Malay Bible translation: CLJ needs to get its historical facts right

RECENTLY, Concerned Lawyers for Justice (CLJ) argued that the Christian community should work closely with Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka (DBP) to correct purported errors in the current translation of the Malay Bible. The desire to improve existing translations of the Bible is in keeping with the ethos of the Christian enterprise of Bible translation which is an ongoing exercise undertaken by Bible societies all over the world. 

However, CLJ’s proposal to allow DBP to prepare an authoritative translation of the Malay Bible is unacceptable. Given the terms and conditions for DBP’s involvement, the proposal amounts to an illegitimate restriction of religious freedom and infringement of the autonomy of the institutions of the Christian community. It is a violation of the integrity of Christian faith as it will lead to an imposition of Islamic religious beliefs on its sacred Bible. 

CLJ declares that it seeks to “to set the records straight” so that the Christian community will be persuaded to set aside its prejudices and work with DBP. Unfortunately, CLJ’s argument is prejudiced against the Christian community as it relies on a skewed reading of historical facts.

First, CLJ misuses the article written by Robert Hunt to stigmatise the Malay Bible as the work of incompetent translators who knew little “more than a smattering of Malay.” It suggests that the early translators did not benefit from studying Malay literature. This criticism must be taken in its proper context. 

In particular, the diversity of Malay dialects in Aceh to Ambon in the early Malay translation should not be taken to be a sign of linguistic incompetence or confusion. The first translators of the Bible into Malay were aware that Christians who used Malay came from different backgrounds, ranging from “mardijkers” (former slaves) to civil servants. The Christian translators were sensitive to how language assumes different socio-linguistics at different strata of society. The problem for these translators in the 17th and 18th centuries was this: should they opt for “high” language used in the learned circles or popular Malay used by the ordinary people as the lingua franca? Hence, Christians have produced both formal translations as well as dynamic-equivalence translations of the Malay Bible. Some translators such as Valentijn in the Molukkas chose to produce a translation in popular Malay, while Leijdekker preferred “high” Malay.

Granted that some of the early translators could have been more competent in the Malay language, the charge of incompetence cannot be levelled at William Shellabear who consulted extensively with Malay language and religious experts, not least Guru Sulaiman Muhammad Nur, with whom he jointly published several classical works including Kitab Kiliran Budi and Hikayat Hang Tuah.

Christians are themselves aware that the earlier translations of the Bible could be improved. Indeed, Christians have systematically undertaken revisions of the Malay Bible to ensure its accuracy and comprehension for new readers using a dynamic and changing language like Malay. As a result, all shortcomings identified in the earlier translations have being remedied in the new translations of the Malay Bible.

That there will be contestations in any translation enterprise is a given, and this is aptly captured by the Malay proverb, “Tiada gading tanpa retak?” It would be good to be reminded at this juncture that for the Christian community it is the Hebrew and Greek texts that are the final authority to settle any theological interpretation and translation diputes. Reference to these Hebrew and Greek texts would normally clear up any ambiguities.

Second, CLJ gives the impression that the early translators were insensitive to concerns expressed by Munshi Abdullah who felt that Leidekker’s Bible “was not idiomatic.”  Furthermore, “Munshi also objected to the various biblical phrases in Malay, like that of “Kerajaan Syurga” (Kingdom of Heaven), “Mulut Allah” (Word of God), “Anak Allah” (Son of God), and so on and so forth.”

There are unavoidable disagreements in any translation. However, it should be noted that Munshi Abdullah’s concern was about the propriety of using the name of God in the “possessive” or “genitive” (e.g. “Allah-ku” sounds odd to readers familiar with Arabic). It is significant that Shellabear decided to use Allah in his translation after the discussion on the appropriateness of using the possessive with the name of God.

More importantly, contemporary Indonesian/Malay linguistic experts involved in translation of the Malay Bible, based on empirical observations, rightly conclude that the use of the possessive (words like “Allahku” or “Selangorku”) no longer seem awkward today, at least to the Malaysian/Indonesian Malay-speaking Christians who number more than 30 million. The scruples raised by Munshi Abdullah may be of some historical interest, but they should not be determinative in Bible translation today.

A closer reading of the historical facts in context can only lead to the conclusion that CLJ is guilty of misquoting and misappropriating Robert Hunt. It is not the case of “setting the record straight” so much as slanting the record against the Christian community.

Third, CLJ’s argument that Christian usage of Allah must conform to views of experts represented by “authoritative works” like Aqa’id al-Nasafi and Aaja Ali Haji is fallacious. CLJ ignores the fact that the meaning of a religious words must be defined by how each particular religious community uses the word in its own context. The purpose of lexicography which defines meaning of words in dictionary should be descriptive rather than legislative – except in the case where linguistic experts follow the diktat of totalitarian rulers like Hitler or Stalin.

The Malay Bible is the Christian holy text and its doctrine and specific teaching about God as unity in trinity should be treated with utmost respect, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not. Furthermore, Christians are not pretending to be teaching Islamic theology from the Malay Bible. As such, CLJ’s insistence that Christian usage of its religious terms conform to Islamic teachings amounts to an intolerable imposition of Islamic theology onto the Christian community.

Fourth, while the Christian community is in principle open to consulting DBP when it prepares a new translation, it finds the terms of cooperation suggested by CLJ to be unreasonable and unacceptable. CLJ assures the Christian community that its religious autonomy will be maintained. However, in reality CLJ is suggesting that the Christian community surrenders its autonomy to DBP. For example, CLJ asserts that “the board (of DBP) shall be the sole coordinating authority [emphasis added] pertaining to composing, devising and standardising of terminologies in the national language.” Unsurprisingly, CLJ proposes a working arrangement with DBP which envisages the Christian community “being magnanimous and admitting to errors in the translation of certain terms, and in submitting to the authority of experts of the national language to determine the correct and accurate terms to be used.” 

The proposal by CLJ is evidently specious if we set its proposal in the context the present controversy. Its logic can only lead to an objectionable outcome: (1) DBP is the sole authority in determining the usage of Malay words, (2) The Christian use of Allah in the Malay Bible is inconsistent with the authoritative texts recognized by DBP (and CLJ), (3) Christians should thereby submit to DBP’s directive to stop using Allah in the Malay Bible. 

Fifth, the logical outcome of the unequal working relationship proposed by CLJ demonstrates that there is no justice in CLJ’s proposal, not least because it requires the Christian community to submit to an external authority that does not share its beliefs. One thing is clear: CLJ is not simply asking the Christian community to consult or work with DBP. In effect, it is asking the Christian community to submit to DBP. After all, CLJ asserts, “DBP, therefore, is in the prime position to arbitrate as to whether such a claim is true or not, and whether the usage of the term “Allah” is accurate, semantically and linguistically.” 

In assigning of the power of arbitration to DBP, CLJ contradicts its earlier acknowledgment that “translation of a religious canon is a humongous” which would require wide ranging and extensive expertise. With all due respect, DBP does not have the required expertise in Bible translation and whatever expertise it may have does not compare favourably with the expertise possessed by the translation experts in the Christian community. Truth be told, the ‘experts’ who represent the government in the current court dispute on the Allah issue have not displayed competence in the original languages of the Bible. They seem unable to understand the nuances in interpretation when Christians address their God as “Tuhan-Allah” (Yahweh-Elohim), etc. Given this evident lack of expertise, it is unreasonable and unjust to ask the Christian community to submit to their authority when the Christians’ own expertise in understanding and translating its religious text is far superior to that of DBP

CLJ may assure the Christian community that its proposal is not about claiming ownership of the Allah word. Nevertheless, after considering its proposal objectively and carefully, it can only be concluded that it will bring ill consequences to the Christian community. Following CLJ’s proposal would allow DBP to regulate and restrict how Christians may address their God in worship and prayer. It amounts to an imposition of Islamic theology onto the Malay Bible. It undermines the religious autonomy of Christian institutions which is enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Most important of all, it forces Malay-speaking Christians to dishonour the spiritual heritage of their forefathers who have been calling upon their God as Allah for centuries. 

* Dr Ng Kam Weng is Kairos Research Centre research director.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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