Standing Firm: CBS Assures Supporters of Its Commitment to Faithful Translations

Toronto, Ontario — March 20, 2012 — Throughout Jewish history, devout and skilled artisans, called scribes, have carefully and precisely copied the Word of God. In ancient times unblemished animal skins and ritually purified writing utensils were painstakingly prepared and used. The scribes, who were chosen for their unwavering moral fibre, not only bathed and prayed before each writing session, they also spoke or sang the words aloud so they would thoughtfully consider each character they etched.

At the Canadian Bible Society (CBS) we humbly consider ourselves modern day scribes. No, we don’t preserve the Scriptures on lambs’ hides but all of us – from translators to administrators to support staff – take our responsibility to make Scriptures available in heart languages around the world very, very seriously. We consider each Bible our team produces to be the holy, sacred and perfect Word of God. And, because each verse was Spirit breathed, we take special care to reproduce the original meaning of the human writers as precisely as possible.

Recently, though, we have learned of a controversy that has deeply touched the hearts of people engaged in and supportive of translation work. This controversy has to do with the faithful and sensitive treatment of certain key terms in a few situations where Islam is the dominant religion and, in particular, where the accurate translation of familial terms referring to God as “Father” and Jesus as “Son” has come into question.

CBS is not implicated in this controversy in any way

The work of our translation department is focused on indigenous languages in Canada where the issues that gave rise to this controversy do not apply. And it’s important to note that the global projects CBS supports do not include any of the translations implicated in the controversy. As you may know CBS is a member of the global fellowship of the United Bible Societies (UBS). The UBS has a well-earned reputation for leadership in the field of Bible translation and is committed to the highest standards of accuracy in all of our Bible distribution ministries.

We are, however, in ongoing communication with our ministry partners whose work has been drawn into the debate. We are confident they are listening to the concerns that have been expressed and are making every effort to deal with this situation in a way that is

  • honouring to God,
  • sensitive to the issues at stake, and
  • will ensure their continued commitment to accurate and clear translations of the Scriptures.

One of the groups targeted in this controversy is Wycliffe Bible Translators. Wycliffe is a global alliance of Bible translation organizations. Most of the translation work attributed to Wycliffe, however, is actually carried out by one of their many field partners. Their role is mostly centred on recruiting and resourcing missionaries for Bible translation. Wycliffe Canada, by the way, is not directly implicated in any way – only through their association in the global alliance. And, while CBS has partnered with Wycliffe personnel on certain projects, none of these people have any relationship to the controversy in question.

As anyone who has been involved in contentious storms knows, there is always more than one side to a story. The present controversy is no exception. In the eyes of some people Wycliffe did not act quickly enough when the issue was raised. It is helpful to consider that in such a complex situation they needed to proceed carefully to avoid knee-jerk responses that might do more harm than good.

After researching the situation and listening to input from all sides of the issue regarding the specific translations in question, Wycliffe recently issued this statement:

Wycliffe USA and SIL have agreed to submit to a review of these specific Bible translation practices. Both organizations will participate in this conversation, but neither will control it. The formal review will be led by respected theologians, biblical scholars, translators, linguists, and missiologists from the global Church. We expect this review to produce a report that will guide future Wycliffe USA and SIL translation efforts.

The challenging work of translating God’s Word

While this controversy has brought to light some legitimate issues that require more scrutiny and attention by the ministries implicated, it is safe to say that much of the debate has also been fueled and further inflamed by misinformation. As we have reviewed some of the accusations being levelled at the ministries involved, it has become apparent that some of the accusers are not fully aware of the nature of language and how certain concepts simply do not transfer literally from one tongue to another. As linguists and translators we are sensitive to the many ways in which literal translations can lead to serious misunderstanding.

There are two main issues involved with this present controversy. The first centers around the use of the term “Allah” for God. While there is some legitimate debate in some languages where Islam is the dominant religion about whether this is the best designation to use, it is commonly accepted as a general term for God in many, if not most, of these languages. Semitic languages such as Arabic commonly use “Allah” where English uses “God.” The word “Allah” does not belong to Islam, although Muslims do use it. The word is actually closely related to the Hebrew term “El” and “Elohim” used for God in the Hebrew Bible.

The Arabic language is closely related to Hebrew (south Semitic and north Semitic respectively) and the term “Allah” is the direct cognate of the corresponding Hebrew term. In a number of languages Christians have been using the term “Allah” for many generations. In fact, in one country Christians have actually gone to court to retain their right to use this term when a Muslim dominated government tried to restrict its use for Muslims only. Truthfully, if we compare the origins of words used for God, the English / German term is among the most pagan. “God / Gott” was originally the designation used by our pagan ancestors long before the introduction of Christianity in northern Europe.

The second, more challenging, issue in the current controversy is how to translate familial terms for God as “Father” and Jesus as “Son” in languages where these terms are only understood biologically. If translators are not careful, serious misunderstandings arise among Muslims about the nature of the Trinity. Unfortunately many Muslims, when given literal renderings about God the Father and Jesus the Son, mistakenly conclude that God had a sexual relationship with Mary and they produced a son named Jesus. In these situations translators struggle to find more accurate ways of communicating the true nature of the relationship that exists in the Trinity between the Father and the Son – a relationship of familial rather than biological intimacy.

Translation work, it should be noted, is both a science and an art:

  • A key to translating texts is to provide people access to the Scriptures in a form they can easily understand and that will clearly communicate God’s message to them.
  • Experience shows that people who are not intimately engaged in the specific challenges of a particular language should suspend judgment and avoid fueling discord and dissension in the body of Christ.

All of the ministry partners implicated in this controversy have given their lives for the ministry of sharing the Good News of Christ. Our posture toward these dedicated men and women is informed by our desire to live out the message we translate, publish and distribute.

One further comment on translations: Sometimes in grappling with difficult challenges, translators will produce some preliminary drafts to analyze the comprehension and suitability of certain ways of treating key terms. If such a work is prematurely released many can easily misunderstand the complex, exhaustive process of drafting, checking and revising translations before they are made available. Then false assumptions can be made and publicised in the media before assurances can be made that translators are not tampering with or trampling upon the precious Word of God.

Final Thoughts

As we consider this situation, Paul’s words in Colossians 3 come to mind: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

It would seem advisable for concerned people to give the review process initiated by Wycliffe a chance to bear fruit so that the ministry of Bible translation can go forward and Christ’s Kingdom can flourish. As participants in the ministry of God’s Word, we believe wholeheartedly in the biblical teaching that the Church belongs to Christ. We have full confidence in His words recorded in Matthew 16.18, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” This promise is sure and it fuels our faith that God will use even this controversy, to accomplish His purposes.CBS has full confidence in Wycliffe’s commitment to accurate and clear translation of Scripture as expressed in this statement posted on their web site:

The Wycliffe Global Alliance organizations and their personnel are not omitting or removing the familial terms, translated in English as “Son of God” or “Father,” from any Scripture translation. Wycliffe continues to be committed to accurate and clear translation of Scripture. The eternal deity of Jesus Christ and the understanding of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father must be preserved in every translation.

This is the standard to which the Bible Society holds all of the ministries with whom we partner to translate, publish and distribute the Bible. We are happy and willing to have the Church hold us accountable to these convictions.

Translating the Gospel

Translating the Gospel

Want to know more about translation process? Read the series of articles – “Translating the Gospel” – written by Hart Wiens, CBS’ Director of Scripture Translation. In this series, Hart uses John 3.16 to illustrate some of the challenges Bible translators face as we seek to restate God’s Good News in every language spoken on earth.

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