Etic/Emic Perspectives:

Etic and emic are derived from the words phonetic and phonemic. Linguistic anthropologists use these terms to distinguish between those who look at a language from out-side (etic) and those who are insiders (emic). Generally the outsider is limited in his understanding of a foreign language. An etic linguist tends to focus on the physical elements of form more than the function because he is likely to focus on lexical and denotative meanings of words. On the other hand an emic linguist understands the nuances and innuendoes of the language beyond its forms. For instance, in the debate on the Son of God issue, those who have studied Arabic as a second language rely heavily on dictionaries and lexicons, where as native speakers of a language focus on the emotive, social, and cultural understanding of the same words.


Familiarity/Newness of Message:

Bible translators in recent decades have been influenced by communication theories that stress the importance of starting from where people are. Bible terminology is selected from the repertoire of the recipient’s vocabulary. The idea is to bring people from the familiar to the new.  Critics have stressed the importance of communicating new concepts in new forms to avoid confusion in communication.  In my own research in the factors affecting attitude change, I have found that familiarity is in fact a hindrance to change. For transformation to occur, the receiver needs to experience a change on three levels: cognitive, affective and behavioral.  Cognitive change has to do with new information. The brain recognizes sharp differences more than similarities. Slight differences in information are decoded in the same area of the brain as the familiar information. For the brain to recognize differences the differences need to be stark.

One example comes from my research in Trilingualism. I have found that learning a new language can occur in one of two ways, by immersion or translation. An American who learns Arabic by immersion is one who would live in an Arab setting and set aside his mother language for the entire span of time. The new language is formed in a separate area of the brain than the mother tongue. Whereas, a second language learned through translation is lodged in the same area of the brain as the primary language. Some, very few trilingual speakers have three separate areas of language in the brain. A truly trilingual person is rare but if found he or she is able to think, feel and speak as a native speaker in three languages.

Trilingual research helps us understand how learning occurs. A Quranic Style Bible will not be decoded appropriately by Muslims just like learning a second language through translation. For Muslims to truly understand the message of the Gospel, they need to received it as a fresh and different message which is likely to prick them to the heart as the hearers of Peter on the day of Pentecost because they heard a shockingly new and different message about a resurrected savior, something that completely went against what they were familiar with.


Receptivity or Rejection:

A reader who is receptive to the message is more likely to understand it and if he does not, he would seek to by asking experts to explain certain difficult concepts. On the other hand, if the recipient is opposed to the concept presented, he is likely to misunderstand the concept regardless of how clear and accurate the message is.


Confusion and Mixed Messages:

While some communicators think that they are serving the recipient by inserting in the Bible familiar words borrowed from the Qur’an and Islamic culture, they in fact are causing cognitive confusion or interference. Every word in the Qur’an is understood only in the ancient context of seventh Century Arabia. Similarly, Biblical terms are understood only in their own Hebraic-Greek context.

To bring a Qur’anic term, strip it of its meaning and insert in it a Christian context brings confusion and misunderstanding. For instance, when missionaries put a distinctively Muslim greeting on the top of a tract or booklet geared for Muslims, it immediately identifies the material with Islam. When Muslims read the tract, and find biblical content they are confused by the mixed messages. Mixing verses and concepts from the Bible and the Qur’an is counter productive. This does not mean the Quran cannot be used in witness. I am only advocating not using Muslim terminology with different contextual meanings in a biblical context.


Cognitive Vs. Spiritual:

The Apostle Paul recognized the non-cognitive element in the word of God when he stressed emphatically,

“…our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” 1 Thessalonians 1:5


The Bible is not all about words. Therefore Bible translators need to recognize than non-linguistic element of meaning. There is a hidden meaning that cannot be translated. It is that power embedded within the words of God that make the Bible different than all other writings.

The author of Hebrews describes the Bible with these powerful words:

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Hebrews 4:12:


God deliberately placed difficult concepts in his word to distinguish the “perishing” from the “being saved. (1 Corinthians 1:17-22)

The Bible is more than literature. Bible translators tend to concentrate on the literary, lexical or cognitive aspect of language. They are right to a certain extent, but it is not the full story. Translators can only work with words, phrases, sentences, stories, poems etc.  There is more to translating the Bible than language and translation theory. There is a spiritual battle here. Michael Marlowe writes: “we encounter several statements in the Bible declaring that the Bible cannot be rightly understood by those who lack the Spirit of God.” In John 8:43 Jesus says to his questioners, ‘Why do you not understand my speech (λαλια)? It is because you cannot hear my word (λογος).'” The Apostle John’s comment on this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees was: “they did not understand what he (Jesus) was talking about (John 8:27).

Marlowe points to what Paul declares, “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit … we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God … connecting spiritual things with spiritual.” [1] (1 Corinthians 2:10-13)

In the same passage Paul goes on to say:  “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. I Corinthians 2:14.

Without a clear understanding of the spiritual dimension of the word of God, translators will not be able to faithfully transfer the very words of God in any language to any people.


Spiritual Distortion of Words:

Like the Bible is the word of God and therefore it contains intangible, divine power, the Quran has a power from a different source. If we believe that there is deception in the Quran, we must attribute it not to a human source. Jesus tells us that Satan:

“…has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn — and I would heal them.” John 12:40.

Samuel Zwemer, referencing Cornelius Van Dyck, the translator of the 1865 Arabic Bible, sheds light on this problem with these revealing words:

“The saddest thing in the Arabic language is the influence of the degradation of Islam in every line of poetry and in almost every word of the Arabic language.  Dr. Van Dyck said that every word in the Arabic language has a double meaning and that one meaning is vile.  For this reason translators could not use any of the root words for love, and were forced finally to adopt a participle that was free from those sinister meanings. The missionaries must be careful in every hymn that they sing and watch the words they use in everything. The whole Arabic language is filled with the stain of awful degradation. The time has come to redeem the Arabic language as well as the Moslems.”


Who is the Target Reader?:

The Bible is our Judeo-Christian book. In it we find the Torah, God’s instructions and the law. The historical books of the Bible are a record of God’s dealing with his people. The psalms were the hymns of God’s people; the covenants and the prophesies are all from God to his people.

Paul demonstrated his understanding of this truth when he affirmed:

“Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
Romans 9:4,5

Although our target reader is anyone outside the community, we are calling them to enter the new community. We need to think of them as future members of this one unified Ekklesia.

Evangelistically, the Bible is an invitation to those who are far to draw near; those who are a people to become the people of God. I Peter 2:10. to join the family of God. Then our book will become their book, our language their language. By language here I mean the specific, specialized, and idiomatic terminology of God’s people.


The Challenge of Naturalness:

It would be hard to argue that a translation should be awkward. The King James and the Van Dyck are examples of awkward translations because the language does not flow naturally like the literature in that language. Certainly the Bible needs to read well. It needs to be grammatically correct and lucid in style. At the same time the reader need not forget that the original was in Hebrew and Greek. A translator must not try to compete with the literary style of the original writers of the Bible or be overly concerned with producing a literary style that would out-do the original.  Mary Massoud is an Egyptian Fulbright scholar and head of the English Department at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. In her book Translate to Communicate she identifies a serious flaw in current translation theory. She writes:

“The general view today is that translation should seem very much at home in the language in which it appears. Some do argue, however, in favor of an element of unnaturalness in the translation.” [2] Naomi Lindstrom observes that the reader of an unnatural translation perceives that the slightly strange language at hand is actually natural to another language and culture.[3]:


Language Unites and Distinguishes People:

Language plays a major role in uniting people. The genius of Islam and a major factor in its expansion and success was their insistence on Arabic as the only acceptable religious language. Chinese, Indonesian, and Brazilian Muslims must pray to Allah in Arabic. For almost a century, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish authorities have tried to assimilate minorities such as the Kurds for the sake of uniting the Turkish people under one Turkish identity. Kurds were called mountain Turks, and they were banned from speaking or writing in the Kurdish language. Yet the Kurds would not comply, and that saved them from extinction. Violent persecution was used against them until the mid 1990’s when the Turkish government, as they began to seek membership in the European Union and removed the ban. Similar things happened with minorities such as Chaldeans, Circassians, Berbers, and others in Muslim lands.

The Bible records an interesting story whereby the pronunciation of a word was used to distinguish between Ephraimites and Gileadites. Whoever pronounced Shibolet[4] as Sibolet (with an S instead of a Sh) was killed. (Judges 12)

Malaysia banned the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims for decades, until recently. The idea was to protect the special terminology of Muslims from abuse by non-Muslims.

Scientists, Engineers, Psychologists, Economists, and Athletes all use specialized terminology that is understood within their field. Theology is not different. There are specialized, technical, and theological terms that are only understood in context of their own disciplines. This, in fact, is necessary for the accuracy of their internal communication. Medical students need to learn specialized language, as do all those entering a new field.

Converts to Islam are expected to learn Arabic terminology because these terms identify them as Muslims. This is an important function of language – to unite and strengthen the bond of people within a group.

(Footnotes below Bibliography)


References In English:

Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening. Beirut: Khayats, undated.

Betts, Robert Brenton. Christians in the Arab East. Athens: Lycabettus Press, 1978.

Gibb, H.A.R. Arabic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Grube, Ernst J. The World of Islam. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1966.

Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. The Life of Muhammad. North American Trust Publications, 1976.

Hitti, Philip K. The Arabs. London: Mcmillan & Co. Ltd, 1950.

Irving, Washington. Mahomet and His Successors. Henry A. Poshman and E.N. Feltskog. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

Nydell, Margaret K. Understanding Arabs. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc. 1987.

Stewart, Desmond & editors of Life. The Arab World. New York: Time Inc., 1962.

Zeine, N. Zeine. The Struggle for Arab Independence. Beirut: Khayat’s, 1960.


References In Arabic:

Al Doury, Abdul Aziz. Historical Roots for Arab Nationalism. Cairo: Dar al Ilm. 1960.

Al-Hariri, Abu Musa. Arabiyyu Huwa?! (Is Islam Arab?). Beirut: no publisher, 1984.

Al Jahiz. Al Bayan Wa-Tabyeen (Eloquence and Its Expression), Undated.

Amin, Ahmad. Fajr Al Islam (The Dawn of Islam),Cairo: Nahda Press 1982.

Ammara, Muhammad. Islam and Arabism. Beirut: Dar al Wihda, 1981.

Fakoury, Hanna and Jour, Khalil. Tarikh Al Falsafa Al Arabiah (History of Arab Philosophy), Beirut, Badran Press, Undated.

Hanafi, Hassan. Al Qawmia Al Arabiah (Arab Nationalism and Islam), Undated.

Hassan, Hassan Ibrahim. Islam. Baghdad: The Times Printing & Publishing, 1967.

Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. Hayat Muhammad (The Life of Muhammad), North American Trust Publications, 1976.

Ibn-Kathir, Abu Musa. As-Sira Al-Nabawiyya (The Life of the Prophet). Beirut: Dar Al-Maarif, 1983.

Ibn Khaldoun. Al Muqaddima, (Introduction to History). No Publisher. Undated.


Codex 151

MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151 published by the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies in cooperation with the United Bible Society, Beirut, Lebanon. 1985.


[1] Michael Marlowe, “Against the Theory of Dynamic Equivalence”. (Revised and expanded, July 2011), page 7.

[2] Mary Massoud.  Translate to Communicate. (Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook, 1988), page 19.

[3] Naomi Lindstrom, “On the Translation of Unnatural Language.” Translation Review no. 15 (1984), page 40.

[4] In Hebrew שִׁבֹּלֶת



  1. Pingback: Biblical Missiology | Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology between Christians and Muslims: Pt. III

  2. Well Blake, what makes you think that? Are there words we have used? OK never mind. I will answer you anyway. How about answering you with a question: Do you think there are heretics or do you think everyone is entitled to their opinion and there are no heresy. Everyone is right?
    Well another question is this: Is one who denies the Sonship of Jesus and the Fatherhood of God, biblically right? Is there a heresy that is more serious than that?
    You and others may say: BUT Wycliffe and Frontiers do not deny these doctrines. I agree. They say they do not deny the Sonship. So what is the problem?

    Look at it this scenario: Wycliffe has a solid Doctrinal statement that affirms Jesus as the Son of God and God as the Father. Great. Then they produce translations that remove or replace Son and Father by other words such as Representative and Master. Can you still say that they are right? What is more important. A document tucked in a website somewhere or scriptures distributed to millions of Muslim who when they read them do not know that Jesus is the Eternal Son of God?

    Are you OK with that?

    Common brother: let us be straightforward. You cannot say Jesus is the Son of God and then remove that wording from the Bible.
    Thanks for asking. Thanks for agreeing with me because I cannot imagine you disagreeing.

  3. Hopefully Mr. Houssney and others representing Biblical Missiology are no longer renouncing as heretics and aggressively seeking to discredit those who don’t hold firmly to their philosophy of translation.

  4. Pingback: Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology between Christians and Muslims: Pt. I | Biblical Missiology

  5. Pingback: Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology between Christians and Muslims: Pt. II | Biblical Missiology

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