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Translate ‘Father’ urges panel

31 May 2013


Father-figure: a carved depiction of the Trinity, from a Viennese church

Father-figure: a carved depiction of the Trinity, from a Viennese church

TRANSLATORS of the Bible must use "the most direct equivalent possible" to render "God the Father" and "Son of God" in other languages, despite the "depth of the Muslim abhorrence to the idea of God possessing a son", an expert panel has concluded.

Last year, Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International commissioned the World Evangelical Alliance to facilitate an independent external review of the translation of these terms, after Biblical Missiology, a network of missionaries, translators, and church leaders, said that the terms had been excised from translations to avoid offending Muslim audiences ( News, 10 February 2012).

A panel of 12 scholars, including representatives from countries with majority-Muslim populations, was assembled to conduct the review, and the final report was published last month.

The report notes that: "Good communication will take place only if significant attention is given to understanding the receptor audiences, in this case various Muslim groups, and their cultures. Most are influenced by Qur'anic views, e.g. the belief that for Jesus to be God's son would require God to have a sexual consort or that Christians believe that Jesus and Mary are gods beside God. These beliefs make the translation of divine familial terms an especially sensitive issue in Muslim contexts."

Nevertheless, the first recommendation is that when the words for "Father" and "Son" refer to God the Father and the Son of God, they be translated "with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients". The panellists argue that the terms are "among the most important ways the New Testament conveys the central truth that Jesus is and has always been in relationship as Son to his Father", linking believers to Jesus, but distinguishing them as adopted sons and daughters. The panellists also argue that father-son relationships are "universal in human experience", and that translating the terms in less direct ways could "add substance to the Muslim claim that Christians have corrupted the Bible".

The report notes the "depth of the Muslim abhorrence to the idea of God possessing a son", and recommends that translators may need to consider the addition of "qualifying words and/or phrases", such as "heavenly Father", to the directly translated words, to avoid misunderstandings. It also suggests that the challenges cannot be overcome by translation alone, and that translators may wish to use additional tools.

On receipt of the report, Wycliffe issued a statement acknowledging that it had "not always involved the Church in making decisions about Bible-translation strategy and work" nor "always been open and transparent about our translation practices". It had an ambition to be "clearer" in future.

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