by Steve Doty
MY PURPOSE IN WRITING THIS ARTICLE is to assist both translators and non-translators in understanding the proper and traditional application of meaning-based translation principles to the translation of ‘Son of God’ and ‘God the Father.’
MY PURPOSE IN WRITING THIS ARTICLE is to assist both translators and non-translators in understanding the proper and traditional application of meaning-based translation principles to the translation of ‘Son of God’ and ‘God the Father.’ While meaning-based translation principles have been cited by some as the reason for adopting the non-traditional translations which have provoked much controversy, I believe it can be demonstrated that those translations were not following meaning-based translation principles, as intended by the architects of this approach to translation, namely Eugene Nida, John Beekman, and John Callow.
It is generally acknowledged that there are four qualities of a good translation—accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and acceptability. In this article, I briefly describe these qualities and show the kinds of problems that result when a translation fails to achieve one or more of these qualities.
What I refer to in this article as ‘meaning-based translation’ is one of the current names of an approach to translation first articulated by Martin Luther (Luther 1531, 189). Eugene Nida, formerly of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL, and later with the American Bible Society, developed detailed principles for translating the Bible. He called his approach Dynamic Equivalence. However, he later changed the name of his approach to Functional Equivalence when he realized that some translators were going beyond the bounds that he taught (de Waard and Nida 1986, vii-viii).
SIL’s translation textbook, Translating the Word of God, explained the same approach for an SIL audience, calling it Idiomatic Translation (Beekman and Callow 1974). The current name for this approach is Meaning-based Translation, but it follows the same essential principles as Nida’s approach.
Over the years, this approach has sometimes experienced unfounded criticism when those with a wrong understanding of it have produced misguided translations which were then called out. For example, this approach has been criticized for translating ‘lamb of God’ as ‘seal of God’ (Gentzler 2001, 59). However, Nida wrote,
The story has been widely circulated that the word ‘seal’ was used for sheep in one of the Eskimo translations. This is an intriguing story but without foundation in actual fact. A baby seal might be considered parallel to a lamb as far as general attractiveness and reputed ‘innocence’ is concerned, but after these features the parallel stops. Such an adaptation would be completely unsatisfactory. (1961, 136)
Nida’s point is that translations should not make such substitutions for key terms in the Bible, although for figures of speech such as ‘white as snow,’ such substitutions are sometimes allowable.
Accuracy. Accuracy is the most important quality of a good translation. An accurate translation is one that conveys the same meaning as the original, or at least it tries to get as close as possible to what has been identified as the main intended meaning. There are basically three ways in which a translation can be inaccurate—it can add meaning that was not intended in the original, it can omit meaning that the original author intended, or it can change the original meaning to something else.
In my experience checking vernacular translations of the Bible, one of the most common errors is omitting part of the meaning. Every verse has so many small facets of meaning that it’s very easy to inadvertently leave something out. One of the reasons translation teams are encouraged to compare their translation to a reliable major-language version is to double check that no meaning has been omitted.
Another very common error is inadvertently changing some of the meaning. For example, I recently checked a translation in which the original word meaning ‘opposed’ was translated as ‘persecuted.’ I questioned whether these two ideas were really equivalent. The general problem is that finding exact equivalents across languages is very challenging, especially where the concept is unknown in the receptor language culture. Yet, difficult as it may be, the translator strives to find the closest equivalent possible to convey the same meaning.
One of the principles that guided translators toward accurate translation had to do with expressions which had thematic value in the Bible. Nida wrote,
No translation that attempts to bridge a wide cultural gap can hope to eliminate all traces of foreign setting. For example, in Bible translating it is quite impossible to remove such foreign ‘objects’ as Pharisees, Sadducees, Solomon’s temple, cities of refuge, or such Biblical themes as anointing, adulterous generations, living sacrifice, and Lamb of God, for these expressions are deeply imbedded in the very thought structure of the message. (1964, 167, original italics)
Thus, meaning-based translation teaches that important themes of the Bible should be retained and not substituted, as John Beekman and John Callow confirmed:
There are certain metaphors, however, where other considerations are more important for the translator than a decision as to whether a given figure is live or dead. These metaphors may be considered as representing a thematic image, that is to say, one that is quite widely used in the Bible by a number of authors, and which has become part of general Christian vocabulary. Examples are the images of ‘light’ and ‘the body of Christ.’ In the case of such thematic images, the image is to be retained in the translation. (Beekman and Callow 1974, 137)
The principle is based on the fact that certain ideas in the Bible are so basic to its essential message that they must not be substituted. Furthermore, their thematic meaning is not based on only one occurrence, but is reinforced by a consistent association with other occurrences in the Bible. For example, Jesus compared our heavenly Father to earthly fathers (Luke 11:11-13), and this connection and meaning would be diminished if different words were used to refer to God the Father and earthly fathers.
Clarity. A good translation will make the meaning as clear as possible—that is, it will not be confusing or ambiguous. People will not read the translation and wonder what it means. An unclear translation will cause people to misunderstand. For example, readers of an unclear translation might wonder, “Was Jesus talking about himself or someone else?”
Or readers will wonder, “Was Paul serious when he called those people ‘super-apostles’ in 2 Corinthians 11:5?” An unclear translation will cause people to guess the wrong meaning. A good meaning-based translation will be clear to those who use it.
One of the most common adjustments translators make to increase the clarity of a translation is to change pronouns into proper names or noun phrases. For example, Jesus is referred to many times in the New Testament simply with the pronoun ‘He.’ When such references occur at the beginning of a chapter, most translators adjust this reference to ‘Jesus.’ Another common adjustment made to increase clarity is to use simple words rather than borrowed words that only a few people understand. For example, ‘Levite’ is translated as ‘temple assistant’ in the New Living Translation.
One of the ways translators make sure their translations are clear is by testing them with average readers in the community. A translator might have someone read a section and then ask that person to paraphrase it in his or her own words. Or a translator might even ask a reader specific questions to check that the correct meaning is understood. Places where the wrong meaning is understood may need to be adjusted.
Naturalness. A good translation will be natural and will not sound like a translation at all. Readers will think that it sounds like it was originally written in the receptor language. Every language has natural patterns that make it sound beautiful. An unnatural translation will sound stilted and be hard to understand. People will not enjoy reading an unnatural translation, and they will quit reading or listening to it very quickly. A translator should try to make the translation as natural as possible so that people will enjoy using it and will readily understand the meaning.
Acceptability. Traditionally, meaning-based translation acknowledged only the three aforementioned qualities of a good translation: accuracy, clarity, and naturalness. However, in the 1980s, a number of Bible translators began pointing out how important acceptability was in Bible translation (see Nida 1981, Barnwell 1986, Andersen 1998, Gutt 1998, Larsen 2001, Gross 2003).
An underlying assumption of acceptability as a quality in Bible translation is that it is other Christians who are the judge of acceptability. If the Church considers a translation unacceptable, it will not promote its use for evangelism or Christian growth. The idea of acceptability is not to adjust the translation in such a way that it would be acceptable to a non-Christian audience, but unacceptable to a Christian audience.
The translation, after all, is being undertaken by the Global Church. Thus, the Church will not support any translation which it deems unacceptable. An example of the Church judging a translation to be unacceptable was the severe criticism the Today’s English Version received in its first edition in 1966 (Good News for Modern Man) (Moser 1970; Orlinsky and Bratcher 1991).
Although there were several controversies surrounding this translation, one of the most heated was about the way the TEV translated ‘blood’ in verses like Colossians 1:20. The thematic value of blood was very important to these critics, who cited such passages as Leviticus 17:11 and Hebrews 9:22 to show the importance of the blood that Jesus shed when he died as a sacrifice for people’s sins.
Although Nida wrote a vigorous defense of the TEV’s rendering of ‘blood’ with ‘death’ (Nida 1977), the American Bible Society changed the TEV in later editions to retain the word ‘blood’ with a footnote explaining its meaning as representing the sacrificial death of Jesus. This example is very telling, since it showed a large Bible translation organization adjusting its major language translation because many Christians found it unacceptable.
Recent Controversy Regarding Divine Familial Terms
There has been a great deal of controversy regarding how to translate ‘Son of God’ when referring to Jesus, and the term ‘Father’ when referring to God. I believe that the controversy can be understood better by examining how such renderings relate to the four qualities of a good translation.
First and foremost is the quality of accuracy. Experimental translations have been severely criticized for not using common father-son terms when referring to the relationship between God and Jesus. The common terms include a biological factor that implies sexual procreation, which obviously does not apply to Jesus. The translators of these experimental versions have used alternative terms that may not imply any biological/sexual component.
The problem with non-common father-son terms is that they may omit the crucial meaning that Jesus was of the same divine nature or essence as God (as can be seen in such verses as John 5:17-18, John 10:30-33, and Heb.1:3).
The following quotations reflect the common interpretation that ‘Son of God’ implies a shared nature or essence with God the Father:
• “In John, the nature of Jesus’ deity is profoundly and repeatedly tied to the exposition of his sonship …” (Carson 1991, 663).
• “Jesus was not teaching that God is the Father of all. The Jews would have accepted that. His claim meant that God was his Father in a special sense. He was claiming that he partook of the same nature as his Father” (Morris 1971, 309).
• “As the Son, he is the very expression of the Father, because ‘he shares the essence and nature of that one living and true God’” (Bruce 1986, 159).
• “In John sonship ‘expresses the unity of nature, close fellowship, and unique intimacy between Jesus and the Father’” (Tenny 1981, 196).
Translations which omit the meaning that Jesus shared God the Father’s divine nature are inaccurate. The obvious meaning of such passages as Luke 1:35 (“The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’”) is that God is the Father of Jesus not through a sexual act, but through a divine miracle.
Translations which do not use the normal terms for ‘father’ and ‘son’ are inaccurate if the substitute terms do not include the meaning that the Father and Son are of the same nature or essence. For example, some experimental translations have tried using terms which are back translated into English as ‘one and only’ or ‘only beloved’ because the translators say that these terms imply ‘son.’ One problem with such translations is that if they do actually mean ‘biological son,’ they will be rejected for the same reason as the common term ‘son’ is rejected by people who are offended by the idea and say that it implies a sexual act between God and Mary. On the other hand, if these alternative terms do not imply the same divine nature or essence, then they fail in terms of accuracy. They also fail in terms of the other qualities of a good translation, as will be pointed out below.
Furthermore, such translations violate the thematic principle of accuracy. The father-son relationship between God and Jesus is expressed over three hundred times in the Bible. One of the principles of meaning-based translation mentioned earlier in this article is that such ideas are thematic and thus, even if they were figurative, they need to be retained and not substituted.
For example, the fullest meaning of the passage about Abraham almost sacrificing his son (Gen. 22) can only be understood if the same father-son terms are used to refer to God and Jesus as are used to refer to Abraham and Isaac. Likewise, the parable of the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). Translations that eliminate or obscure the father-son relationship between God and Jesus obscure important thematic links of scripture. Substitutions such as ‘Messiah of God’ for ‘Son of God’ or ‘Lord’ or ‘Guardian’ for ‘God the Father’ fail to express the father-son relationship between God and Jesus. Since ‘Son of God’ and ‘God the Father’ are thematic in the New Testament, any such substitutes are inaccurate.
Non-common terms may also be unclear. Translations which attempt to avoid the normal, biological father-son terms may cause readers to wonder what is being meant. For example, even a rendering such as ‘Son from God,’ while including the correct word for ‘son,’ may be unclear because it obscures (intentionally) the father-son relationship. It may cause readers to wonder what the meaning is. Father-son terms are based on an association; they are not independent ideas like ‘house’ or ‘tree.’ What would be the reciprocal term for ‘Son from God’ that would be used to express ‘Father?’ Would it be ‘the one who sent the Son?’ Or would it be ‘the Father who sent Jesus?’ The problem with such renderings is that to the extent that they obscure the father-son relationship between God and Jesus, they also confuse the meaning, thus failing to be clear.
Non-common terms may also be unnatural. Every language in the world has a natural way of expressing the father-son relationship. If a translator invents a new way of expressing this, it may sound stilted and foreign. Readers may stumble when they read such a passage, and listeners may lose interest when they hear it because it is confusing.
Finally, such experimental translations have proven to be unacceptable to the Global Church. The outrage that Christians have expressed all over the world in recent years at such translations was predictable if translators considered the history of Bible translation. TEV’s rendering of ‘blood’ is a good example that would have predicted the firestorm of criticism for experimental translations of divine father-son terms. Translators must make the Church (both local and global) the arbiters of what makes for acceptable translation. To do otherwise would be to err and fail to serve the Church.
I have attempted to show that renderings for ‘Son of God’ and ‘God the Father’ in some languages have seriously departed from the basic principles of meaning-based translation rather than being guided by these principles. The effect of these errors is very serious, despite the well-intentioned effort of Christians sincerely trying to communicate the gospel to diverse audiences. Rather, when followed well, those principles of meaning-based translation would have led to translations which were accurate, clear, and natural, as well as acceptable to the Church.
Andersen, T. David. 1998. “Perceived Authenticity: The Fourth Criterion of a Good Translation.” Notes on Translation 12(3):1-13.
Barnwell, Katherine. 1986. Bible Translation: An Introductory Course in Translation Principles. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Beekman, John and John C. Callow. 1974. Translating the Word of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Bruce, F. F. 1986. Jesus: Lord and Savior. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Carson, Donald A. 1991. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
De Waard, Jan and Eugene Nida. 1986. From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.
Gentzler, Edwin. 2001. Contemporary Translation Theories. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.
Gross, Carl. 2003. “Acceptability—The Supreme Translation Principle?” The Bible Translator 54(4): 424-434.
Gutt, Ernst-August. 1988. “From Translation to Effective Communication.” Notes on Translation 2(1):24-40.
Larsen, Iver. 2001. “The Fourth Criterion of a Good Translation.” Notes on Translation 15(1):40-53.
Luther, Martin. 1531. Defense of Translation of Psalms. Trans. T. Bachmann, ed. T. Bachmann. Vol. 35, Luther’s Works. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg.
Morris, Leon. 1971. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Moser, M L Jr. 1970. Good News for Modern Man: The Devil’s Masterpiece. Little Rock, Ark.: Challenge.
Nida, Eugene A. 1961. Bible Translating: An Analysis of Principles and Procedures, with Special Reference to Aboriginal Languages. New York: American Bible Society.
———. 1964. Toward a Science of Translating with Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating. Leiden: Brill.
———. 1977. Good News for Everyone. Waco, Tex.: Word.
Nida, Eugene A and William D. Reyburn. 1981. Meaning Across Cultures. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Orlinsky, Harry M and Robert G. Bratcher. 1991. The History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution. Atlanta: The Society of Biblical Literature.
Tenney, Merrill C.1981. The Gospel of John. Vol. 9 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
. . . .
Steve Doty has a BA in Architecture, an MA in Linguistics, and a PhD in Translation Studies. He has served with Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL as a translator, trainer, consultant, and administrator in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 130-137. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. There are occasions when the four qualities of a good translation conflict with each other, and the translation team must decide which is most important and which can be compromised a bit. Which quality do you think is the most important and should not be compromised?
2. What do you believe is the meaning of ‘Son of God,’ and what do you base this on?
3. How important do you think it is that Christians acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?