Bible Translation Controversy: Languages

As I’ve mentioned more than once, languages are tricky things. Words and phrases slip and slide all over the place and end up meaning something very different to what you might imagine. Just think about the way the phrase “yeah, right” can turn through one hundred and eighty degrees just by a little shift in intonation.

This sort of thing makes translation very difficult; no matter how much you might want to, you can rarely translate word for word. Take this simple example between English and French.

I run Je cours
I run
The motor runs Le moteur marche
The motor walks
I run a company Je gère une entreprise
I manage a company
My nose runs Mon nez coule
My nose flows
I run an errand Je fais une commission
I do an errand


In this simple example, the English word run has to be translated by five different French verbs. I dread to think what a literal French translation of “my nose runs” would actually mean!

Things become even more complicated when you realise that words don’t just have simple dictionary definitions, they also have all sorts of emotional and other resonances which don’t match from language to language.

The recent Bible Translation Controversy has revolved around the question of the term “Son of God”.  Now, this is problematic because “Son of God” never actually appears in the Bible – it only appears in English translations of the Bible. The original actually says, υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ in the New Testament and something in Hebrew in the old. A future post will look at the problem of discussing this issue in English.  However, I don’t want to blog in Koine Greek, so we’ll stick to the language of Shakespeare for the moment.

In English, the word “son” can have a variety of meanings, including:

  • The male biological offspring of two parents.
  • A legal or social meaning as in “an adopted son”.
  • A social or familial meaning – my grandad used to call me son.
  • An extended social meaning as when a football fan calls out to a player “go on my son!”

English speakers use these different meanings without ever really thinking about them – that’s how language works. It is an interesting exercise to think through which of these, if any, we mean when we call Jesus the “Son” of God.

The Biblical languages, also have a wide range of meanings for their equivalent words for Son. James and John were called the sons of thunder. No one actually believed that thunder (or perhaps the God Thor!) was their father. The term is a figurative one, referring to their characters.

However, not all languages have a word son which can have this sort of breadth of meaning. In some cases, the word son has nothing more than a biological meaning; the male, physical offspring of two parents. In these cases, to call Jesus “the son of God” implies that God had sex with someone, presumably Mary, and that Jesus was the result this. Straight away, you can see all sorts of problems with this picture. It paints God as an immoral being, more like the gods of Greek or Hindu myth, than the Holy One of Scripture. Not only that, but Jesus ceases to be co-eternal with the Father and becomes a created being – albeit a special one – who appeared on the scene around two-thousand years ago. Anything further from the richness of the Trinitarian relationship between the biblical Father and Son would be hard to imagine.

In this sort of situation, Bible translators have two basic choices:

  • Use the ‘normal’ term for son, despite all of the problems and hope that over time Christian teaching will bring new meaning to the phrase.
  • Find another phrase which more accurately captures the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

This is a dilemma which no one takes lightly. Making the right decision involves a lot of time, prayer, discussion and lost sleep. In most cases, translators would go for the first option, perhaps adding a footnote or glossary entry which seeks to expand the meaning of the terms that are used. In some cases, however, this has proved impossible, and translation teams have had to find an alternative rendering which more accurately captures the biblical concepts. In these cases, it is normal to add a footnote which gives the word for word translation for the sake of completeness.

Decisions like these are never taken by expat translators alone, they always involve a long period of consultation with the people who will actually be using the Bible in the long run. It should come as no surprises to English Bible readers, that there is often disagreement over the final choices which are made, too.

So, do translations which seek to avoid wrong meaning by avoiding a word-for-word rendering remove or ‘excise’ the “Son of God” from the Bible, as they have been accused of doing?

Clearly the answer to this is no, they don’t. They seek, within the limits of human language, to express the deep and mysterious relationship of the Trinity. Just because certain words are not present, does not mean that the meaning is not present.

However, it is a fair question to ask whether this is the most appropriate way to approach translation. This is a really important question and the answer is likely to vary from context to context. Most of the languages we are talking about are unlikely to have the range of translations, with different strengths, that we have in English. Serious and sensible debate is needed about all Bible translation questions, especially one as delicate as this. Whether a blanket Internet campaign is a sensible way to conduct this dialogue is another question altogether – I will return to this in a later post.

Further Reading:

This blog post is a reworking of a longer piece which you can download as a pdf here. There is a detailed examination of the different meanings of the word son here.

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