God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Why There Might Be No Father or Son in the Trinity in Arabic

The issue of removing “father” and “son” from Arabic Bible translations has arisen again (in The New American, for example, and Christian Today, among many others), including a petition to put the Father and the Son back into the Trinity, after decisions by Wycliffe Bible Translators, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and Frontiers to replace the traditional “father” and “son” with other words in Arabic.

“The real question is whether the Arabic words imply sex more than their Greek counterparts do.”

The reasoning behind not using “father” and “son” in Arabic is that (according to some) those Arabic words wrongly imply sex. The SIL has an explantion that defends using words other than “father” and “son”:

There are some cases in which it can be shown that a word-for-word translation of these familial terms would communicate an incorrect meaning (i.e. that God had physical, sexual relations with Mary, mother of Jesus; not only does this communicate obvious wrong meaning, but can also give readers the impression that the translation is corrupt).

As I see it, we once again have two issues, a theoretical one and a factual one:

The Theory

The basic theoretical issue is pretty simple, though not always appreciated: Sometimes a word-for-word translation detracts from the meaning of the original text. This is true for marginal words such as colors as well as for central words like “father” and “son.”

To look at it differently, everyone agrees that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is not exactly the same as the relationship between, say, Bruce Sr. and Bruce Jr. Rather, the relationship is like that of a father and a son in only some ways. If the Arabic words for “father” and “son” don’t match up with those ways, then the translator has to find other Arabic words that do.

The Facts

The factual question is whether the Arabic words for “father” and “son” differ so much from the Greek that they are inaccurate.

But there’s an important nuance, and here is where the published discussions that I’ve seen seem lacking.

The question is not whether “father” and “son” in Arabic imply sex. Of course they do. But they also do so in Greek (and English, for that matter). The real question is whether the Arabic words imply sex more than their Greek counterparts do, or whether these Arabic words are less flexible in their imagery than the Greek. And I have yet to find anyone address, let alone answer, this key question.

So, if you’re an Arabic expert, please weigh in on this specific question:

Do the Arabic words for “father” and “son” imply sex in ways that the original Greek did not? What evidence do you have for this position?

[Update: Others who have written about this topic include: Archbishop Cranmer, Eddie Arthur, and Wayne Leman.]

[Update 2: This issue remains solidly in the news and a matter of debate. For example, “Stop Supporting Wycliffe’s Current Bible Translations For Muslims, PCA Advises Churches.” (June 26, 2012)]

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February 3, 2012 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 14 Comments