WRF Member Steve Taylor Comments on the SIL Statement on Best Practices in Translation
One point of clarification - the WRF has taken no official position regarding the issues raised by Steve Taylor and Phil. The matter of appropriate translation practices has never been formally addressed by the WRF. It may be addressed at some future point but, as of this date (April 5, 2012), the issue has not been officially addressed by any decision-making authority within the WRF. In fact, the only body within the WRF that can, according to our By-Laws, make formal doctrinal statements is the General Assembly of the WRF. The last such General Assembly met in 2010 and the next General Assembly is scheduled for 2014.
The World Reformed Fellowship
Here is Steve’s comment about the Statement:
It is important for WRF members to become acquainted with the SIL Statement. But it is equally important for them to understand it.
First of all, it was not meant to be a theological statement. It was apparent to me, as a participant in the August consultation held in Istanbul, that no one present was calling for a revision of foundational pieces of Christian theology-- there was no interest in such a project (but more about this below). Hence the Statement only briefly affirms the historic orthodox positions on the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus and proceeds to focus on the issue at hand: how to insure that translations produced for Muslim readers accurately and effectively convey the meaning of biblical texts, especially those texts that contain the phrase "son of God" or some variant of it.
It is important to stress that all of the SIL linguists present signed the Statement, indicating agreement with the translation practices enumerated. Most of the consultation participants from outside SIL (e.g., four members of the United Bible Society and two New Testament scholars, all who were there at the invitation and expense of SIL) also either signed it or expressed the conviction that these “Best Practices” would enable SIL to achieve its stated goals for these translation efforts.
Having said that, it was also clear that the Statement was drafted with the theological controversies, touched on by the February 4, 2011, Christianity Today article, in mind. Not only were the leading exponents of the opposing points of view within Wycliffe/SIL present, but also representatives of concerned sister organizations. The first two days of the consultation were spent getting all the issues and grievances on the table. I had the privilege of being in a smaller working group that included key intellectual leaders of the two opposing sides within Wycliffe/SIL and a theologian from an outside organization very worried about the Muslim Idiom Translation (MIT) effort. The discussions were cordial but very frank and spirited.
It soon became apparent to all in my group that there was no disagreement among us about the divinity of Jesus and the need to express that truth clearly in all translations. In fact, that was just the point: not how to mitigate the offense of an essential Christian truth for Muslims, but rather how to forestall an almost inevitable misunderstanding of biblical language on the part of Muslims—a misunderstanding that that is just as offensive to us as it is catastrophic to Muslim interest in the New Testament. So, for example, renderings of John's "I AM" passages or Thomas's confession "my Lord and my God" were not at issue; and the same could be said for the more Trinitarian passages in the epistles. No one was worried about the treatment of texts dealing with other items or doctrines contrary to Muslim beliefs, such as the crucifixion and death of Jesus, or Christ’s statement pronouncing all foods clean. There was not a hint of a suggestion that the gospel had to be made palatable to Muslims.
The area of disagreement involving translation, as I’ve said, was very narrow: how to handle the phrase “son of God” and its cognates. Eventually we were all able to see the complexity of the problem:
1) In closed Muslim countries or communities, people rarely come to Christ through the testimony and teaching of others; individual and often very private exposure to the Bible and the experience of vivid dreams play the key roles. In these contexts, the New Testament itself, not some message derived from it, plays the primary evangelistic role!
2) Because of the Qur’an and its pervasive impact on Muslim culture, Muslims tend to approach the text of the Bible with an initial respect but also with the same sort of simplistic and literalistic reading strategy they employ toward the Qur’an. Many Muslims, especially those who speak Arabic and who come from more conservative communities, have trouble conceiving of God using language the way humans do (i.e., using figures of speech, tropes, analogical language, etc.). Like Mohammed, these Muslims invariably understand son of God language in terms of biological procreation.
3) Thus, in many Muslim contexts, the Qur’an’s very specific and explicit anathemas against the mere utterance of the phrase “son of God” represent an almost insuperable barrier to Muslim readers of the New Testament. Upon encountering the first occurrence of that phrase in the sacred text itself, e.g., in Matthew 2 or 3, Mark 1, Luke 1 or John 1-- as their first and singular exposure to the Christian faith--, these Muslim readers fling the scriptures down in disgust, concluding that Christians are plotting their damnation rather than seeking their salvation.
4) Moreover, on the translator’s side, the phrase “son of God” and its cognates has an unfolding meaning in the Bible. Only in a minority of cases does that phrase directly denote the eternal identity of the Second Person of the Trinity. And New Testament writers themselves were sensitive to misunderstanding. Luke in particular avoided the phrase “son of God” in places where it might be misunderstood by Greco-Roman readers as a claim for Jesus paralleling claims for demi-gods like Hercules or for the Roman emperor (see how Luke paraphrases the centurion’s confession about Jesus—Luke 23:47 compared to Mark 15:39, Matt 27:54). In Acts, where Luke records numerous evangelistic sermons and incidences, the phrase appears only once, in a context in which its Jewish/Messianic sense is perfectly clear (Acts 9:19-22)—a usage that squares nicely with its use in Luke’s gospel. Apparently that phrase, so pregnant with deep theological and catechetical meaning, was not an essential term in the early church’s evangelistic vocabulary among Greco-Roman pagans. The truths it bore could either be delivered later, after conversion, or in other ways.
With similar sensitivity, the translators and scholars at the Istanbul Consultation wrestled hard with these complexities, trying to balance each against the other in a carefully considered translation methodology. Most of the elements of that methodology are not new. Wycliffe/SIL has long since moved away from the idea of “the Western translator as the expert.” The model, rather, is one of a team consisting of local, national translators assisted by a translation adviser or consultant. The team does the initial translation of a passage, and then the nationals on that team test the results with Christian nationals (if there are any) and with non-Christians. The passage is read and discussed in focus groups to find out what the audiences have understood. And then it is back to the table to try again or refine, etc. The goal is to achieve the highest possible comprehension of the message of the passage not the acceptance of the message of the passage.
The initiative to contextualize biblical language and to seek alternate, non-misleading renderings of any given passage actually arises from the nationals and the testing/verification process spoken of so frequently in the Statement, not from the western "linguistically trained" translator who may or may not have hidden theological agendas.
Likewise Wycliffe/SIL, along with other translation agencies, have long considered supporting information or “paratexts” to be essential parts of translations and been sensitive to the inherent limitations of any translation: a translation necessarily has a scopus, an intended audience and use and even shelf-life. What Wycliffe/SIL and others see a little more clearly now is that translation work in Muslim contexts needs to be even more sensitive to the interplay of text and paratext and even more precise in defining scopus. Muslim inquirers are likely to read only the “inspired text” at first—which is usually set off with a different font and borders. Through prolonged exposure to the text and to the One attested to in the text, the inquirer may seek further understanding of the text’s message in the paratext. But that prolonged exposure presupposes renderings that convey the true meaning and avoid preemptive and catastrophic misunderstanding of the message on the part of the intended reader. For this reason, then, translations (comprised of text and paratext) designed to introduce the Shia Muslim inquirer in southern Iraq to the Lord Jesus Christ, will not necessarily serve the didactic needs of the of historic Assyrian Christian community in the next town. The competing needs require carefully balancing and the different communities need to be consulted. All this and more the Istanbul Consultation considered and addressed.
As I left Istanbul, I was profoundly grateful to have been part of such a thoughtful and open process. Even as an outsider, I was certainly aware of unresolved issues: allegations that Wycliffe/SIL has not always been as transparent as it could be about Muslim idiom initiatives and worries that some SIL operatives hold deficient views on the Trinity (an allegation I spent some time looking into and could find no clear evidence for); but I left very confident that the godly folk that constitute Wycliffe/SIL have the wisdom, faith, and resolve to stay the course and to complete their piece of the Great Commission.
Here is the link to the SIL Statement:
WRF members who would like to pursue the linguistic and textual aspects of the issue in greater depth might do well to consult Mission Frontiers’ detailed yet concise treatment: