Smoke, Mirrors, and Misdirection in Bible Translation

rabbit in the hatIncreasingly ‘Allah’ is being used as a word for ‘God’ in non-Semitic language bible translations produced by organizations like Wycliffe, Frontiers, and others and this has raised concerns with the local churches where these translations are being introduced, missionaries who work with these churches, and other bible translators who are concerned about the legitimacy of these new translations. These new Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) are being produced in languages like Amharic, Russian, Persian, etc… that have used other words for God for centuries. In these languages, the use of ‘Allah’ as a word for ‘God’ is a foreign concept ; in these cultures they understand ‘Allah’ much as we do in English i.e. as a name of the Islamic God. In many of these cultures the Christian community has had a very long history of bible translation in which the native word for ‘God’ in their language has been used for centuries. In these cultures, the introduction of a bible that replaces the word ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ is as offensive as it would be if the bibles we read in English made such a replacement. For more information on the use of ‘Allah’ as a name for ‘God’ please read this article.

 

Here is the Story told

Frequently missionaries who support the use of ‘Allah’ in non-Semitic languages will point to the Frontiers Turkish translation as an example of a non-Semitic language that legitimately uses the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’. And they are right, Turkish is one of the unique cases where ‘Allah’ can legitimately be used in a non-Semitic bible translation. In the Missions Perspective coarse I took, the session that addressed the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian missions and bible translation presented such an argument. The story we were told in class went something like this:

Well meaning, but misguided, missionaries insisted that the Turkish word ‘Tanri’ be used in bible translations despite the fact that ‘Allah’ was the word that the culture understood as the legitimate word for ‘God.’ These misguided missionaries did not understood is that the word ‘Tanri’ was the word used by the Turkish people to describe a ‘little god’ and not the ‘Supreme God’ and their mistake in choosing the wrong word caused the bible to be misunderstood and largely rejected by the Turkish people. Frontiers came to the rescue with a new bible translation resolved this problem by introducing the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’ allowing the non-Christian Turkish people to understand the message of the bible for the first time. Unfortunately the existing Christian church in Turkey, who no longer understood how ‘Tanri’ was understood by the larger culture, was angered by this new translation and its use of the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ and has been fighting against using the very terminology that allows the larger culture to finally be able to understand the message God intended.

The story presented in my Missions Perspective class is a great story and one that is often repeated but, unfortunately, it is mostly smoke, mirrors, and misdirection intended to deceive. Prior to taking the Missions Perspectives course I had had a number of discussions with bible translators about the Frontiers Turkish bible translation and because of those discussions I had  taken a little time to study the history of Turkish bible translation. Because of this background I knew that the dispute in Turkey in regards to the new Turkish bible produced by Frontiers has never been about the use of ‘Allah’ as the word for ‘God.’ What troubled the Turkish church were the terms used for familial language i.e. calling Jesus the “representative of God” instead of the “Son of God” and calling God “Guardian” rather than “Father.” In Turkish ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are truly considered synonymous word for ‘God.’ Within the Christian church today, older bibles use ‘Allah’ and newer bibles, because of the language reforms, use ‘Tanri’ and the use of ‘Allah’ has never been a significant issue within the Turkish church. The dispute has been entirely about the translation of familial language which until the introduction of the Frontiers version, has been translated consistently in every bible translation including the original Muslim produced translations from the 17th and 18th century. Here is the responses to the Frontiers Translation from the Turkish alliance of Protestant Churches and  the response from Thomas Cosmades (One of the most respected scholars in Turkey and translator of a Turkish NT). Note that in neither letter is the use of Allah in Turkish in dispute.

 

Here is what really happened
Because Turkish (which was originally written in the Arabic Script) was very heavily influenced by Arabic and Islamic culture, the Turkish language presents an unusual case where a non-Semitic language has truly adopted ‘allah’ as a generic word for ‘god.’ The first Turkish translations of the bible were produced by Muslims in the 17th century and were produced for Muslim audiences; these translations used the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God.’ Christians began using these translations centuries ago and continued to use them until new terminology was adopted as a result of the Turkish language reforms of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These language reforms were not driven by Christian missionaries but by the predominantly Muslim Turkish Government. In the late 1920’s Mustafa Kemal, a secular Turkish president, began a campaign of language reforms that replaced the Arabic Script with the current Latin Script and attempted to create a pure Turkish language free from its Arabic influences. As part of this language reform he insisted that many Arabic words be purged from the Turkish language and that Turkish words be used in their place. One of the most controversial mandates was his insistence that the Turkish word ‘Tranri’ be used by Turks as the name for a divine being in every religious context (even Muslims were required to make this change). The adoption of ‘Tanri’ in Christian bible translations was the result of these language reforms and not a result of a movement within the church initiated by well meaning but misguided missionaries as is claimed by some MIT proponents. The following is a quote from a Time Magazine article written Feb 20, 1933 that speaks about this issue. “A hard father to his people, Mustafa Kemal told his Turks last December that they must forget God in the Arabic language (Allah), learn Him in Turkish (Tanri). Admitting the delicacy of renaming a 1300-year-old god, Kemal gave the muezzins a time allowance to learn the Koran in Turkish. Last week in pious Brusa, the “green* city,” a muezzin halloed “Tanri Ulndur” from one of the minarets whence Brusans had heard “Allah Akbar” since the 14th Century.”

The story told about the Frontiers Turkish translation has become part of missionary folklore and is one of the many fictitious that are being repeated by far too many missionaries. Some repeat these stories because they too have been deceived but, sadly, some repeat these stories with the intent to deceive both their supporters and their fellow missionaries.

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