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Holding translators accountable

Religion | Wycliffe Bible Translators agrees to new standards in debate over contextualizing Scripture for Muslim settings

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

In the basement of a hotel in Istanbul, 30 people from around the world met in August to talk about how to translate the phrase "Son of God" and "God the Father" in Muslim contexts.

Wycliffe Bible Translators and a close partner, Dallas-based SIL International, called the private gathering, which included its own translation staff as well as outside scholars. The issue on the table-translation of the familial titles for God and Jesus Christ-was one that has divided Wycliffe members and alarmed supporting churches and missions agencies-leading a few Wycliffe members to leave the organization and some churches to consider withdrawing their support.

The controversy is defining for Wycliffe, the largest Bible translation organization in the world, whose nearly 70 years of work have made it the gold standard for all Bible translation projects. Wycliffe and its translation partner SIL work in more than 90 countries, and Wycliffe's goal is to have a Bible translation program for every world language by 2025.

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Through several days of conversations between attendees in Istanbul who had been deeply divided on the matter, the participants agreed on new translation standards. The problem with translating "Son of God" and "God the Father" literally in Muslim contexts, translators say, is that it implies that God had sexual relations with Mary. Some translators have turned to non-literal renderings, like "beloved one of God." The new Wycliffe/SIL standards agreed to in the Istanbul meeting read, "[I]n the majority of cases a literal translation of 'Son of God' will be the preferred translation," but the standards allow for "an alternative form with equivalent meaning" if the literal translation "would communicate wrong meaning. ... The alternative form must maintain the concept of 'sonship'" (see sidebar below).

Wycliffe and SIL acknowledge backing translation work that didn't render "Son of God" and "God the Father" literally. The new standards tighten what non-literal renderings are acceptable, they say. In the 1990s, translators were "experimenting" with some alternative terms like "Messiah of God" or "Christ of God," said Russ Hersman, a Wycliffe USA senior vice president. "What we would say explicitly today: They don't carry the meaning of sonship, so they're not adequate," he told me.

Such terms, Hersman said, are "outside the borders." Hersman estimated that of 200 translation projects Wycliffe/SIL linguists have undertaken in Muslim contexts, about 30 or 40 "employ some alternate renderings" for the divine familial terms. One example Hersman gave of an alternate rendering would be translated in English as "beloved son of God" or "beloved one from God."

"To them it says, 'Ah, that means a divine family relationship, a divine social relationship, but not a procreative relationship,'" Hersman said.

The stricter standards aren't satisfactory to some in Wycliffe, though. At least two families decided to leave the organization after the Istanbul statement, because they felt the organization wasn't changing its position, leaving loopholes for different renderings of "Son of God."

Wycliffe insists that it plans to convey the proper divine familial relationships in all its translations. "We've never felt the need to state something so clearly," said Hersman. "We're committed to the eternal sonship of Christ."

Before the Istanbul meeting, David and Deana Irvine left Wycliffe over the translation issue. David grew up in Iran until he was 18, the son of missionaries there. He longed to return to the Middle East, but his life unfolded in America: He and his wife Deana, a midwife, had four children, he had a stable job in law enforcement, and before he knew it, he was retiring.

The Irvines glimpsed an opportunity to do missions work in the Middle East, though Deana was reluctant to leave with seven grandchildren in the United States. She hadn't traveled anywhere abroad until several years ago, when the couple went on a short-term missions trip to Iraq, but that trip changed her mind. David started learning Arabic, and after considering other organizations, the couple finally settled on working with Wycliffe Bible Translators because they admired Wycliffe's structure and mission.

David joined the organization to work in government relations in a Muslim-majority country (David won't reveal where for the sake of Wycliffe workers there now). The couple raised their own support and went through training-and that's where questions about the organization began to arise.

Wycliffe required David to read Muslims, Christians, and Jesus, a book by Carl Medearis, an advocate of several ideas associated with the "insider movement," something the Irvines didn't know anything about at the time.

The movement generally questions the need for outward "conversion" to Christianity as long as someone has a personal relationship with Christ, and "contextualizes" Christian teaching and practice for Muslim cultures by finding common ground between the two (see "Inside out," May 7).

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