Wycliffe Bible Translators Moves Past 'Divine Familial' Controversy; Waits for Review (Pt. 1)

Editor's Note:  This is the first part of a series examining different aspects of Bible translation, inspired by the recent controversy surrounding Wycliffe Bible Translators and its translation for a Muslim context.  While The Christian Post series will not be focusing exclusively on the Wycliffe controversy, the topics in the series are related to the situation and are helpful to understanding the complicated nature of Bible translation. 

It's business as usual for the Wycliffe Bible Translators, one of the world's biggest Bible translation companies, while its policies continue to be reviewed by an independent panel, prompted by controversy beginning last year over translations that some termed more "Muslim friendly" and less accurate.

"This last year there's been controversy over what's called 'divine familial' terms – how 'Son,' 'Son of God,' and how Father are translated, particularly in Muslim context," Wycliffe USA Chief Operations Officer Russ Hersman told The Christian Post. "The translations that our folks have been involved in had been translating for meaning so in the vast majority of cases the common word in that language for son or for father is what's used and it works just fine."

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Hersman added that there are very few cases in the Bible where the common words used in the case of Muslim-related language groups has a connotation of a biological relationship between God and Mary to produce a baby Jesus, in one of the more controversial instances.

"Well, we know of course that's not what God is trying to communicate in that. In those situations our translators are trying to find what another word for son that still carries that meaning of father-son relationship, but doesn't carry the biological connotation," he said.

Wycliffe came under heavy criticism when Biblical Missiology created an online petition alleging that the translation group had eliminated familial terms describing God and Jesus in certain Arabic and Bengali translations of the Bible so as not to offend Muslim readers. Biblical Missiology, a network of missionaries, linguists, theologians and global pastors, demanded that Wycliffe stop replacing phrases such as "Son of God" with "Messiah of God" or "God the Father" with "guardian."

Included in the controversy is the removal of any references to God as "Father," to Jesus as the "Son" or "the Son of God." One example of such a change can be seen in an Arabic version of the Gospel of Matthew produced and promoted by Frontiers and SIL. It changes Matthew 28:19 from this: "baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," to this: "cleanse them by water in the name of Allah, his Messiah and his Holy Spirit."

Hersman told CP that because of the controversy and Wycliffe's commitment to accuracy, they have allowed their translation practices to come under review by World Evangelical Alliance. The alliance has a panel of 13 members from different denominations and continents who met in November and will meet again in April for a final time.

"We've committed ahead of time to whatever they suggest and said we will submit to that. Our belief is that the work of translation is part of the Great Commission, which was given to the Church and we serve the Church, so if the Church says this is the way it needs to be done we will submit to whatever the church says," Hersman said. "We'd love to put this controversy to rest and we figured the way we would do it is to submit it to the Church."

The controversy has not slowed down the rate of translation projects at Wycliffe. Since a vision of Bible translation leaders 13 years ago to have the remaining 3,000 language groups be given Bible translations in their own languages by 2025, more than 1,000 languages have come off the list.

"This past year, for the first time in history, the number of languages that need translation has dropped below 2,000," Hersman said. "In fact, there are more languages that have a translation project going on today then there are those that need one. There are 2,075 Bible translation projects going on worldwide and only 1,967 languages still on the list of needing projects to start.

"So, that acceleration really started again in 1999 and what God did with vision 2025 is build into us a renewed sense of urgency that the Bible-less people out there have waited long enough."

The vast majority of Wycliffe's translators begin work with Greek and Hebrew text, he said.

"The translating work we do has been the same all along. It's been translating what God's intended meaning was. In another words it's not a word-for-word translation. It would be like the difference of someone picking up a King James version or picking up a New Living Translation version. The King James version follows the Greek text fairly literally in word order and everything [else] and consequently it can be challenging for a modern day English speaker to truly understand what the King James version is saying. Whereas, when someone picks up the New Living Translation, which also follows the Greek text in terms of its meaning but puts it into modern day English and into our English grammatical and syntax system, then it's much easier for us to understand," Hersman explains.

"So, we've always translated for meaning – being faithful to what God said in the original [text]."

Hersman said the question translators ask is, "What was God trying to communicate at the time He moved the writers to write this?"

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