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translating Father & Son

Archbishop CranmerIn a response to my recent blog post I was accused of possibly furthering the work of Satan because I sought, as much as possible, that in translation of the Bible it be done as accurately as possible.

I think the discussion is worth another couple of posts.

If you are new to the issue, in brief summary – there is the accusation that Wycliffe Translators and other “translations of the Bible remove phrases supposedly offensive to Muslims, like “Son of God,” which some Muslims claim is offensive because it insinuates that God had sex with Mary to create Jesus.”

One of the best responses to the criticism of is provided by the “Archbishop Cranmer” blogger. He is quite correct that

One of the problems (if not the principal one) is that the sound-bite ‘Wycliffe have removed the Son of God from the Bible’ is a much easier message to impart than a nuanced discussion about the nature of the Trinity, the vagaries of language and the imprecision of meaning. There are complex and legitimate questions to be asked about the way in which terms such as the ‘Son of God’ are translated in some contexts. These cannot easily be discussed on febrile blogs or in 140-character tweets.

He claims agility in the biblical languages and the post bears this out. Certainly a significant problem is that many people have no idea of the issues involved in translation [What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English/American/Kiwi]. And even those who may be competent, say, in a couple of contemporary European languages may not realise the complexities and differences in the mindset of the Biblical languages.

“Cranmer” makes many points, and I encourage the interested reader to read the post in its entirety, but I see the core of it in

To be a father in English may be understood both biologically (imparting DNA) and socially (in nurture). In some cultures, it may refer only to the biological. We may use the term ‘step father’ to denote a non-biological father, but as our own society has developed, the ‘step’ is increasingly discarded. We may similarly observe two categories of son. When it comes to New Testament Greek, huios is translated ‘son’ in English; the Old Testament ben is similarly rendered. Neither term carries an automatic assumption of biological procreation: indeed, they are frequently used of sonship in the social sense, as is the English ‘son’. But what of languages which cannot distinguish the DNA-begat son from the adoptive-social son? This is not as straightforward as ‘dynamic’ versus ‘literal’: the important thing to grasp is that the scriptures in their original languages do not contain the words ‘Father’ and ‘Son’: they have huios and , and patêr and âb. Words which have the same semantic range as these words in English simply may not exist in other host languages which is why translation is fraught with difficulties.

Firstly, I think there is more going on in the scriptures and the surrounding cultures in which the original languages were understood than these two concepts of Son being biological and/or nurtured. Son also includes “being like”, it can even be used for sparks from fire; there are overtones about obedience; it leads to theological reflections on theosis (divinisation); and much more…

Secondly, and the central point of this response, and I can assure you (lifting a phrase from “Cranmer”) that I am “really quite knowledgeable on such matters”, a very, very significant number of people when they hear Christians speaking of God being the Father of Jesus, and Jesus being the Son of God (in English), they mishear this as a biological statement and they immediately connect it to the story of the Virgin Birth. Just as when a significant number of people hear language about “believing in Jesus” they understand this to mean a conviction that Jesus was a historical person in contradistinction to people who do not “believe in Jesus” who, they think, thereby are claiming uncertainty about Jesus’ historicity.

To consistently follow “Cranmer’s” argument, then, would mean that we should have contemporary English translations that abandon Father and Son language not for some politically correct gender-neutralising of the text, but because of the very misunderstanding that “Cranmer” clarifies the original Greek avoids. It would mean altering “believe in Jesus” in the Bible, because it is misunderstood as making Jesus’ historicity open to question and a matter of historical dispute.

Finally, supposedly to reassure us, “Cranmer” highlights that “all Wycliffe workers are required to sign an orthodox confession of faith; they believe unequivocally that the Son is begotten of the Father and conceived by the Spirit.” This, for me, is no assurance of accuracy of translation. I would be wary of translations where certain doctrinal positions could outweigh translation decisions. In the quoted confession of faith, such a full-fledged Chalecedonian belief (however much I firmly adhere to it) should not be allowed to obscure the original Christology of the text, however crude or nascent it might appear, and however much it could be reworked into its full-fledged derivative. I think I would rather an accurate translation by a sympathetic, even-handed atheist with deep scholarship than one by a devout Christian with poorer scholarship who had signed up to an organisation’s particular doctrinal standard.

[Update: there is a further post on this theme: Leave the Bible alone]

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7 Responses to translating Father & Son

  1. I suspect all translations of scripture have a political and cultural subtext. Part of the power of a language is how it is encoded with a variety of meanings. Ask any poet!

    • Thanks, Mike. There is much lost in translation – hence the value of learning (about) original languages. And, hence, the great care that needs to be taken when translating. So many nuances are lost in some scriptural translations – in these only one interpretation prevails: that of the “translator”. I will be doing another post on this theme and picking up some of this. Blessings.

  2. These posts are going to be interesting to watch, Bosco. Tricky business! I quite like His Grace’s observation that the (English) words “Father” and “Son” are not in the text. (You no doubt know the old joke about the parishioner who prefers the King James Version because “If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”)

    Just the other day I was trying (and apparently failing) to explain to someone the important distinction between the titles “Son of God” and “God the Son”.

    If I’ve understood this correctly, the former is primarily an OT Messianic title that has nothing to do with biology; and the latter is primarily a post-biblical Christological/Trinitarian title (via the Johannine “the Son”) that, again, has nothing to do with biology. (There’s a really helpful treatment of this in Joseph Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity”, pp. 216-28.)

    My interlocutor, a cradle Anglican (to whom I happen to be married), looked at me like I was insane. The subject came up when I overheard her exclaim, in frustration, “Mother of God!”, which prompted me to applaud her anti-Nestorian orthodoxy. Come to think of it, the title Theotokos must be at least partly biological… 🙂

  3. Much of my personal theology is based on my familial relationship with the Trinity. So I must confess some discomfort over the removal of those phrases offensive to Muslims.

    Yet, did not Paul say that he was willing to become all things to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ? And the gospel account of Pontus Polite seems to be written not to offend Gentile readers. And the early Christians remained members of the Synagogue as long as possible.

    If the text wins new converts from Islam, great! Christianity’s aim is not to keep it follower happy but to reach out to those outside the faith. If Wycliffe and SIL need to use different words to say the same thing, I am going to have to understand. The use of dynamic equivalence in translation has been a long held tradition. Otherwise, we would still be talking about the deep bowls of love!

  4. Good explanation: in some languages ( I speak 6 languages) a key from a lock is called: the son of the lock! Another one: A real Malay moslim is called a Bumiputra (lit.: a son of the earth) to distinguish a ‘real Malay from a Chinese Malay. Every one there understands that the earth doesn’t have sons but that it means that the person really belongs to the earth.
    Just like the famous Boanerges: Sons of thunder … in the NT, didn’t have ‘ thunder’ as their father, but apperently were thunderous in nature… to say the least.
    Interesting things versus our direct Western thinking. The Eastern cultures are a lot richer in use of language and meaning, not even mentioning here the Hebrew meaning of Targum….., but that would also be worth to discuss….
    Thanks everyone for the nicer tone of discussion on this website!

    • Thanks, Jacob, for your visit and very helpful comment. I especially appreciate that, even in controversial threads, you are seeing that there is a respectful culture in the community around this site. Blessings.

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