42. Bible Translation as Theology

Bible Translation Shapes Faith

A missionary colleague phoned me up quite irate about a translation choice in the Sindhi NT1. A couple of Muslim friends had dropped in for a chat and asked him why Christians did not pray like Muslims by prostrating themselves to the ground. My colleague replied that the Bible speaks of worship in a spiritual sense without demanding a physical position. They pointed out that the Sindhi translation in Matt 2:2 and other places uses the word “sajado” where most English versions have “worship.” “Sajado” means to prostrate oneself in worship. I had to inform my colleague that the Sindhi translation was correct and the term in the Greek has a similar nuance to the Sindhi “sajado” indicating a physical position of prostration.

This seemingly insignificant example illustrates the function of translation in shaping and reinforcing the beliefs and practices of Christians. By obscuring the physical aspect understood by the original audience, the use of “worship” in English translations both reflects and reinforces current perspectives and assumptions about the relative unimportance of worship postures in the West. On the other hand, the NT use of “sajado” in a Muslim context may be influential in determining the assumed worship posture for an emerging church in the Sindh.

Old Wine and New Skins

Bible translations play a major role in shaping theological perspectives. In fact, if theology is understood as the way we express our belief in God, Bible translation is one way of doing theology. Ogden states that “Bible translation is a theological enterprise built on the incarnational model. It seeks to give flesh to the Word of God in a new cultural environment. It is a case of putting ‘old wine into new wine skins.'”2 The Bible is God’s revelation of himself and his will to a particular people within their cultural, historical and linguistic environment. This is the “old wine” of Ogden’s intriguing reversal of Jesus’ statement3. The “new wine skins” refers to the new translation that presents that “old wine” of God’s Word through the communication structures of a different cultural, historical and linguistic environment. Understandably, the choices made by the translators to accomplish this task have a great impact in shaping the theological perspective of the reader. Good translation is theology: foundational theology that enhances and facilitates the reflection of God’s revelation in a new context.

I have just begun checking the Sindhi translation of the Ecclesiastes. In 1:13 it reads in the RSV “it is an unhappy business that God as given to the sons of men to be busy with.” Our translators, following the meaning based translation of the GNT, wrote “God has placed within the fate of the children of Adam this great trouble that they should suffer.” While this is a very idiomatic and natural sounding translation (in Sindhi!), the theological implications of “fate” in the Islamic context of Pakistan makes this a choice that we will probably need to avoid. “Fate” in the mind of the Sindhi is incontrovertible and lacking any sense of human freedom. This is far stronger than the intention of the original writer who was simply commenting on his observation that in life human beings suffer.

The Dilemma of Translation as Theology

The realization that translation is theology presents a dilemma for the translators of the Scriptures. No language is value free. All the words of the receptor language that the translators must use carry cultural and historical baggage. These words provide a unique perspective on reality which does not allow for an untainted reflection of the language and culture of the biblical authors. Theological terms in particular have concepts and nuances tied to them that can be very different from biblical teaching. Nonetheless, if the translator is to communicate, these words cannot be avoided; the local language must be adopted as the medium of translation. The use of the Muslim Sindhi term for “God” will bring to the readers’ mind the transcendent King of Islamic theology without many of the characteristics of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Hindu Sindhi term for God, “Ishvar,” emphasizes God as creator without the assumption of being the personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet understanding the God of the Bible begin with the use of terms that provide approximate points of reference within the common framework of the hearers.

During my last trip to Pakistan in Feb-Mar 2006, we held a workshop to discuss translation decisions for our Hindu Sindhi NT translation. One difficulty that we have yet to resolve is appropriate terminology for “prophet” and “apostle”. Hindu theology does not contain these concepts and so there are no terms that even approximate these ideas. Our Hindu Sindhi helper suggested the word “Otar” which is the description of a spiritual being that has taken on human form. Our Christian helpers informed us that both terms are commonly translated in churches of Hindu background believers as “sant” which speaks of the character of the prophets and apostles as holy or pious people. Phrases such as “chosen by God to bring his message” (prophet) or “chosen by Jesus to preach the gospel” (apostle), are more accurate but so awkward in translation and everyday use that they would likely be substituted by a simpler term like “sant”. Whichever term we choose (and we will not be using “Otar”!) the theological perspective of the people concerning the function of prophets and apostles will be shaped accordingly.

Implications and Benefits

The implication of this translation dilemma is that no one language, whether English, Greek or Hebrew, can fully communicate God’s message to us: “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). Yet our conviction as Bible translators is that God’s word can be communicated sufficiently. At the same time, in cases when biblical concepts resonate well with the expressions of one particular culture – such as the significance of genealogies in some societies – a Bible translation in the language of that culture will provide greater clarity and relevance for those concepts. Together translations within a multitude of languages make up a mosaic of theology through which God continues to speak his message of reconciliation.

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  • (1) I was not involved in the original translation of the Sindhi NT. However, my work on the Sindhi OT translation required familiarity with the NT as well as overseeing the occasional revision.
  • (2) p. 312. Ogden G.S. “Translation as a Theologizing task” from The Bible Translator Vol. 53, No. 3 July 2002. pp 308-316.
  • (3) Jesus referred to his teaching as “new wine” which should not be placed within the “old wine skins” of the traditional teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. See Mt. 9:27
Mark Naylor

About Mark Naylor

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development
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