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.


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

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 | , , , , | 14 Comments

Making Jesus the “Human One”

Though the text of the new Common English Bible (“CEB”) has been circulating for some time, its recent release made headlines (Bob Smietana in The Tennessean, picked up by Cathy Lynn Grossman on her USA Today blog), in part because of the translators’ decision to change the traditional “son of man” into “human one.”

Why did they make the change, and is it a good one?

Son of Man

The traditional “son of man” is a literal translation of the Hebrew ben adam, which is how God frequently calls Ezekiel. We also find it elsewhere in the OT. In these cases, the Greek Septuagint translates the Hebrew literally as uios anthropou.

The English phrase also occurs in the NT, where it is the nearly literal translation of the Greek uios tou anthropou (“son of the man”), common in all four Gospels, and appearing elsewhere.

While the Hebrew phrase seems to refer to any human (even though it’s only actually used of a few humans), the Greek phrase seems to refer specifically to Jesus. For this reason, many translations capitalize it, either “Son of man” or “Son of Man.”

Against “Son of Man”

Perhaps the biggest drawback of these literal translations is that the Hebrew ben and Greek uois indicate “member of” in addition to “son” or “child.” One famous phrase where we see this is b’nai yisrael (b’nai is the plural of ben), commonly “children of Israel” or “sons of Israel,” but really just “Israelites.” Similarly (just for instance), in Matthew 9:15, the phrase commonly translated as “wedding guests” is literally sons of the weddinghall.

Accordingly, ben adam could simply be someone who is an adam, just as uios tou anthropou could be someone who is an anthropos. That is, both phrases might just refer to a person. This is where the CEB gets “human one.” They are right that “son of man” is overly literal and misses part of the point of the original.

Another problem with “son of man” is that it is doubly gendered in a way that the Greek is not. In Greek, both uios and anthropos can refer to women as well as men. So the traditional translation introduces gender while the CEB’s translation does not.

In Favor of “Son of Man”

On the other hand, the term “son” in the NT is hardly a neutral one. It is part of the trinity. And it makes possible the progression from “son of man” to “son of God.”

In terms of the latter, for example, we find Luke 22:69-70:

“…but from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (NRSV, my emphasis)

In the CEB, this becomes:

“…but from now on, the Human One will be seated on the right side of the power of God.” They all said, “Are you God’s Son, then?” (CEB)

The progression is destroyed.

And in terms of the trinity, we might consider Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…” (NRSV), which resonates with Matthew 28:19: “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In the CEB, we find instead: “And whoever speaks a word against the Human One,” which doesn’t match “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the same way.

The Tradeoff

I understand the motivation behind “human one” in the CEB. And I think that in isolation it’s a better translation than the traditional “son of man.” But in the broader context of the full NT, I think the association with “son” is too central to give up, and so the CEB misses more than it captures.

What do you think? Which part of uios tou anthropou (“son of man” / “human one”) is more important, the meaning of the phrase or the associations of “son”?

July 19, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 37 Comments