Bible Translation Controversy Over

From SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), an announcement about translating the Bible in Muslim countries were divine familial terms require special translation sensitivities and accuracies:

SIL International has received ten recommendations from the WEA Global Review Panel for translation of Divine Familial Terms. Recommendations one through four are cited here as the standards that SIL will use for translation of these terms. Recommendations five through ten will guide SIL’s processes in Bible translation, and will be specified in a separate document entitled, Processes for Accuracy and Accountability in Bible Translation.

  1. When the words for “father” and “son” refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words will 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.
  2. There is significant potential for misunderstanding of the words for “father” and “son” when applied to God, and 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, it is recommended 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. Translators are encouraged to use paratextual material to clarify and avoid misunderstanding in these cases.
  3. 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, it is recommended 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.”
  4. Some of the disagreement over the translation of the word for “father” and the phrase for “Son of God” has resulted from overloading the translation by attempting to address too many possible meanings and misunderstandings. It is recommended that in addition to translating Scripture, translators consider additional ways of communicating the message of Jesus to Muslim audiences. These can include such literary genres as tafsir (commentary), qusas al-anbiya (stories of the prophets), and sirah (life stories). But these should not be considered or presented as biblical translations unless they abide by the first three recommendations.

Recommendations five through ten discuss “guided processes for ensuring accuracy and accountability in Bible translation.” As recommended, they are being incorporated into SIL’s translation processes. All SIL projects will now be reviewed and will come into compliance with all ten of the WEA recommendations. If certain projects do not comply, either with the Standards for Translation of Divine Familial Terms or with the Processes for Accuracy and Accountability in Bible Translation, SIL will withdraw from involvement.

Additionally, SIL will not produce or approve for publication any translated Scripture material that does not meet the standards stated in points one through four above.

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  • Percival

    This seems to be a win-win for everyone. SIL will continue to follow the same translating principles they always have, and their critics get to save face by thinking they achieved something substantial. I may be missing something, but it seems that the only thing they agreed to change was that they would put explanatory notes in for people who don’t understand translating issues. That’s a good thing, I guess, given the politics of the situation.

    But the question remains open, is the phrase “son of God” in the Hebrew scriptures and the gospel accounts a familial term at all? Or is it a term of regency? The case for regency is strong, but the popular sentiment is in favor of a familial (mis)understanding.