Report on divine familial terms

Last year we raised the issue some translators in Isalmic contexts have faced in deciding how to translate the divine familial terms.

The World Evangelical Alliance convened an independent panel to consider the issue. The panel has just completed their report, which you can download from their webpage.

If you’re interested, it’s worth checking out the whole report. I’ll quote here its first three recommendations (in depth rationales for these are given in the report):

  1. The WEA Panel (hereafter referred to as “Panel”) recommends that when the words for “father” and “son” refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words always be translated with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients. In the case of languages that have multiple words for “father” and “son,” translators should choose the most suitable words in light of the semantics of the target language. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.6, 1.5.1, 1.5.2, 3.2.)
  2. The Panel recognizes that there is significant potential for misunderstanding of the words for “father” and “son” when applied to God, and that in languages shaped by Islamic cultures, the potential is especially acute and the misunderstandings likely to prove especially harmful to the reader’s comprehension of the gospel. Therefore, in case of difficulties, the Panel recommends that translators consider the addition of qualifying words and/or phrases (explanatory adjectives, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, or similar modifiers) to the directly-translated words for “father” and “son,” in order to avoid misunderstanding. For example, as the biblical context allows, the word for “father” might be rendered with the equivalent of “heavenly Father” when referring to God, and the word for “son” might be rendered with the equivalent of “divine Son,” “eternal Son,” or “heavenly Son” when referring to Jesus. The Panel also encouragestranslators to use paratextual material to clarify and avoid misunderstanding in these cases. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 1.5.4, 3.2.)
  3. The Panel recognizes that the phrase for “Son of God” has varied nuances in its different New Testament contexts, especially in light of the Old Testament background to those contexts. In the case of most languages, the biblical context should enable the reader to discern the nuances of the phrase for “Son of God,” and translators need not make adjustments to the translated text, although they may want to indicate nuances of meaning in paratextual material. But, when and if necessary, the Panel recommends that translators convey nuances of meaning from the biblical context in the translation through the addition of qualifying words and/or phrases (explanatory adjectives, relative clauses, or prepositional phrases). For example, the phrase for “Son of God” in a context of Messianic kingship might be rendered with the equivalent of “anointed Son of God” or “royal Son of God.” (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.4, 0.7, 1.1, 1.5.4, 3.2.)

SIL Executive Director Freddy Boswell also explained how this will impact SIL translations.

7 thoughts on “Report on divine familial terms

  1. Mike Tisdell says:

    After reading the report and being involved in a number of discussions about this report since its release, here are my thoughts on the WEA report.

    Things I think they got right:

    1) The report calls for much greater accountability for Wycliffe/SIL in the future.
    –a. They must identify who sponsored the translation.
    –b. They must identify who funded the translation.
    –c. They must identify any of their staff involved in the translation.
    –d. They must explain choices made about familial language in any translation where there is even a potential for controversy*
    —–i. They must form a committee that includes representatives from the local church and outside theologians.

    2) They must involve the local church body in the translation process.

    3) They must consider of how these translations affect secondary audiences (rather than just the target audiences) i.e. the local church; surrounding communities, etc…

    4) They must consider how MIT translations affect the Muslim perception that the bible has been corrupted.

    5) The committee recognized that Wycliffe/SIL has tried to do too much with their translations and they have recognized that bible teachers and/or commentaries are required to help people come to a correct interpretation of the text. The committee concluded that trying to mitigate all misunderstandings by manipulating the biblical text itself was a mistake.

    Things that are still concerns:

    1) Despite the WEA’s original commitment to include Muslim Background Believers on the committee, no Muslim background believers were included. Because these issues affect them most, it is troubling that they were not permitted to have a voice.

    2) There are no clear guidelines regarding how the phrase “Son of God” should be translated and whether the offered explanatory phrases like “Spiritual Son” are sufficient to replace the entire phrase “Son of God”. Hopefully, the WEA committee will clarify this point.

    3) There are no clear guidelines regarding the use of phrases that might miscommunicate familial relationships i.e. “spiritual son”, “spiritual father” and how these phrases should be evaluated. For example, would a “spiritual son” have the rights of a true son, like inheritance, in the culture where this phrase is being used?

    4) There are no guidelines at all regarding the use of phrases that might validly describe Mohammad’s relationship with Allah. Phrases used to describe Jesus’s familial relationship with the Father should not also communicate the non-familial relationship that Mohammad had with Allah. This has been a problem in previous translations targeted for Islamic contexts.

    5) While they have made it clear that publications like “Stories of the Prophets” should not be called a “bible”, they have practically endorsed their continued use as long as they are not called a “bible”. Are these valid “books” to use in a fellowship in place of a bible? The report does not address this question.

    6) While the report recommends that committees be formed to deal with controversial translations, there no guidelines about public disclosure and very few guidelines about how them committees’ members are chosen. There appears to be a little too much room to form committees that serve only to add a stamp of approval to controversial translations.

    7) The only reference they cited in the report was a book about bible translation written by scholars from Fuller seminary that hold fairly consistent with the practices that lead to this issue in the first place. Some of the recommendations in the report seemed to have been influenced by the ideology of this book; the report itself indicates this.

    I am somewhat encouraged by Freddy Boswell’s response because he takes some responsibility for the past failures of SIL, I am less encouraged by Bob Creson’s response because in it, he still has taken no responsibility for Wycliffe’s past failures on this issue. Up until this point, there has been very little transparency about these practices within Wycliffe/SIL and this is reflected in the many recommendations for accountability in the WEA report. It is my sincere hope that Wycliffe/SIL truly takes responsibility for these issues and implements these recommendations in a way that truly holds them accountable to the churches in the communities where they are working. It would be tragic if Wycliffe/SIL interpreted this report only as license for doing business as usual. The response to this report will be much more important than the report itself.

  2. Mr. Buck says:

    I read in the report that Muslim culture languages would expect to read their scriptures in a diglot, with the original language on one page and the local translation (“Meaning”) on the other.
    Given that the Arabic script represents all the phonemes of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets combined, it would be the ideal medium for the original language text on the left side, as well as the right. Much of the Hebrew would be comprehensible to a reader of Arabic, and that would help to drive home his own cultural affinity to the world of the Bible.

  3. Mike Tisdell says:

    Mr. Buck,

    1) To my knowledge, the only translations associated with the familial language controversy that include original language text on one side and a translation on the other are NT texts with the Greek and not Hebrew and the Greek text is written with Greek letters. While Arabic shares a common root with Hebrew, the primary example of this kind of translation is a Turkish translation* and Turkish is unrelated to either Greek or Hebrew. Greek comes from an entirely different family of languages and has very little in common with Arabic or Turkish. An Arabic or Turkish speaker would be no more inclined to understand a Greek text than would the typical English speaker.

    2) While Hebrew and Arabic do come from the same family, an Arabic speaker is no more likely to understand Hebrew or a Hebrew speaker understand Arabic than a French speaker would understand Spanish or a Spanish speaker French. While Hebrew/Arabic (or French/Spanish)come from a common root they are substantially different from each other. And unlike Spanish/French, Hebrew uses a different alphabet and Arabic speakers typically cannot not read Hebrew at all so while an Arabic speaker might be able to recognize a few words Hebrew words when they are spoken, they cannot recognize those same words on the printed page. While knowledge of Arabic is an advantage for those who want to learn Hebrew, one does not understand Hebrew without spending some time learning the language (even when the already speak Arabic).

    3) It is the “meaning” presented in Muslim idiomized translations that has been the source of the controversy. Many scholars (including those who were part of the WEA committee) have concluded that the meaning of the text has not been accurately communicated in many of these “translations.”

    *Note: The Turkish parallel translation includes an interlinear translation in Turkish which is something, unlike Greek or Hebrew, that people can read but the preface tells them that the real “meaning” of the text is communicated in the Muslim idiomized translation and it is that translation that is disputed.

  4. Mr. Buck says:


    I’m glad you understood my suggestion as using Arabic script to transliterate the Greek text. You have a good understanding of the situation from a linguistic standpoint.

    However, you may not be aware that the Turkish Scriptures have so far been published using the following alphabets: Armenian (1891), Greek (1905), Arabic (1911), and finally the new legally imposed Roman script in 1928.

    Any Turk so fanatically Muslim as to be turned off by any mention of God’s Son is going to be able to read the Arabic alphabet quite well.

  5. Mike Tisdell says:

    A couple of points:

    1) Even a transliterated Greek or Hebrew text would be unintelligible to those who had not studied Greek or Hebrew. It would help one approximate the pronunciation of the language but it wouldn’t help much in understanding it.

    2) FYI – the Bible was translated into Turkish using an Arabic script in the 17th century (by Ali Bey) and the Arabic script remained the prominent Turkish Script until the 1928 language reforms.

    I am personally all for encouraging people to learn (and I mean really learn) Greek and Hebrew but including these texts (even transliterated) in bibles intended for those who have not learned Greek or Hebrew really doesn’t help them understand the text. Even in English, some of the absolute worst exegesis I have ever heard was presented by those who went back to the Hebrew and Greek texts (but had never studied these languages). Asking people to use these transliterated texts would be asking them to approach bible study “omeyd al regel echat” (עומד על רגל אחת). Transliterated the phrase would be unintelligible and even translated literally it would be misunderstood because Arabic (and Turkish) use very different words to communicate the same ideas. The combination of phonemes that make up these Hebrew words would be meaningless in Arabic or Turkish.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Mr Buck, also in Hebrew and Cyrillic scripts, so there has been quite an impressive variety of Turkish Bibles! But I’m surprised that there is not one in Georgian script, yet at least. I have seen the Cyrillic version, for Turkish speakers in Bulgaria, and this and the Hebrew are mentioned here.

  7. Mr. Buck says:

    This is a good discussion. Of course the Bible was translated into Turkish using an Arabic script–until the 1920’s it was the only official way to write Turkish. And numerous languages from Persian to Berber have been written in Hebrew script for the benefit of Jews who spoke them.

    Mike, you seem to think that the Greek alphabet is intrinsically better for the recording of Greek phonemes than the Arabic alphabet. This shows that you are not thinking like a Muslim. To a Muslim, the Arabic alphabet has a certain holiness about it that for over a millennium made it the alphabet of choice for transcribing every Muslim people group’s written language, regardless of how ill suited it was to the task–just as Stalin forced all the people groups of Soviet Central Asia to use the Cyrillic alphabet, with modifications, however ineffective, to each language to assure that they wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other and thus threaten communist hegemony.

    If one is going to go to all the work of making a New Testament just for a Muslim audience, enclosing it in a green cover with “Injil” on it, and putting the original language on the left page to model the Qur’an, then it’s rather silly to think the reader would be more impressed by gibberish in a Greek alphabet rather than the holy Arabic one.

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