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)]


February 3, 2012 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , ,


  1. I think the question here really gets to the point of the issue. I find it unbelievable that we are even considering other religious beliefs in a translation process. Translation should be communicating what the text says in the words that best reflects what the text says. The text says “father” and “son.” Yes, that normally implies sex, but teachers explain the relationship and the uniqueness of the incarnation. The purpose of translation is not to explain the text, but to translate it. Once you explain the text the translation can no longer be trusted. To consider if a translation would offend one religious group should not even enter the translation picture. The issue is not how other religions will respond to the translated text, but to get the text translated. I understand the Muslims find certain aspects of Christology very offensive, but “softening the blow” through translation is not faithful to the text or, ultimately, faithful to Jesus Himself.

    Comment by samuelclough | February 3, 2012

    • You seem – perhaps my misunderstanding – to think that there is a one-to-one word transliterability from the Greek to Arabic. When translating from one language to another, except in those cases that share a common ancestry, there is seldom a simple one-for-one replacement.

      That is the problem Joel expressed. How does one go about getting the true meaning through when the two languages are so radically different that a mere one-for-one replacement strategy grossly miss-translates the idea intended. Would you actually wish to imply a father-on-son sexual relationship in the translation where the idea to be conveyed was meant to be an issue of progeny in the original?

      We even have problems with the English language today in the change of the meaning of the word “let” between the KJV and modern usage. In Elizabethan times, “let” meant hinder, whereas today we understand it to mean allow. If there can be such problems within a single language, can you not see that the nuances when translating from one language to another might be fraught with problems? Joel was trying to reflect the problem of the nuances of language translation, rather than scrapping dogma.

      Comment by Colleen Harper | February 6, 2012

  2. Joel,

    The article in The New American cites some examples:

    • Frontiers published a Turkish translation of the gospel of Matthew that uses the word “guardian” for “Father” and “representative” or “proxy” for “Son.”

    • SIL consulted on a Bengali Scripture translation that changed “Son” to “Messiah” and “Son of God” to the cumbersome “God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One.”

    It is difficult to judge the quality of a translation by reading a “back translation” into English. I realize that translation consultants and exegetical checkers often work with back translations but they are professionals. Presenting a back translation to a layman will often produce a negative reaction because it sounds horrible in English. This is just a nit picking comment. I suspect that actual translations would be significantly shocking even without back translating.

    Comment by C. Stirling Bartholomew | February 3, 2012

  3. I think what you are asking for is somewhat unrealistic. It’s like trying to prove a chair is green. In some cases, you just have to accept it. Now, I do not have any knowledge of Greek. But I can provide you with what I know of Arabic. I think it’s important to note that Arabic is a Semitic just like Hebrew and Aramaic; and therefore, they are very similar in the same way Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French are.

    Father in Arabic is “ab.” This is very similar to the word Jesus used to call out God in Mark 14:36 when he said “abba,” which means father in Aramaic. In Hebrew, “ab” or “av” also has the meaning of father. The name Abraham means “father of multitude.” The “Ab” in the name Abraham means father. To bring it into a modern sense, Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia, a country that is about half Christian. Father is “abaye.” They even begin the Lord’s prayer with “abbatachin.” As you can see, all these different ways of saying father is related and have the same root.

    Son in Arabic is “ibn” or “bin.” In Aramaic, it is “bar.” And in Hebrew, it’s “ben.”

    So for it to be repulsive in one language, then it must be across the board. As I have said before, the problem is religious doctrine. The Quran explicitly states that Jesus is not the son of God nor is he God nor is there a Holy Trinity. The phrase “son of” cannot have a sexual connotation because Jesus is referred to as the “son of Mary,” who Muslims believe is a virgin. Arabic speaking Christians refer to Jesus as “ibn Allah,” which translates as “son of the God” and God as “Allah al-ab,” which translates as “God the Father.”

    Personally, I think people are trying too hard and seeing problems that aren’t there.

    Comment by Omar Orestes | February 3, 2012

  4. Apart from sex, it also raises others issues of imagery associated with the concept of “father”. As Jesus portrayed it, his heavenly Father possessed authority, power, life, honor etc. The father was ascribed with preeminence in all these things.

    In terms of this relational hierarchy, is this true for all cultures that have existed throughout the earth’s history? Is it true for all cultures today? Let’s say, for argument sake, that in a particular culture the mother is the authority figure. Should a translation reflect the reality of this cultural truth, or should it just be true to the text? How one answers this question depends, not only on the importance that one places on the historical facts of scripture, but also on how one understands the scriptural concept of hierarchy.

    Translation theory, especially in relation to abstract terms or ideas, should always give the text the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, we potentially dismiss something that would inhibit our understanding and enlightenment of those terms with respect to all of their possible implications and associations. Due to problems associated with capturing all of the ideas with a single term, there is no substitute (as Samuel notes above) for teachers who don’t compromise the text.

    Comment by Robert Kan | February 3, 2012

  5. […] this has to do with the Trinity is that the claim has surfaced that in Arabic, “father” and “son” wrongly imply sex, so they’re not good translations for what we know in English as the Father and the […]

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  6. […] Translation Blogger, Joel Hofman, weighs in on the subject; here and […]

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  7. C. Stirling Bartholomew makes the mistake you (Joel Hoffman) show to be faulty in your TEDx video – that of assuming that cognates mean the same thing. That shows the difficulty in this debate – very different and unexamined views of how language functions.

    Comment by Foibled | February 18, 2012

  8. […] recently, regarding the translation of the Greek for “son” in Arabic, because Arabic might use the word “son” for different imagery than Greek […]

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  9. It’s interesting and important to discuss translation of the Bible to Arabic.

    But the accusations made about some Bible translations “leaving out” Father or son are not about translations into Arabic. They are about translations into minority languages where the dominant religion is Islam. I suggest that we try to discover the semantic range of the relevant words in these minority languages rather than Arabic. The debate is not about translation of the Bible into Arabic.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | February 20, 2012

  10. It is true, however, that the media and some accusers do speak about translation of the Bible into Arabic. But as we all know, the media and accusers do not always get the facts right before they publish claims. The fact is that none of the translations in question are in Arabic.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | February 20, 2012

  11. Wayne: It sounds like I’ve been misled. Do you have any concrete details you can add?

    Comment by Joel H. | February 20, 2012

  12. […] Translation Blogger, Joel Hofman, weighs in on the subject; here and […]

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  13. According to Wycliffe USA (http://www.wycliffe.org/SonofGod/QA.aspx), and according to Biblical Missiology (http://biblicalmissiology.org/2012/01/16/fact-check-biblical-missiologys-response-to-wycliffes-comments-on-lost-in-translation/), some of the translations in question *are* in Arabic. Specifically, “Stories of the Prophets” (formerly “Lives of the Prophets”) has been produced in several varieties of Arabic.

    It’s helpful to remember that “Arabic” encompasses at least 30 different languages around the world today (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ara), some of which are so different from each other as to be almost mutually unintelligible. On the other hand, people on all sides of this translation issue (including native speakers of Arabic) speak broadly about “Arabic”, with some justification.

    Comment by lhuttar | April 1, 2012

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