[Personal Advice from Bible Translation Student]

Tekalign Duguma

Recently there was an attempt made by the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopian (ECFE) and Biblica Ethiopia (formerly called IBS) to translate in collaboration or as they call it to “adapt” the Bible in the way it is understood easily by our Muslim brothers. I really admire and appreciate their zeal to make the Bible easily understandable, even though in my judgment their zeal was with out knowledge and lack of wisdom. And also their trial translation, which is distributed among some evangelical church leaders, is scary and lacks professional consultancy and very dangerous.  Therefore, as a Bible translation student I decided to show the danger of the present path and indicate the right direction by showing the effort taken by some best English translations as an example. In this short article among many issues I will restrict my self on God’s name only, which must be carefully analyzed in the process of Bible translation. First, I will show how the Standard English translations translates God’s name both in the Old and New Testament. Then, I will show how ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia, attempt to translate the name of God in their trial version. Finally, I will show the caution that must be taken in translating the Bible.

English Standard Version (ESV) in its preface says “In the translation of biblical terms referring to God, the ESV takes great care to convey the specific nuances of meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek terms.” (Page, ix) Every translation should attempt to express the original meaning of the word of the sources language, either Hebrew or Greek into the receptor language, in our case Amharic. Regarding the name of God ESV, NRSV, NASB and most English versions render consistence translation of the Tetragrammaton (YHWY) by LORD (capital letters) to distinguish it from “Lord” (Adonai) and Elohim (God). In the Old Testament, when “LORD GOD” or “Lord GOD” occurs, it is usually a rendering of a dual name for God “Adonai YHWH.” The Hebrew term “YHWH Sabaoth” is usually rendered “Lord of Hosts.” The Hebrew terms “YHWH Shaddai” is usually rendered “LORD Almighty.” The Old Testament uses many different names and titles to refer to God, to emphasize certain aspects of His person and attributes. When being translated, this can result in confusion, but in the original Hebrew, it was done entirely in an effort to glorify and magnify God’s name. Therefore, those translations instead of generally translating God’s name by the word “God” they carefully distinguish the personal name of God and Generic name of God at least in the Old Testament.

The usage of “Lord” and “God” in the New Testament is much less complicated. Almost universally, “God” is a translation of “theos” the general Greek word for deity. Also almost universally, “Lord” is a translation of “kurios,” the general Greek word for a master. Whenever “theos” is in plural form they translated it as “gods”.

In ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia’s trial translation of the book of Luke it seems that they used consistently “Allah” for the Greek term “theos” and “Lord” for “kurios” (the second one is in my assumption because they did not offer the “adapted” word.) Even though there are some explicit mistakes on translating “Allah” for the word “kurios” in verses like 1:25; 2:15 and 5:17 it is more or less consistent in their translation of the word. But the problem of this trial translation is the sources language, from which the “adaption” of this trial version was made used two words for the Greek term “theos” such as “እግዚአብሔር” (God) and “አምላክ” (God or god). By doing that it avoids the problem that is caused when the word “theos” is in plural form (Jon 10:34; Jon 10:35, Act 7:40; Act 14:11; Act 19:26; Act 28:11; 1cor 8:5; Gal 4:8). I assume that the trial version will face this grammatical problem when it proceeds to other New Testament books because it translates the word “theos” with “Allah” only. Therefore, the translation will not have consistency if it uses other term to overcome this problem.

The difficulty I faced regarding the proposed translation is their use of “Allah” for God’s name. It is possible to translate “theos” as “Allah” at least in the New Testament because both terms are generic name designating for deity. But the word “Allah” is loaded with religious and political meaning, therefore, caution must be taken before regarding it as equivalent translation of “theos”.  There is one Amharic comic story on the air which can illustrate the perception of the society concerning the name of Allah. “አላህን የፈጠረ እግዚአብሔር ይመስገን” (May God, who created Allah, be blesses).  This kind of joke is an indicator for what people think about these two names of deity. Most people, both Muslims and Christians, who live in Ethiopia, distinguish እግዚአብሔር (God) from አላህ (Allah). And this differentiation shows that those words are not equivalent in people’s mind. The Arabic name of God might be equivalent translation of “theos” if we only consider the Lexical meaning of the word but we are not Arabians or dominantly speaking Arabic language, we are Ethiopians. Indeed both “theos” and “Allah” are equivalent words in terms of Lexical meaning but even though it is crucial, task of Bible translation not only based on Lexical study of the word. The connation of the equivalent word in the given society must be studied. If we translate the Bible and use “Allah” for the name of God, I believe it causes confusion in peoples mind. Because in one hand the God who is revealed in the Bible is different from the one who is portrayed in Quran and in other hand the denotation of the word in peoples mind does not show that theses terms are interchangeable. Bible translation is not just a matter of finding equivalent word and translates it but it also requires socio-cultural study of the word. Therefore, rather than taking the Arabic meaning of the word “Allah” based on lexical study of the word it is better to examine the understanding of the people about the specific word.

Finally, honestly speaking I did not get the rational behind the proposed translation. In fact ECFE tries to prove the relevance of the translation by showing how many recent converts, with Muslim background and the urgency of Bible for those people in their worldviews. Apparently the justification given seems convincing but these people presented as validation are from Afar, Somali, and Silte people group.  Realizing the fact that these people did not speak and read Amharic, why this translation is started in Amharic instead of in their language? Therefore, the translation or the adaption program, in spite of the technical problem it has also faces feasibility problem.

In addition to Lexical study of a word, a Bible translation process also requires social and political study. ECFE and Biblica Ethiopia seems have done Lexical study on the word Allah and came to conclusion that “Allah” and “theos” are equivalent terms; therefore “theos” can be translated as “Allah”. But their conclusion has deficiency because the meaning of a given word is not only based on Lexical meaning but also from the usage of the word in the society (social context). In addition to social-cultural study of the word, the political implication of the word must be studied thoroughly before imparking to Bible translation. And also in bible translation consistency of word usage is critical, so great care most be taken.

Therefore, as Bible translation student my advice is Bible translation requires attentive word study of both from Lexical and socio-cultural perspective because improper understanding of the word might lead to erroneous translation of the Bible and it can be a cause for great doctrinal problem. Thus, any attempt made to translate the Bible should follow Lexical and socio-cultural word study, and the translators should use the word consistently through out their translation.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sabry Botros on May 19, 2010 at 8:30 am

    The article sounds very good and based on a careful socio-cultural study of the concept of Bible Translation. What I would like to add here is that most of the people who started thinking of contextualization of Bible Translation are not Arabs. This means they do not really know the meaning of the word “Allah”. This word means “the god”, and because it has the definition marker “the”, in Arabic “Al”. So the word is not a name but a defined noun, though it is used now as if it is a NAME. This word is Arabic taken to another language as if it were a NAME. This is a big mistake that people do. Unfortunately some people from the Arab Muslim world are leading this direction. It is exactly like using the word YHWH in other languages that Hebrew, it is meaningless. The other thing that is so important in Bible translation is INCARNATION not contextualization. This means to talk to the people in the heart language not in a formal foreign language that we, Christians, assume that this is the way they understand. I believe and prefer to use the language people use in the street and at home rather that the religious language that sometimes is foreign in this case. One last comment is on the idea mentioned in the article “The God who is revealed in the Bible is different from the one who is portrayed in the Quran”. I can not say that because there is one definition of the word God; the creator of the universe. Every Muslim and Christian agree upon this. The difference is in the image I have about God. The image sometimes is deformed by the deception of the devil, but He is the same God. This is not what you hear from most of the Christian people, because they normally say that Muslims worship a different god from the one they, Christians, worship. If I believe that God is God even if His image in someone’s mind is deformed, then I have a common ground with him and accordingly I can reach him starting from there.


    • Thank you for your comment.

      What I would like to say is I do not think we christian or Muslim will agree with your statement which says “there is one definition of the word God; the creator of the universe. Every Muslim and Christian agree upon this. The difference is in the image I have about God. The image sometimes is deformed by the deception of the devil, but He is the same God.” The primarily reason is both religious group does not just believe on philosophical God, their is one creator. But what they believe in the God who is reviled either in Bible or Qu’ran. If this is true, my assertion that the God who is reviled in the Bible is different from the Allah which is reviled in Qu’ran. Therefore, I did not see the pitiful of my argument, if you see it please show me.


  2. Posted by Ebenezer Boafo on May 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Hello All,

    This reflect the precarious nature of translation.

    However as translators, our position is not to give communities new names for God. We don’t have that right.

    I think people are taking this issue too far, especially because Moslems use the name Allah. This is a political stand.

    Let’s just read:

    “The difficulty I faced regarding the proposed translation is their use of “Allah” for God’s name. It is possible to translate “theos” as “Allah” at least in the New Testament because both terms are generic name designating for deity. But the word “Allah” is loaded with religious and political meaning, therefore, caution must be taken before regarding it as equivalent translation of “theos”.”

    The writer is saying that it is Ok for God to have local names among Akans, Kikuyus, germans, French people, English people, but not for Arabs. The Arab needs a new name for God, because the Arab’s definition of God fall short of God’s true nature.

    The writer needs to go into Classical Greek literature and find out if Theos meets the criteria of the Christian God, or he should try to compare the Onyankopon of the Akans with the Christian God.

    John 17.25 is clear – no one and no tribe ever knew the Father. Christ shows everyone who the Father is.


    • Thank you Ebenezer Boafo, for reading my article and give your comment.
      But I saw some pitfall an your objection to my article. Firstly I did not say that it is not appropriate for Arabs to have a name for God. And secondlyI did not say that Arabic name God “Allah” “fall short of God’s true nature”. But my argument is based on the social context of the word or in another word the semantic meaning of the word. Because we are not Arabs the meaning of Allah in Ethiopia is different from the meaning of In Allah in Arabs. For the people who live in Arabian land the meaning of the word just mean God or divine being. But here in Ethiopia the meaning mean the god of Muslim or the god which is relieved himself in Qu’ran. Therefore, my conclusion is in Ethiopia Allah and እግዚአብሔር are not equivalent term. Thus we should not translated as if equivalent terms.
      The other thing is as I mentioned in my article the name Allah can be used as an equivalent if we consider only lexical meaning of the word. But the problem is the meaning of the word is not only determined by lexicon alone but also with in the context it was found. Therefore, when the name Allah is used in Ethiopian context it has different connotation than the Lexical mean and I do need to go Classic Greek to find the root mean rather semantic meaning of the word is sufficient prove for my argument.
      Therefore,I do not have any political stand but the word by itself has in peoples mind. What I mean by politics is two religious group in Ethiopia believe that either they believe in Allah or እግዚአብሔር, both did not look the words as a synonyms. Thus, the main point of my argument in this article is we should not take for granted the Lexical meaning of the word for translation of the Bible.

      Thank you


  3. Posted by Eric Simiyu on July 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    The Challenge of Islam is great and many people are making efforts to see to it that Muslims are reached with the Gospel, this is good. But utmost care should be taken in handling the word of God. We who use the swahili Bible for example have had it rough with an Islamic onslaught that uses the Bible. They can hang on one word and confuse Christians and many have converted to Islam just because of terminologies used in the Union Version. Well meaning translations can have a strong backlash.

    The Big question here is, Is the God(ALLAH) of the Bible the same as the God(ALLAH) of the Qur’an? It’s not really the word but the person. Yet at the same time what will go through the mind of a Muslim as he reads this translation? By the way did Muslims settle the question of BASMALLAH?

    I see that there would be a big problem once you get to Mark 1:1 The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of ALLAH! or John 3:16. Simply put let us not take short cuts to “attract” Muslims, we repulse them instead. The Gospel is not just in names but in concepts that are artistically woven in the whole Bible this is what we should be explaining to Muslims.

    1. We give Muslims ammunitions to shoot at the Gospel, claiming that Christians constantly change their Bible and so it cannot be trusted. Persons who were once Muslims are not objective in agreeing that we should use the word Allah. We all know that they are on journey and experiencing heavy emotions, attachments et al.

    2. The Do not believe that we worship the same God. Surah 109:1-6, Surah 112

    3. We would make Allah to be the creator yet HE is not!!!!!!!!!! Surah 92:1-2 Surah 91:1-7. Surah 59:24… There is a whole science of study for this! Remember the Qur’an is 100% the word of Allah? Where in the Qur’an a single verse where Allah says I have created? Isaiah 45:12 THE LORD declares I have created. He swears by Himself. But Allah swears by the creator…(wa Khalaq dhakar wa l untha). What is the proper translation of these words? I will explain this later. Believe me include this in the Bible and you carry all the weaknesses of Allah? Surah 4:1.

    4. We make the ministry of apologetics very difficult if not impossible. The message of Allah in the Qur’an is diametrically opposed to the Gospel that how can one ever reconcile the two?

    The usage of any term should be carefully thought through. I fully agree with Tekalign Duguma, in that article. I would emphasis the point of carefully searching out other sciences on the matter including religious import, missiological implication, pre-islamic arabia and the history of Allah, the satanic verses…

    There is no guarantee that the use of Allah, would change the Muslims worldview or denials of the gospel. Please in the translation process let us include practitioners working among Muslims, hands on people not just armchair islamists. There are many people who can teach about Islam yet they are not interacting with Muslims in the religious sphere am afraid such a person does not understand the thinking of a village Muslim.

    If there be any encouragement. We are glad to humbly announce that there is NOT a single objection that a Muslim will bring that we don’t have an answer for!!!!!!!!!! This has been a thorough beating in the mosques and public squares on TV and radio and through the Holy Spirit has been leading us to answers both from the Bible and the Qur’an. Please pray that we publish these and make them available for all.

    So don’t take short cuts. The answers are in that undiluted, unchanged word of God. Amen.


  4. […] Another severe problem facing Christian outreach to Muslim is scriptural integrity in Bible translation. Christians already struggle explaining to a Muslim how the Bible has not been corrupted yet some organizations don’t get the idea. An organization that does Bible translation for a Muslim audience has a hard time translating the New Testament because of the term “Son of God” in the Gospel and other epistles. There is a bizarre case in Ethiopia where major errors have been made, thus compromising the meaning of certain verses. You can read that story here. […]


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