God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What September 11 Might Have in Common with Translating the Trinity

I imagine a novel written in a remote location, far from western culture. It’s about the last ten days of summer and the nearing autumn. So they call the book the equivalent of “What Happened on September 11” in their local language.

My question is this. Should the American version of the book be called, What Happened on September 11?

I don’t think so, because even though September 11 is ten days before the end of summer in English, too, the phrase “September 11” has local overtones — the terrorist attacks, the wars that followed, etc. — that override the simple meaning of the phrase.

This is one way that a good translation of the words can be a bad translation of the text.

What 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 Son.

Facts to support this claim about Arabic (and other languages of the Middle East) have been frustratingly difficult to come by, but even the theoretical issue, it seems to me, has been misunderstood.

Some people have claimed that getting rid of “Son” in Arabic is pandering, or wrongly changing the Bible to placate an audience, or giving up on theology, etc. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe “son” in Arabic is like “September 11” in English. It has a plain meaning, but it also has overtones that destroy the original point of the text.

Other people have claimed simply that the job of the translator is to translate the words. In spite of the hugely intuitive appeal of such an approach, it doesn’t work very well, because sometimes the words convey the wrong thing.

So even before we get a good factual answer about Arabic, I think it’s important to understand the fundamental point that it’s certainly possible for the literal equivalent of “son” and “father” to be the wrong way to translate the Trinity.

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February 9, 2012 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 25 Comments