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Wycliffe Bible Translators Adopts Panel's Ten Best Practices in Muslim Context Translation

( [email protected] ) May 01, 2013 08:12 AM EDT
Wycliffe Global Alliance and SIL International received last week ten recommendations from an independent panel organized by World Evangelical Alliance on their controversial Bible translation practices. They include interpretations for a Muslim context.
Photo shows the Koran on the left and Bible on the right.

Wycliffe Global Alliance and SIL International received last week ten recommendations from an independent panel organized by World Evangelical Alliance on their controversial Bible translation practices. They include interpretations for a Muslim context.

In one of the recommendations, the panel wrote in the statement “that there is significant potential for misunderstanding of the words for ‘father’ and ‘son” when applied to God, and that in languages shaped by Islamic cultures, the potential is especially acute and the misunderstandings likely to prove especially harmful to the reader’s comprehension of the gospel.”

About a year ago, Biblical Missiology created an online petition alleging that Wycliffe had eliminated familiar term describing God and Jesus in certain Arabic and Bengali translations of the Bible so as not to offend Muslim readers. The network of missionaries, linguists, theologians and global pastors demanded that Wycliffe stop replacing phrases such as “Son of God” with “Messiah of god” or “God the Father” with “guardian.”

In March 2012, the two translation ministries requested WEA to review as an independent panel their best practices in the translation of “God the Father” and “Son of God.”

“We’re grateful for the recommendations,” Wycliffe USA Chief Operations Officer Russ Hersman told The Christian Post. “They provide us with a very positive way forward. We’re looking forward to implementing the ten recommendations. We see the panel as having clarified the boundaries and given us clear expectations within those boundaries.”

The ten recommendations from the panel are below:

1. The WEA Panel (hereafter referred to as "Panel") recommends that when the words for "father" and "son" refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words always be translated with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients. In the case of languages that have multiple words for "father" and "son," translators should choose the most suitable words in light of the semantics of the target language. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.6, 1.5.1, 1.5.2, 3.2.)

2. The Panel recognizes that there is significant potential for misunderstanding of the words for "father" and "son" when applied to God, and that in languages shaped by Islamic cultures, the potential is especially acute and the misunderstandings likely to prove especially harmful to the reader's comprehension of the gospel. Therefore, in case of difficulties, the Panel recommends that translators consider the addition of qualifying words and/or phrases (explanatory adjectives, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, or similar modifiers) to the directly-translated words for "father" and "son," in order to avoid misunderstanding. For example, as the biblical context allows, the word for "father" might be rendered with the equivalent of "heavenly Father" when referring to God, and the word for "son" might be rendered with the equivalent of "divine Son," "eternal Son," or "heavenly Son" when referring to Jesus. The Panel also encourages translators to use paratextual material to clarify and avoid misunderstanding in these cases. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 1.5.4, 3.2.)

3. The Panel recognizes that the phrase for "Son of God" has varied nuances in its different New Testament contexts, especially in light of the Old Testament background to those contexts. In the case of most languages, the biblical context should enable the reader to discern the nuances of the phrase for "Son of God," and translators need not make adjustments to the translated text, although they may want to indicate nuances of meaning in paratextual material. But, when and if necessary, the Panel recommends that translators convey nuances of meaning from the biblical context in the translation through the addition of qualifying words and/or phrases (explanatory adjectives, relative clauses, or prepositional phrases). For example, the phrase for "Son of God" in a context of Messianic kingship might be rendered with the equivalent of "anointed Son of God" or "royal Son of God." (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.4, 0.7, 1.1, 1.5.4, 3.2.)

4. The panel recognizes that some of the disagreement over the translation of the word for "father" and the phrase for "Son of God" has resulted from overloading the translation by attempting to address too many possible meanings and misunderstandings. The panel recommends that in addition to translating Scripture, translators consider additional ways of communicating the message of Jesus to Muslim audiences. These can include such literary genres as tafsir (commentary), qusas al-anbiya (stories of the prophets), and sirah (life stories). But these should not be considered or presented as biblical translations unless they abide by the first three recommendations. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.7, 1.1, 1.5.1, 1.5.4, 4.1.1, 4.2.1-4.)

5. The Panel recommends that Wycliffe/SIL incorporate into the Best Practices statement guidelines related to ensuring that translators determine what context should serve as the controlling principle for the translation of divine familial terms, including:

a. Local testing of peoples' reactions to a translation, seeing to it that local expertise - exegetical, linguistic and historical - are at the outset part of the team in designing the feedback mechanism for testing reactions of the targeted group to translation of divine familial terms. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.4, 0.7, 1.1, 1.5.1, 1.6, 2.1.)

b. Enabling translation teams to account not only for the particular audience for whom the translation is being prepared, but also how to consider the impact on local groups with secondary exposure to the translation (overhearers such as existing local churches, close language groups, and so on). (This recommendation pertains to the Wycliffe/SIL Best Practices statement 0.4, 0.7, 1.1, 1.5.1, 1.6, 2.1.)

6. The Panel recommends that SIL incorporate into the Best Practices statement guidelines for the translation team on differentiating the translation of divine familial passages when the primary audience of the Bible translation is local believers versus when the primary audience is local unbelievers (including how to determine when this is necessary and how to accomplish it when it is deemed necessary). (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.7.)

7. The Panel recommends that SIL incorporate into the Best Practices statement guidelines on a process by which likely divine familial language controversies are to be handled and personnel held accountable for those translations where Wycliffe and/or SIL has a major stake. Especially for translations over which controversy is likely to ensue, the guidelines should:

a. Give the translation team a process to determine when Wycliffe and/or SIL might institute some type of "familial language audit group" (or other appropriate title) utilizing both internal (local believers/informed culture bearers who may or may not be Christians) and external (translation experts) resources. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 2.1.)

b. Address such things as the composition, task/limitations, and process of the "familial language audit group":

i. Composition: The Panel recommends that whenever possible the group should include local believers from a variety of perspectives and disciplines and also local experts who may not be believers but know the cultural and linguistic nuances of their mother tongue. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 1.6, 2.1.)

ii. Task/limitations: For example, the "familial language audit group" would focus their audit on the controversial familial language passages of the translation.

iii. Process: This would include how such audit groups might be constituted, how they determine their decisions, how they communicate the decision, Wycliffe and SIL policies on the public/confidential nature of any audit reports that are generated, and so on.

8. The Panel recommends that SIL incorporate into the Best Practices statement guidelines related to "ownership" of the translation. The Panel recognizes that each project is different and needs to be evaluated independently. Therefore the Panel recommends that Wycliffe and SIL add guidelines in these areas:

a. Negotiating the interests and demands of a) the end-users, b) believers in local contexts, c) scholarly and other relevant hermeneutical communities (including existing local church resources), d) patron donors behind the translation. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.4.)

b. The role(s) that foreign translators, missionaries and experts take in the process and choices made in translating familial language in the project.

c. Handling situations in which different groups in a single locality have different opinions on the familial language translation choices and determining the local hermeneutical community that best represents the target audience. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.7, 1.1, 1.6.)

d. Guide translation teams on handling questions concerning the relationship between foreign funding of translations and resulting demands on translation decisions and practices.

e. Establishing procedures that will ensure that the research on reception of the familial language translation actually reflects local understandings and asks the kinds of questions that will not skew the data towards researcher or patron community bias. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 0.4, 0.7, 1.1, 1.6.)

9. The Panel recommends that Wycliffe and SIL consider how to better publicly disclose translation decisions and considerations, including appropriate means of publicizing:

a. What Wycliffe and/or SIL has done regarding those translations for which Wycliffe and/or SIL was responsible but which have not followed the Best Practices and the Panel's recommendations. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 6.1.)

b. How Wycliffe/SIL will monitor compliance with the Best Practices statement and the Panel's recommendations. (This recommendation pertains to the Wycliffe/SIL Best Practices statement 6.1.)

10. The Panel recommends that Wycliffe and SIL work with an external group or agency (such as WEA) to establish policies and procedures of accountability related to the Best Practices statement and the Panel's recommendations including review by an external group or agency. (This recommendation pertains to the SIL Best Practices statement 6.1.)