25. Communicating a Christian view of Bible Translation

A High View of Scripture

Walk into any store in Pakistan and almost inevitably high up in a corner the Koran can be seen wrapped up in expensive cloth and covered in fresh rose petals.  Hand a copy of the Koran to a devout Muslim and they will kiss the book reverently and then place it over first one eye and then the other.  My wife, Karen, once observed a Sindhi woman reading the Koran.  The woman was running her fingers over the words and softly speaking under her breath.  Karen was surprised because she had understood this woman to be illiterate in her own language, and now she was reading ancient Arabic!  However, further inquiry disclosed the reality that the woman was not really reading the Arabic but quietly saying “Bismallah” (in the name of Allah) as she ran her fingers over the words.
This high view of holy Scripture is based on a belief that God’s word is not just in the message communicated, but is fundamentally and powerfully present in the very form in which it was originally given.  Thus the Koran, unlike the Bible in Christian understanding, can only exist in its original language.
As Christians we not only believe that the Bible can be translated into other languages, but we welcome a multiplicity of translations, believing that the original cannot be fully represented within one translation.  A number of translation styles and emphases allow the serious student of God’s word to explore passages in greater depth than what is possible when limited to only one version.

Validating the Christian View of Scripture

Unfortunately a variety of translations is a serious problem for Muslims.  The charge is that we have changed our Bible and the proof is in the “discrepancies” that can be readily seen between translations.  There are two possible responses to this charge.

1.  The first response is to attempt to present the Bible in the same light as the Koran – as the pure word of God “uncorrupted” by cultural influence. For example, in Pakistan there is only one Protestant translation of the Urdu Bible.  No other translation is permitted for fear that any discrepancies with the older translation will undermine the authority of God’s word.  Textual problems and verses whose translation is disputed are thus ignored and do not enter into discussion with Muslims.  If the question happens to be raised, the Urdu Bible is pointed to as authoritative, dismissing other interpretations as incorrect, without the need to reflect on its role as a translation.

The problem with this approach is that it is a false representation of the limitations of translation.  A translation never provides the full scope of the original text for two reasons: (1) the nuances and parameters of the original and receptor languages are never equivalent and (2) the cultural elements which provide the context for the modern reader’s understanding are far different than those of the original recipient of the text. While the original was inspired by God in word, form and meaning, a translation is always a human construct and is not only susceptible to human frailty and ignorance, but is limited by the lack of one to one correspondence between human languages and cultures.  While the word of God must be accepted by faith as true and authoritative, a translation should always be judged according to its ability and limitation in communicating the original message.

2.  The second approach, advocated here, is to engage Muslims in a process of education so that they might understand both the value and limitation of translations.  Unless people move past a mystical, superstitious view of the Bible to one of recognizing that it actually contains a message that can be understood in their own language and addresses them, they will not recognize the personal challenge and application.  As long as people distance themselves from Scripture by assuming that the blessing comes through a mystical relationship with the form of Scripture rather than through the comprehension and application of Scripture, they will not hear God speaking to them.

Rather than arguing for a “black and white” view of Scripture paralleling the Islamic view in which a translation is either “correct” or “corrupted,” a better approach is to promote the benefit of diversity in translation.  The following is the logic behind educating Muslims to understand the nature of God’s word in a way that recognizes both the value and limitations of translation.

Translation is Change

We first must admit that translation is change.  We cannot win the battle by proving that we have not “changed” the scriptures.  We have changed it – into another language.  We have changed the Scripture so that it is no longer hidden in Hebrew forms and words, but is revealed in the receptor language.  The argument needs to center on the issue of whether or not the original text – which remains unchanged – has been misrepresented or distorted.  When people can see that the meaning has not been distorted then they will be able appreciate the value of perceiving God’s word in a new form which a reader of the target audience can easily understand. 

Those who complain that we have distorted Scripture are making a comparison based on different assumptions.  Therefore their method of “proving” our culpability through the comparison of translations is easy to do because translations, by their very nature, are different.  Rather than pretending that all translations should be the same, we need to teach people the value of translation variety in order to gain the full message God has for us.  A prime example of this is the Septuagint (LXX), the early Greek translation of the Old Testament.  The New Testament uses LXX verses in ways that are not obvious in the original Hebrew.  For example, in Isaiah 7:14 the Hebrew word is a general description of a “young woman” which was translated as “virgin” in the LXX and taken by the New Testament author as a description of Jesus’ mother (see Mt 1:23). Rather than altering one or the other to make the meanings converge, both need to dealt with within their own settings to gain the full expression of God’s message. 

Openness is the Best Policy

Jesus said, “The truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32).  One application of that is in openly admitting the limitations of translation.  Once those limitations are acknowledged as parameters for studying God’s word, the benefits of the variety found in translation become obvious.  Rather than hiding passages where form has given way to meaning for the sake of clarity and ease of understanding – such as the chart format used by the TEV (see for e.g. Num 7) – these need to be paraded as examples of appropriate and alternative representations of God’s word.  Such passages teach that God’s message can be communicated in a multitude of forms in a multitude of cultures precisely because it contains a message that is valid for all people.  The original message was given within Hebrew or Greek cultural forms.  Translation attempts to repack these in the forms of another language in ways that facilitate communication.

Muslims are not incapable of understanding and appreciating this approach.  In fact, because most live within a multi-lingual context, they can understand this better than many westerners who are monolingual. Most Sindhis, the people group for whom we are translating the Bible, can move effortlessly between three or four languages.  A simple example can help Sindhis grasp the purpose of this translation and appreciate it by asking them to translate the English word “love” (a word which all understand). Some will reply with one Sindhi word, some with another.  They are all correct because there is no right or wrong in the form as long as the meaning is correct. Such simple examples help people value what has been accomplished through translation.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

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