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.

13 thoughts on “Bible Translation Controversy: Languages

  1. Eddie, while I would generally want to thank you for the line you’re taking, I have to question your assertion that “Son of God” doesn’t appear in the Bible, which is true if you mean the English phrase (obviously), but seems to imply that a phrase using Greek words customarily translated “son” and “of God” doesn’t appear.

    I look forward to the rest of the series, especially if you have access to someone with Arabic competencies, but I would suspect that it might as a semitic language have as wide a range of uses of “son” as the Hebrew and Aramaic shown in the very non-English metaphor “sons of the wedding-hall” in Matt 9:15.

    Incidentally, precisely because it is not about Biblical translation, I strongly recommend David Bellos’ Is that a fish in your ear?” as an excellently thought-provoking reflection on translation.

    1. Thanks for this Doug. I had actually intended to follow on that phrase by putting the appropriate Greek phrase into the post to complete the thought. However, I got hung up on how to actually type in Greek text, then got distracted. The perils of starting a blog post before lunch and posting it aftwerwards. I’ve edited the text to clarify that issue now.

  2. You state: ‘“Son of God” never actually appears in the Bible – it only appears in English translations of the Bible.’

    Galatians 2:20 the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God

    This is properly translated as ‘the Son of God’ from the Greek. Several other examples could be presented as well.

    1. Interesting discussion about the new Hebrew translation. So many of these pros and cons are identical to those heard in the Christian discussion.
      One quote sums it up nicely for me, as I think it applies equally to certain Christian Bible translations: “… they misunderstand it without even realizing it!” and that’s the saddest part. They don’t know what they are missing.

  3. Eddie,

    I’m not a translator but I am a son of a translator, home schooled in the village, which only means that I am conversant with translation issues. It seems like you make it sound almost impossible for people to develop an analogy which they perhaps never used before, ie, son of the road, or son of the Nile. And yet it seems like you make it sound very possible to develop a term which “accurately captures the relationship between Jesus and the Father.” May I suggest that it might possible for people to develop an analogy and that it might very well be impossible to develop a term which carries all the richness of a relationship that a father and a son entails.


    1. I’m not sure what being conversant with translation issues means, Phil. If my children are anything to go by, being brought up by translators in a village completely fails to give any background knowledge of NT Greek, exegesis, relevance theory and the like!

      That being said, I’m not sure what you are saying that disagrees with what I have posted above. Yes, of course, it may be possible to develop the sort of analogy you are looking for (that is my first alternative). On the other hand, this may also prove impossible – hence the second alternative. The point is that these sorts of decisions need to be made locally, primarily by with the community who will be using the Scriptures (a subject I will be returning to in a later post).

      1. Eddie,
        Isn’t it also helpful to know Aramaic. Greek is also a translation for some of the books of the NT, is it not? I understand this to be true,
        “John wrote his Gospel in Aramaic because it was a widely-used spoken language and because John himself was fluent in Aramaic. John did not know Greek well enough to write his Gospel, as well as the Book of Revelation, in that language. John’s audience did not have Greek as their first and best spoken or written language. John wrote in Aramaic, not in Greek.”

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