Bible Translation for a Muslim Audience
It is virtually indisputable that the last great frontier of the world missions movement involves the various unreached peoples of Islam. It is equally clear that a necessary part of the labor involved in reaching these Muslim peoples is the translation of the bible into their own languages, so that they may read and understand it. But this is a much more complicated task than it might appear at first glance; for a typical Muslim is so conditioned by his culture and worldview that the merest hint of a variety of seemingly innocuous terms will immediately prevent him from even opening a book in which they may be found, let alone giving it an unbiased reading. Unfortunately, many of these terms have a well-established tradition in the Christian history of the major languages used by Muslims; and even in the smaller languages, the task of finding an equivalent for the terms of the original languages of the scriptures that is not needlessly offensive, but nevertheless communicates the proper idea, is quite a difficult one. These problems may not just be ignored. If Christ is ever going to have his worshipers among those people groups that are even today almost entirely Muslim, they must have access to an accurate and understandable version of the Bible. This involves both the revision or retranslation of the bible for a specifically Muslim audience in the major languages, and entirely new translations in the smaller languages.
The task of translating for a Muslim audience has unique difficulties, which other translators do not face, or at least not to the same extent. Not only are Muslims typically very antagonistic to Christianity and Christian doctrines and terms, but they also have very wrong conceptions about what Christians actually mean when they use certain terms and expressions. The point of a translation for a Muslim audience is not to eliminate the first type of opposition â€“ it is to get to the place where that type of opposition can actually occur! In other words, as long as Muslims are objecting to their misunderstandings of Christian doctrine, they will not be able to object to the truth of the gospel itself. It is inevitable that, when the gospel is understood, there will be some who object. But it is nothing short of a tragedy when the typical objections are based on misconceptions, or when the gospel is never even given a reading because it is packaged in a way that needlessly provokes emotionally-charged reactions.
In an area where Islam is largely nominal, 90% of these problems may be taken care of through superficial means. Putting a dark green cover with an Arabesque border on the translation (the Muslimâ€™s holy color), instead of the traditional black (the typical color of Orthodox Christianityâ€™s bible); calling it the â€œHoly Scripturesâ€ instead of the â€œBibleâ€; using Arabic spellings of names familiar to Muslims (e.g. Ibrakhim instead of Abraham); and other similar, inconsequential concessions can make worlds of difference in how a translation is received. In other places, to the extent that Islam is more aggressively followed, these changes become less effective.
Of course, these changes do not involve the actual translation of meaningful terms in the Bible. But in many contexts, some of the actual translation will have to be done with a Muslim audience in mind. This is the point at which many Evangelical Christians understandably become uneasy. They have grown to love the traditional terms and phrases, because they have associated them with the truths that they hold so dear; and they cannot help but think that a different translation involves a denial of truth, to some degree, for the sake of currying a wider readership. This is in fact a danger, but it is often misunderstood or exaggerated by well-meaning Christians. The point of a translation, after all, is not to follow tradition blindly (although tradition is not lightly to be dismissed, either), but rather to take the meaning which inhered in the original languages, and to make it understandable to a person who speaks a different language and has a different worldview. When tradition stands in the way of that goal, it cannot be followed with servile allegiance.
An exemplary case involves the translation into a certain language of the Greek word â€œto baptizeâ€. The traditional term in this language, which has been well accepted for hundreds of years, has the literal meaning â€œto genuflectâ€ (i.e. â€œto cross oneselfâ€), or â€œto christenâ€. It is also a term that Muslims despise. In a retranslation of the scriptures into this language, for a Muslim audience, this term will have to go, and a more literal, less offensive equivalent will have to be found. But the price is invariably some degree of skepticism from the national Christians who are well-established in traditional Christian terminology.
The most infamous of this kind of problem, and no doubt the most difficult to find a workable solution to, is the translation of the Greek phrase, â€œthe Son of Godâ€. This is one of the most volatile Christian phrases to a typical Muslim, who has always adhered fervently to the non-negotiable tenet of Islam, that â€œAllah has no son,â€ and who has been taught by the Koran and the mullahs that when the Christians say, â€œSon of God,â€ they mean to say that God had physical relations with Mary. Furthermore, any attempt to translate this term in any way other than strictly literal is often met with stiff opposition from Christians. To them, the title is a clear testimony to Jesusâ€™ deity, and any dynamic translation of it involves an implicit denial, or at least a minimization of Jesusâ€™ nature as very God.
Working Towards a Solution
The tension between the adamant opposition of the largely Western Church to any non-literal translation of the term â€œSon of Godâ€ and the translatorâ€™s desire to see the title understood, and not merely rejected because of an immediate, visceral reaction of the intended audience, may be alleviated in part by a couple of considerations: first, this title is not actually the clearest ascription of deity to the Christ that may be found in the New Testament. Biblical-theological scholarship of late has done much to shed light on the typical usage of this term in Jesusâ€™ day, as well as its Old Testament background. In many cases, it is the expected title of the heir of David, who would finally sit on his throne once again (cf., for example, Psalm 2:6-7; II Samuel 7:14); and hence, it has the basic semantical force of â€œDavidic (or Messianic) Kingâ€. Of course, this title also involved a subtle claim to deity, given what we know of the Messiah from the Old Testament, as Jesus himself hinted to the Pharisees (Matthew 22:41-46); but it was a claim that was too subtle for the clear majority of religious experts to realize. To them, Jesusâ€™ preferred Messianic title, â€œSon of Man,â€ having clear roots in Daniel 7:13-14, was a more overt claim to deity, and that which finally got him condemned for blasphemy (Matthew 26:64-65). It must be admitted, however, that certain contexts, particularly in the Gospel of John, demand a greater significance to the title â€œSon of Godâ€ than simply â€œMessianic King,â€ pointing as they do to Jesusâ€™ unique and eternal relationship with the Father. The second alleviating consideration is this: many of these translators are thoroughly Evangelical believers, holding firmly to such doctrines as the deity of Christ, and laboring, not to obscure this truth, but rather to proclaim it and make it understood by the people among whom they work. This in itself demands patience and understanding from the worldwide church.
What then are some practical ways to attempt to solve the difficulty? A variety have been tried to varying degrees of success, and none without problems. These include: 1) a strictly literal translation philosophy, which has the advantage of being technically correct; but the dual disadvantage of not being understood, and of utterly destroying the willingness of the target audience to read the translation. 2) A simple, one-for-one substitution of the phrase with a different term (e.g. Messiah) has been tried. This has the advantage that the audience is more willing to read it, but the disadvantage that it does not communicate precisely what the original languages communicate. To eliminate the possibility of correctly understanding all the nuances of so widespread and significant a term seems too steep a price to pay for a willing audience. 3) Instead of a simple substitution, an exegetical approach, which seeks to understand the implications of the term in every context and translate accordingly, may be tried. While more satisfactory than the former, this approach attempts a basically impossible task: the reason that â€œSon of God,â€ and not another term, was used in each biblical context is that, for whatever reason, that precise term conveyed the exact intent of the author. â€œSon of Godâ€ certainly may have strong overtones of â€œMessianic King,â€ but it still has a familial connotation that the suggested substitution lacks. This approach, while it does have its strengths, is still not entirely optimum. 4) An added qualifier to the literally translated term, perhaps in parentheses or italics, with the intention of combating the common misconception, is another possible approach (for example, â€œspiritual Son of Godâ€). This has the advantage of making the literal expression available, but has two possible disadvantages: first, it may not be a sufficient concession to make Muslims amenable to reading the translation â€“ for some of them, qualified or not, the term itself is simply not acceptable; and second, it may cause other problems, for instance, a diminishing of the importance of what it means to be Godâ€™s Son in the Messianic sense (e.g., â€œHeâ€™s not really the Son of God, just a â€œspiritualâ€ son like everyone else). However, in certain contexts, given a thorough knowledge of the culture and a meticulously chosen qualifier, this approach may have better results than any of the others. 5) The approach of either giving a literal translation in the text with footnotes and introductions which â€œexegeteâ€ the term, or a non-literal translation in the text with literal footnotes and introductions, is likewise a very valuable approach. Ideally, this will be used in conjunction with one of the approaches above (particularly in combination with number three, with which it gains an especial potency).
None of these approaches is a perfect solution; but to govern which might actually be employed with the best success, the ultimate goals of the translation must be kept in mind, and their relative importance must be prioritized. There are several goals which must be given a high priority in any translation, including: 1) Accuracy. No matter how inoffesive or how widely read a translation is, to the degree that it is not accurate, it is not accomplishing anything helpful. This basic point must always be kept in mind. 2) Understandability. Even if the translation is accurate, if it is not understood by the target audience, again, it is not accomplishing anything helpful. 3) Discipleship. If basic evangelism were the only goal, a translation which simply glossed over the difficult or controversial terms and topics might have a place. But the fact is, Christians do not just need to be born; they need to grow afterwards. And if their only translation provides the milk but strains out all the meat, they will not ultimately be healthy and well-developed. In major languages, there is often a more literal translation that young converts may eventually â€œgraduateâ€ to; but especially in languages that do not yet have the scriptures, the need for a translation which is substantially accurate enough to provide discipleship for new believers is imperative. 4) Universality. Just knowing the right doctrine is the main priority; but if doctrine is learned in such new and revolutionary terms that the traditional church does not recognize it, a young and needy church may be cut off from its desperately needed support from the worldwide body, because of a mere misunderstanding. To the extent that traditional terms may be kept, therefore, without jeopardizing the understanding of the target audience, it would be wise to do so.
The problem of bible translation for a Muslim audience, and in particular the difficulty which inheres in the phrase â€œSon of God,â€ is not a problem which has a simple answer. Nevertheless, the task is too vital not to engage in because it is not easy. None of these issues is ultimately insurmountable, as long as God is on his throne; and many servants have been raised up to labor in just such a difficult field. So how could the Western church come alongside these workers to assist and support them? I conclude with three suggestions.
First, be much in prayer. In this field, as in all other varieties of Kingdom-work, the task is too great for any man: God himself must build the house, or they labor in vain that build it. It is both our privilege and responsibility to partner with our brothers and sisters across the sea, sharing the burden with them in fervent intercession.
Second, the Eastern church needs doctrinal assistance from the West. The center of missional Christianity seems largely to have shifted to the far East â€“ but the church in those regions has not had the long history of doctrinal formulation and biblically-grounded scholarship that the West has had. Translators who know the national culture and feelings of target audiences, and who speak the languages as their mother tongues, must co-operate with exegetes who are familiar with the original languages of the scriptures, and have access to the wealth of resources available today. Inevitably, this will often involve a coming together of East and West for a common cause.
Third, do not immediately write off these translation teams as compromisers because they do not translate â€œSon of Godâ€ literally! Many of these teams are prayerfully seeking the best way to proclaim the same truths which you hold precious, and they need your assistance, not your reactionary critique. The reasons for how they are approaching their task are often too many and too subtle to be seen by a casual observer â€“ but they do have reasons, and legitimate reasons, for much of what they are doing. Seek to understand before you critique. Labor to improve, and not just to point out problems without any alternatives or solutions. In this way, we may all rise up together for the sake of the cause that cannot be stopped, in the service of the King whose dominion will never end!
P.S. I encourage any readers to follow the dialogue of the first several comments below. I would also like to clarify, first, that my own opinion is that the phrase "Son of God" should be translated literally, with explanatory footnotes, appendices, and other supplementary materials; and second, that my reason in publishing this article is to bring a difficult issue before the Reformed, Western church, so that they might be aware of the problems and give well thought-out suggestions. I would also like to confess that the article assumes too much with regard to the intended audience: the scriptures were written primarily for the people of God, and considerations of how the unevangelized may understand them, while not to be dismissed lightly, should in no way govern the way in which any part of them should be translated. Evangelism should be advanced through the explanations of the evangelist.