Bible Translation and Contextualization: Theory and Practice in Bangladesh

by Vern Sheridan Poythress

Revised, Oct. 10, 2005*


A dispute in Bangladesh can illustrate the interaction of theory and practice in Bible translation.

A controversy of considerable proportions has arisen among the Christians in Bangladesh over Bible translation.1 A group in Bangladesh2 has undertaken to translate the New Testament into Bengali using a word for “Messiah” whenever the original Greek has “Son of God” as a title for Jesus Christ. (It should be noted that there already exists a translation of the New Testament into Bengali that uses a more literal approach to translating the expression “Son of God.”)

The motive for the change is clear. Bangladesh is predominantly a Muslim country, and the title “Son of God” is offensive to Muslims. Not only is it offensive; it is often misunderstood as a claim that Jesus came into existence by a literal sexual union between God the Father and Mary his mother.3

I have no detailed knowledge of the particularities of the situation in Bangladesh, so it would be most unwise to draw hasty conclusions. There are bound to be more dimensions to these questions than appear immediately on the surface. But it is useful to remind ourselves of multiple dimensions that confront us about the nature of meaning.4


1. Desire for understandability

Understandability and the danger of misunderstanding are indeed significant issues in Bible translation. One must not evade the difficulty merely by blindly translating everything with maximal literalness, without regard to intelligibility and misunderstanding. In particular, one must sympathize with the difficulties that believers confront in expounding the Christian faith to Muslims.


2. Preserving richness in meaning

On the other hand, one must resist cutting the Gordian knot of difficulty by always preferring immediate clarity and intelligibility, even to unbelievers, at the expense of richer representation of original meaning. Constant preference for immediate clarity falsifies the depth and richness that belongs to the word of God.5 And it has potential to create long-range problems of many kinds, because then the church is confined in practice to a kind of “baby” Bible that addresses primarily the most ignorant.


3. Translation distinguished from teaching

One must distinguish the task of Bible translation from the task of teaching, explanation, evangelism, and exposition of the Bible. As I have observed elsewhere, most of the books of the Bible were not writtenprimarily as evangelistic tracts, but to encourage, instruct, and rebuke those who already have a covenantal commitment to the God of Israel.6 It inevitably distorts the Bible, and renders it less serviceable for its primary designs, when we try to accommodate it to the unbeliever’s level of ignorance. With respect to the title “Son of God,” this observation implies that we should ask whether it is better to have a fairly literal expression in the Bible translation, and to leave it to Bible teachers, preachers, evangelists, and ordinary Christians to explain the meaning to Muslims and those from Muslim background. Evangelism of Muslims need not begin with the condensed expression “Son of God,” but with longer explanations of Jesus’ person and work.

In addition, in some situations it may be possible to produce more than one kind of translation, or a paraphrase with more explanatory supplementation, so that the need for evangelism is partly addressed by extra literature.


4. Continuity with the past

When a Bible translation and a Christian group or groups already exist within a given culture, many decisions–for good or ill–have already been made about the way in which the Bible will be related to the larger cultural challenges. Trying unilaterally to change the translation, or to introduce a second translation with considerable differences from the first, must be done with thoughtfulness, lest it cause division among Christians and confusion among non-Christians as to what the Christian Bible really says.

But one must balance this concern for a single translation with concern for multiple subcultures. If, for example, an earlier translation has arisen mostly within a surrounding context of Hindu or Buddhist or animist beliefs, the terms used within that translation may not have the same set of associations when used within a predominantly Muslim context. In principle, it is legitimate to reassess how adequate the translation may prove to be in a new subcultural context.

What does this imply with regard to the expression “Son of God”? Those with more knowledge of the situation in Bangladesh must still make their own assessment of the impact. But the information available to me gives me the impression that in Bangladesh the cat is already out of the bag, so to speak, because Muslims in the area already know that Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and already misunderstand this belief. A variant Bible translation runs the risk of being viewed by Muslims, as well as by some Christians, as a “cover-up” rather than a genuine explanation of a difficulty.

There are difficulties with whatever one does. Rick Brown, seeing the mass of difficulty, recommends that in many circumstances one may clarify the situation using footnotes:

If the meaning of a divine sonship term has been put in the text, then a literal representation of the phrase should be put in the footnotes. In addition, the introduction or an introductory mini-article should explain the various senses of the term and how each one has been translated. Ideally the phrases used in translation will be unique, so that the audience, whenever they read or hear this phrase, will know that this is the phrase that is translated as ‘son(s) of God’ in some other versions. This provides “transparency” to the translation and gives the readers confidence in it, especially if it differs from other translations which they read or hear.

If a literal representation has been put in the text, then the meaning should be explained in the footnotes. The introduction should explain the term as well, so that the readers will not be too shocked when they come across it in the translated text, before they have read the footnote (if they read it at all).7


5. Referent, encyclopedic knowledge, and meaning

“Messiah” is not an adequate substitute for “Son of God.” Both have the same referent, namely Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. But they do not have the same meaning. In like manner, the expressions “God,” “the Almighty,” and “the Creator” all have the same referent, but not the same meaning. The Greek expressions for “Messiah” and “the Son of God” do have similar meanings, in that both, in many contexts, indicate something about Jesus’ role as kingly ruler under commission from God. Moreover, both expressions evoke what people know or think they know about the great deliverer sent by God. But “Son of God,” unlike “Messiah,” indicates an analogy with a human family relationship. And it also has the potential to connote personal intimacy and love.8

Let us be a little more precise about this kind of problem. In typical uses in English, the word God not only refers to God but also evokes in people’s minds the full range of conceptual knowledge that they think they have about God (what might be called encyclopedic knowledge). Moreover, this evocation takes place even for atheists, who do not believe that there exists an objective referent for the term God. Similarly, “the Almighty” and “the Creator” refer to God and evoke the full conceptual knowledge about God. The three expressions, “God,” “the Almighty,” and “the Creator” thus have very similar functions. But that does not mean that they have completely identical meanings. “The Almighty” puts a focus on God’s power, while “the Creator” puts a focus on God’s work of originally creating the world. These things are of courseimplied by the word God, but their explicit prominence in one expression is a subtle difference in meaning from the implicit implication in the other expressions. Normally we do not think about these differences explicitly, but it is obvious, once attention is drawn to them, that they do exist.

Likewise one may think carefully about the differences between “Son of God” and “Messiah” (and “Christ”) in English, or about the differences between analogous expressions in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. One must also take into account that there was a development in people’s thinking during the earthly life of Jesus and during the early church. The meaning associations evoked by these expressions changed somewhat as people struggled with their expectations as to what the “Messiah” would be like.

In typical cases, “Son of God” and “Messiah” in English have the same referent. In Greek the analogous expressions, in appropriate contexts, evoked encyclopedic knowledge that people thought they had about the “Messiah,” the great deliverer in the line of David who was promised in the Old Testament. But one still wants, if feasible, to protect the distinct nuances that belong to each expression. One wants to preserve the familial associations of “Son”9 and the meaning of anointing associated with the Hebrew and Aramaic terms transliterated “Messiah,” a meaning that carries over to some extent with the Greek word christos(“Christ”). And, where feasible, one wants to use one expression in translation for one expression in the original, because one wants the modern reader to begin to appreciate how people went through a struggle concerning their conceptualizations of the Messiah. This too is part of the total meaning of the whole Bible, because meaning includes relations between earlier and later parts of the history, and between earlier and later uses of the terms.


6. Connotative meaning should be represented

A translation should attempt as best as possible to represent in the target language all dimensions of meaning, not only the most basic or the most obvious. In particular, in dealing with Muslim contexts, one must reckon with connotative meanings that may already be attached to an expression like “Son of God.” If readers already have it firmly engrained in their minds that this expression indicates biological descent, one must try to search for an alternative. Rick Brown indicates that in some contexts one may use an expression like “spiritual Son of God” to head off the misunderstanding.10 In such a context the less literal translation may be better in representing the meaning. There are often trade-offs in such a situation. One alternative expression may catch more of some aspects of meaning, while another alternative may catch others. Often no alternative is perfect, and one must simply choose for the one with the greatest accuracy and least liability.11


7. Unity with the worldwide church

In doing Bible translation one must keep in mind the unity of the worldwide church as well as the immediate needs of a specific situation. It does little good in the long run if idiosyncrasies isolate a particular group from the international church. An idiosyncratic translation with “Messiah” substituted for “Son of God,” or–to take another controversial area–an idiosyncratic way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, may end up creating serious obstacles down the road to affirming and expressing the international unity of the one church of God worldwide.

And one must think hard about what implicit messages may be conveyed in this respect to outsiders. If a local group takes special measures to conceal its spiritual commonality with the body of Christ worldwide, as well as locally, will that be regarded by outsiders as deceitful, as well as a refusal to bear the reproach that belongs to the rest?

On the other hand, an insistence on maximally literal translation may create problems of its own. If the average reader persistently misunderstands a translation, the misunderstanding is certainly not helping to create genuine unity of mind (as opposed to a superficial unity of wording) in the church worldwide. And, in a Muslim context, if a particular translation actually does create virtually insuperable barriers to understanding, it keeps a particular ethnic group from receiving the gospel and becoming a church. Where there is no church it cannot express its unity with the worldwide church! Here too there are long-range implications.

Thus Brown’s suggestion above, involving the use of footnotes and other aids, may prove superior in the long run to a simpler translation solution that tries to accomplish everything with a single expression, without footnotes or other aids. The simpler solution has the advantage of simplicity. But it may often have the disadvantage of unwanted side effects. On the one hand, if a purely literal expression occurs in the text, without further explanation, it may exacerbate misunderstandings. On the other hand, if a term like “Messiah” occurs in the text without further explanation, it may produce an idiosyncrasy as well as withholding the familial associations and associations with intimacy evoked by using a familial term.

By raising these questions I do not intend to imply that we can come up with easy answers to hard situations and hard translation decisions. Rather, I want us to be aware that local actions have broader implications, and that fact makes it even harder to come up with ideal solutions to challenges in Bible translation and contextualization.



* I am grateful to Rick Brown for his interaction with my thinking in this article.

1 My information comes from an email by Brian Mattson.

2 This group, I am told, is using “C5″ contextualization strategy, as delineated by Phil Parshall, “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43/4 (Oct., 1998), also at < >. See also Parshall’s later reflections in “Lifting the Fatwa,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47/3 (July, 2004), also at <>, and the larger discussion to which he refers.

3 On difficulties with “Son of God,” see, e.g., Rick Brown, “The ‘Son of God’: Understanding the Messianic Titles of Jesus,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17/1 (2000) 33-39; Rick Brown, “Explaining the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions. 22/3 (2005) 91–96.

4 On meaning, see Vern S. Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1999).69-94; Vern S. Poythress, “Truth and Fullness of Meaning: Fullness versus Reductionistic Semantics in Biblical Interpretation,” to appear in the Westminster Theological Journal; available at <>.

5 See, e.g., Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004), 176-183.

6 Ibid. 292.

7 Rick Brown, “Explaining and Translating the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts,” private communication, 31 August 2005. This is to be published as “Translating the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts,”International Journal of Frontier Missions. 22/4 (2005). See also Brown’s articles in footnote 3.

8 The problem of being content with a correct referent crops up repeatedly in some dynamic-equivalent translations. See, e.g., <>. For a fuller discussion of dynamic equivalence, see Poythress-Grudem, The TNIV 169-202; Vern S. Poythress, “Truth and Fullness,” <>.

9 The repeated pairing of “Father” and “Son” in the Gospel of John (see, for example, John 5:19-26) makes it clear that one cannot substitute a term like Messiah for Son (Greek huios) in these contexts. These contexts demonstrate the lack of complete synonymy between huios (“son”) on the one hand and christos (“anointed,” “Christ”) or messias (“Messiah,” transliteration of Hebrew or Aramaic) on the other.

In Matthew 16:16 two expressions are used in parallel: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So it becomes easy to infer that the two expressions are synonymous. But that is not so, even in a passage like this one. The parallelism shows nothing more than what we have already observed, namely that the two expressions have similar meaning. They have the same referent and evoke the same encyclopedic knowledge. But “Son” still retains its familial associations, and “living” still retains its distinct meaning. Consider: if the expressions were completely synonymous, we could substitute one for the other with no change in meaning. Then the passage would read: “You are the Christ, the Christ.” Are we really willing to say that that will do? And are we willing to say, for instance, that the word “living” can without any further discussion be dropped in translation, since it is not part of the meaning of “Christ”? It can still be inferred from the word Christ that the Christ is sent by God, and that the one who sent him is living. But inferred meaning is not the same as explicit meaning.

10 Rick Brown, “Explaining and Translating,” discusses this and other options. All the options must, of course, be weighed carefully in the context of the resources of the language and culture(s) into which the translation comes.

11 The situation of trade-offs and less-than-ideal translations becomes another argument for exploring various supplements, such as footnotes, prefaces to a Bible, evangelistic literature, and Bible dictionaries, not to mention the work of oral explanation by preachers, teachers, evangelists, and ordinary Christians.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Vern Sheridan Poythress.
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