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.
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.