borrowing or redeeming words in Bible translations

My friend and mentor, Hart Wiens, describes the two options Bible translators have when trying to find a word for the God of the Bible:

Translating Key Words: God and Allah

If the discussion is broadened to include other key Bible words, what relevance do you think this discussion might have for the vocabulary used in Bible translations targeted to speakers of contemporary English?

24 thoughts on “borrowing or redeeming words in Bible translations

  1. Peggy Shearon says:

    Wayne,

    I’m sorry to post a comment, but I’m having a very difficult time finding an email address for you. I work with Len Wilson and Paul Franklyn at The United Methodist Publishing House and we are trying to send you some information by email concerning a title Len is editing.

    Please contact me at the aboveemail address.

    Blessings & Peace!

    Peggy Shearon

  2. Mike Tisdell says:

    What Hart Wiens says in this video is, for the most part, valid; however, it misses the heart of the debate completely. Most biblical scholars and bible translators do not dispute the validity of using Allah to translate El/Eloah/Elohim (Hebrew), or Theos (Greek) in Arabic. The controversy involves using Allah as a translation in non Semitic languages like Farsi, Turkish, etc… that have other words that have been used to convey the idea of deity in every religious context including Islam and where Allah has only been used to convey the idea of the Muslim deity. If translators limited their use of Allah to only Arabic translations (and maybe Malay) there would never have been a controversy today. I think it is unfortunate that this video skirts the real issue of concern.

    Even more tragic is Hart Wiens video on the “son of God” issue. He begins his explanation by walking us through a Greek interlinear of Jn. 3:16 and as he walks us through the verse he demonstrates a very poor understanding of Greek (he doesn’t even recognize the Greek definite article!). He then proceeds to present as “fact” unsubstantiated ideas originated by Rick Brown (Wycliffe/SIL) that have been hotly contested by many native speakers; a fact of which Hart Wiens seems unaware. This video can be found at: https://vimeo.com/40098055

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, I wonder if you are familiar with every non-Semitic language where “Allah” is the most commonly used word for God. Yes, in some of these languages there are other words which could be used, but for various reasons, e.g. their rarity or their association with other non-Christian religions, there are also issues with using them in a Bible translation. You allow Malay as an exception to your rule, presumably because you are familiar with the issues in this case and accept that the translators who chose “Allah” had good reasons to do so. Why can’t you accept that in other languages, where you don’t know all the issues, translators with a good understanding of the culture can have excellent reasons for making this translation choice?

  4. Mike Tisdell says:

    1) In a number of these non-Semitic languages there have been bibles that have used the normative word for deity in their culture long before the Muslim idiomatic translations (MIT’s) were introduced. Their word for deity (like the English word God in our culture) is shared among all religious contexts as the generic word for a deity.

    2) The strongest opponent to these MIT’s has been the established Christian church in these contexts. They are as troubled by these new MIT’s as English speakers would be if we used Allah instead of God in the next revision of ESV or NIV.

    3) Because Allah is a proper name in these contexts and not a generic word for God it creates some unnecessary translation issues i.e. there is no plural form of Allah in these contexts and so one must use a different word when speaking of foreign gods even though the underlying text uses the same word.

    4) In some cases Allah is invalidly used to translate “Father” in order to avoid familial langauge (This applies also to Arabic translations as well). This should NEVER happen in any translation. Doing so does not reflect the underlying text.

    5) The agenda for these new MIT’s is strongly linked to the “insider movement” that seeks to create a bible translation that can be used within the religious context of the Islamic Mosque.

    There have already been some clear abuses in cultures and language groups that already had bible translations. While it is possible (but unlikely) that allah may be the best translation for a deity in a currently untranslated non-Semitic language group, the translator involved on such a project is likely going to be scrutinized over such a choice because of the abuses of other translators who made these choices to promote an “insider” agenda.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, that may be true in some small number of non-Semitic languages. It is by no means generally true of those non-Semitic languages in which “Allah” is often used for God. For one thing, most of those language groups do not have an established church or a long used Bible translation. Also you specifically name two languages, Turkish and Farsi, in which “there have been bibles that have used the normative word for deity in their culture long before…” – and in at least one of those languages, Turkish, the word used in the long established version is “Allah”. So I don’t know exactly which languages you have in mind which actually fit the picture you are presenting. In any case you need to take great care in generalising from one or two languages to all non-Semitic languages.

    But I completely agree that the terms used in translations into such languages require careful scrutiny, which needs to be by qualified and experienced outside consultants who understand the issues and do not seek to impose uniform rules on diverse languages.

  6. Mike Tisdell says:

    It is often claimed by some Wycliffe consultants that Allah is the best translation for God in many non-Semitic languages but these same consultants refuse to identify the languages where these choices are being made. In the few cases where these translation choices can be evaluated, like the Turkish langauge, the choice seems to be a very poor choice and is rejected by virtually all translators that have not adopted an “insider methodology.”

    In Turkish, even some translations of the Koran use Tanri for God. In the 1930’s when the President of Turkey was modernizing the langauge, setting up langauge schools, and establishing a new Alphabet. He even tried to insist that the Muslims use only the word Tanri for “god” because it was the Turkish word for “god.” While I understand why Muslim’s rejected this imposition, I cannot understand why Christian translators today want to use a name that identifies the Muslim deity in a Christian bible.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, there are security reasons why Wycliffe consultants and others in the know don’t want to identify specific language groups.

    As for Turkish, I note again that the word used in the long established version is “Allah”, which strongly suggests to me that this, rather than “Tanri”, is the word for “God” used by traditional Christians as well as by Muslims. Neither a President nor you have the right to prescribe to any religious group which word they should use.

  8. Mike Tisdell says:

    Peter,

    Tanri has as long of a tradition in Turkish Bibles, going back several centuries. While it is true that Allah also has a long tradition in Turkish translation, that is primarily a result of translations that were produced by Muslim translators. Within the current Christian church in Turkey the predominant translations in use today use Tanri, not Allah.

    That being said, if the use of Allah for God was the only issue with the new translations assisted by Wycliffe/SIL, it would probably have been a small within the Turkish church today. The problem is that these new translations not only translate God as Allah but they also translate Father as Allah. This is why the majority of the Turkish church has opposed this new translation.

    Whether you believe the president of Turkey had the right to prescribe a Turkish vocabulary on the church is a moot point, he did and the Church accepted it. And the presidents edict was not the only influence in this matter, over a century before the langauge reforms of the 1920’s there was already a movement within the church to reject Arabic vocabulary in bible translation. The current issue is not related to a question about whether a president of a century ago had a right to prescribe a Turkish vocabulary on the church but whether Wycliffe/SIL has a right to prescribe an Islamic vocabulary TODAY! The Turkish church has said no and Wycliffe/SIL has refused to listen to the to the Turkish church.

  9. Mike Tisdell says:

    To illustrate the problem of the Turkish translation, I have included the text of both the current Frontiers (…) translation and the text of Ali Bey’s (a Muslim) 1665 A.D. translation.

    (… moderator deletion of comments off-topic for this thread; please read posting guidelines)

    While the Frontier translation uses “Allah” in this verse, it doesn’t do so in a way that conveys the intent of the passage.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Moderator, what exactly is off topic? Do you want to stop discussion of this particular example of “borrowing or redeeming words in Bible translations”? If so, please say so and don’t just leave partial comments. If not, we need to see the text in question which is being objected to. I would certainly agree in rejecting any version which uses “Allah” for “father”.

    Wojciech Bobowski, otherwise known as Ali Bey, was brought up as a Protestant Christian, and was then captured by Turks and forcibly converted to Islam. When he regained his freedom he devoted himself to translating Christian works into Turkish. This strongly suggests that he remained a private Christian while outwardly conforming to Islam, as he was obliged to do to keep his life. His translation, using “Allah”, was the one distributed by the Bible Societies and used by almost all Turkish speaking Christians until the 1987 publication of Müjde.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Moderator, what exactly is off topic? Do you want to stop discussion of this particular example of “borrowing or redeeming words in Bible translations”? If so, please say so and don’t just leave partial comments. If not, we need to see the text in question which is being objected to. I would certainly agree in rejecting any version which uses “Allah” for “father”.

    I left as much as possible of Mike Tisdell’s comments which were on-topic for this post. Discussion of use of Allah in translation is definitely on-topic. The parts removed did not follow our posting guidelines. Since Mike did not include his e-mail address, I was not able to interact with him privately by e-mail.

    Any post which defames an individual or organization, especially if it is off-topic, will either be deleted or edited, per our blog guidelines.

  12. Mike Tisdell says:

    That is some interesting information on Ali Bey but I don’t think it would change my thoughts about his translation and how it was understood by Muslims. If the controversy today was only about using the name Allah for God in Turkish bibles then I think the issue would be much smaller than it is today. The reason this issue has become so great is because Allah has been reintroduced into Turkish bibles that also use the name Allah (and Mevla) to obscure familial relationships in the biblical text; the driving reason for the reintroduction of Allah in this new translation appears to be driven by the desire to make the biblical text more “friendly” to Muslims. A whole lot of the questions about the use of Allah in this new translation arise from questions about why the translators felt the need to reintroduce the name Allah in a new Turkish translation when current translations use Tanri and why they felt the need obscure familial language. Other questions arise when one considers how this new version has been used in ministry. Among others, Thomas Cosmades strongly condemned this new translation in a letter written in 2007 because of his concerns about doctrinal compromises that were made in this new translation.

    Some other issues that also arise when using Allah in non Semitic languages come from the lack of a plural in many of these languages. Because Allah is often treated as a proper name for God (like Yahweh in Hebrew) rather than a noun that describes an unnamed divine being, many non-Semitic languages have not developed a plural form. This often means one must use different words when translating “god” and “gods” which can sometimes lead to interpretive conclusions that are not evident in the text itself.

    ===============================================

    FYI – the text that was edited out of my previous post were quotes of Mt. 11:27 from both the Ali Bey translation and the Frontiers/SIL translation to show that the Ali Bey translation communicated the familial relationships that are obscured in the Frontiers/SIL translation.

    Moderator, I am not sure why quotes from these translations are “off topic?” Was it was because they were in Turkish and not English?

  13. Mike Tisdell says:

    Moderator,

    My email address was included with every post (including this one). It is automatically added by my browser each time I post. If you are not getting my email address then the software this site is running is broken. If that is the case, please provided me a different method for communicating with you.

    I am unsure about why quoting from two Turkish translation of Scripture would be considered defamatory, please explain.

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    Mike T. wrote:
    While I understand why Muslim’s rejected this imposition, I cannot understand why Christian translators today want to use a name that identifies the Muslim deity in a Christian bible.

    I realize there several variables needing to feed into the final decision. But, none of the choices are going to be good.

    I’m reminded of a not uncommon statement that students would say to N.T. Wright when they met him in his office as new students. Sometimes they would say, “I don’t believe in God.” Tom’s response, generally, was to ask them to explain who this god was that they did not believe in. After they were done, invariably, Tom would say something like, “Well, yes, I don’t believe in him either.” Students were always a bit stunned like they had just got some really secret information that the school’s administration didn’t even know (this may have been while he was a chaplain at Oxford). He would go on to say, “But, I’ll tell you about the God I do believe in.”

    Point being that every language group, every culture, pretty much universally, even through time, has a concept of God and a label for him. And that label pretty much has to be the label that’s used. It’s never right.

    For example, the Western god, the one we label ‘God’, is pretty much an Epicurean version of the deity. He’s an absentee landlord. If the person is a “New Ager” (and therefore, more Stoic than Epicurean), it isn’t any better. Both views are quite twisted from a monotheistic, creational, Biblical viewpoint. The popular view is barely personal, certainly not indicative of a god that is separate from his creation but intimately involved with it (Genesis 1 portrays this right from the git-go). Thus when we Westerners translate the Greek word THEOS (similar for Hebrew or Aramaic) with ‘God’ we’re making a large compromise.

    That is, when the shoe is on the other foot, we don’t fare much better than those who use ‘Allah’ in a Muslim context.

    But, we translate as ‘God’ because the entire text defines who this deity is. And, Jesus perfectly reveals who the god really is. The point is not to let the cultural Theology dictate who god is. It’s to translate in a way so that the Bible clearly defines who this god is. I think any reader of any Bible will understand this.

  15. Mike Tisdell says:

    @Mike Sangrey:

    I don’t have a problem using native words to express the idea of a divine being in different languages. In English, that word is “god,” in Arabic, that word is unquestionably “Allah” However, in some linguistic contexts “Allah” is just as unacceptable as it would be to English speakers if substituted “Allah” for God in our bibles.

    I think the key to our disagreement is that I believe that the word used to express the idea of a divine being should be the common word used within a linguistic context regardless of whether the audience is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc… You mention the use of Allah in a “Muslim context” and I don’t believe the word for “god” should change based on the religious context of the audience. How we approach and minister to people should change based on their religious context but how we translate the bible should be based on their linguistic context.

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    Mike responded:

    Moderator,

    My email address was included with every post (including this one). It is automatically added by my browser each time I post. If you are not getting my email address then the software this site is running is broken. If that is the case, please provided me a different method for communicating with you.

    Mike, I am still unable to see your email address with any of your comments (please check again to see if you can see it with any of your comments on this blog). We are supposed to be able to click on a commenter’s name who included their email address and get their email address that way. If you click on the name of co-blogger Peter Kirk preceding any of his comments, above, you will get his email address. That does not happen when I click on your name. I don’t know why. You might want to try again and be sure you are putting the email address in the email window of the blog check-in form and not in the website window. Or perhaps your browser is not communicating adequately with the commenter form that WordPress provides for this blog.

    I am unsure about why quoting from two Turkish translation of Scripture would be considered defamatory, please explain.

    There is nothing defamatory with quoting from any translation of the Bible. I was able to get your email address from the WordPress Dashboard, even though I could not get it from here, within the blog. I have written to you privately about my concerns with some of what you posted that was off-topic and/or inaccurate. I wish I could have written to you privately and none of this would have been seen by anyone else. If it would help, please review our blog guidelines. We don’t always make perfect calls when moderating but we try our best to follow the guidelines accurately and fairly.

    Blessings,
    Wayne

  17. Peter Kirk says:

    Wayne, thank you for clarifying some issues with Mike.

    But you don’t get my e-mail address, or anyone else’s, by clicking links beside my comments. You get a link to my own blog. Your comments include a link to the site you choose, which is BBB. Mike has chosen not to link to any site. WordPress does not make commenters’ e-mail addresses visible except through the dashboard. This is deliberate, to protect commenters’ privacy and especially to avoid spam.

    Of course anyone can put their e-mail address in the text of a comment. But this is considered bad practice. Indeed it is bad practice to include any e-mail address in the public parts of any website, simply because any such address is an invitation to spammers who harvest such addresses.

  18. Mike Sangrey says:

    Mike T. wrote:
    I think the key to our disagreement is that I believe that the word used to express the idea of a divine being should be the common word used within a linguistic context regardless of whether the audience is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc…

    As far as the comment goes, I personally don’t think we disagree. The difficult decision point, as I see it, comes to the fore when translators are faced with trying to cut through what is naturally intertwined within a reader’s cognitive-linguistic environment. Basically, one can talk theoretically about separating the linguistic from the cultural from the theological (or ideological). In practice, that’s sometimes impossible.

    Gender discussions in English translations very clearly present this difficulty. One wonders whether the emotional level of a discussion should be a metric indicating the blending of the linguistic, cultural, and ideological segments within the minds of those discussing.

    However, perhaps a less volatile example would be better and one such example occurred to me recently. I was asked by a friend whether ‘repentance’ and ‘salvation’ were synonyms. My immediate reaction (unstated) was, “Hmmmm…that’s odd.” However, without getting into all the details, the issue was that in the religious context which generated his question, it was very difficult for him (and the person he had been talking to) to separate the religious sense that has been built up around the word ‘repentance’ from it’s actual lexical meaning (and it’s original socio-lexical one). That is, the contemporary religious context was determining the meaning for him (and his friend). Repentance and salvation were intertwined. Therefore, should one never translate METANOIA as ‘repentance’? I don’t think so. Each case, and all cases together, need to be considered. And then, there’s a decision point were the translator makes as objective decision as possible.

    Interestingly, my friend knows a few languages and naturally thinks in a linguistic way (he puns across multiple languages 🙂 ). And yet, he needed to bounce the question off of me since he couldn’t quite get his mind wrapped around the problem he was having. So, the intertwining of various segments we’d very much like to keep separate is sometimes extremely difficult, and even impossible, to do.

    In some contexts, Allah presents the same issue and the translator is forced to make a choice.

  19. Mike Tisdell says:

    I couldn’t find an admin email to report this. The post above in Hebrew is SPAM it is an investment SCAM. The “where to buy” post is also very questionable.

  20. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Mike. I try to catch all the spam comments, but it helps when alert readers like you help out also. I have identified the English comment as spam to WordPress and deleted it (the spam, not WordPress!) as well as the toe fungus treatment sales comment.

  21. Gerald says:

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    encountering problems with your site. It looks like some of the text in
    your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this is happening
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