Wycliffe Bible Translators has been coming in for criticism of its translation for Muslim contexts where, in Arabic and Turkish translations of the Bible, the word “Father” is replaced with “Allah” (meaning God in Arabic), while “Son” becomes “Messiah”.
One example of this change in the text is in Matthew 28:19, where instead of “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” Wycliffe has “Cleanse them by water in the name of Allah, his Messiah and his Holy Spirit.”
Frontiers produced a Turkish translation of Matthew, distributed by SIL, that uses “guardian” for “Father” and “representative” or “proxy” for “Son”. SIL consulted on the Bengali Injil Sharif, which translated “Son” as “Messiah” and “Son of God” as “God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One”.
This is part of the “insider movement”, a spectrum of ways of evangelising in a Muslim context with, at one end, abandonment of Western externals (and having them sit on the floor, for example, rather than mandating pews – I would be highly in favour of such inculturation) to “Insider movement adherents urge Muslim converts to retain their Muslim “culture,” even continuing to call themselves Muslim, retain some Muslim practices, and remain in a mosque while acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord personally, and most likely privately. At its extreme, individuals within the movement have published translations of the Bible that 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.” The end of the Christian spectrum that has people “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour” without making any change in their lives concerns me.
Wycliffe and its affiliate SIL International first reacted (31.1.12) to the accusations of translation tampering with splutterings that information was erroneous, that they were not omitting or removing the familial terms, translated in English as “Son of God” or “Father,” from any Scripture translation. SIL called the accusations “falsehood”, “campaigns of misinformation”, and “erroneous”. However, as churches, theologians, and organisations pressed further, including with an online petition, Wycliffe has paused to examine the accusations and (7.2.12) writes:
Wycliffe USA is grateful to all those who have expressed their questions and concerns regarding reports that we have been removing “Father” and “Son” from certain Bible translations, particularly in Muslim cultures… While we have never intentionally sponsored a translation that neglects to properly communicate the divine familial terms, some observers have raised concerns about whether our methodology has consistently met our goal. … We are engaged in meaningful conversations with partner organizations, constituents, and church leaders to evaluate our standards, and expect to be prepared to issue a more complete statement soon.
So denial has been changed to the spin words of gratitude, intentionally, and meaningful conversations. SIL has similarly changed its tune, with its own set of spin words:
we recognize it is important to have a fuller dialogue with our many partners globally and benefit from their input to our approach in Scripture translation related to this issue. Since questions about our commitment to these translation principles have been raised, we will proactively engage to understand the concerns, clarify misunderstandings, and where indicated, adjust practice.
Therefore, SIL announces that as of today, February 6, 2012, in situations where we are involved and partnering with others in translation, and have the responsibility to do so, we will put on hold our approval of publication of translated Scripture around which this criticism is focused.
Two issues are highlighted for me. Inculturation – I think we have a long way to go on the journey of inculturation. Biblical translation – I am a strong advocate for multilingualism, for contact with the original biblical languages for all Christians, and for agility with them for the ordained. A translation of the Bible should be as accurate as possible – this includes being gender inclusive in the translation when the original is clearly intended to be gender inclusive (unlike, for example, the ESV). Translations should not alter the text to accord with a particular prejudice. Where there is ambiguity or uncertainty in the text, that needs to be presented (eg in clear footnotes). Cultural differences may need to be explained (again, possibly, in clear footnotes). How we respond and live with the Biblical texts is another issue – but let’s not be dishonest about the texts we have inherited.