SHANGHAI, China – Developing Christianity with Chinese characteristics continues to be an area of great importance to the Churches in China. Central to this process is a proper understanding, interpretation and translation of the Bible in our times.
To come alongside the Chinese Churches in this journey, the United Bible Societies (UBS) has been partnering with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences to hold annual seminars since 2011 to highlight the role of the Bible in Chinese society and dialogue on the Sinicization of Christianity.
To this end, the 12th International Seminar was held in Shanghai on 23-24 November 2023, and the theme was “The Bible and Sinicization - Translation and Interpretation of the Bible in Today’s Context.”
Organised by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and its partners including the Protestant Churches in China, with the support of UBS and the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), the Seminar saw respected academicians, scholars, researchers and church leaders from China and overseas gathering to discuss and exchange insights on the various aspects of Bible translation and interpretation.
Presidents, faculty members and students of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, Zhongnan Theological Seminary, Jiangsu Theological Seminary, and Shandong Theological Seminary attended the Seminar online while those from Huadong Theological Seminary, who are located in Shanghai, attended onsite.
A Collaborative Platform for Mutual Learning
Opening the Seminar, Mr Quan Heng, Party Committee Secretary of SASS (represented by Deputy Secretary, Mr Yao Jianlong, at the Seminar) acknowledged Christianity's influential role in society. He praised the collaborative efforts of researchers and scholars in interpreting the Scripture to show its contemporary relevance and their contributions to Sinicization.
Expressing sincere thanks to UBS and BFBS, Mr He Jian, Associate Counsellor at the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, highlighted the collaborative platform established with SASS which helps foster international networking and cross-cultural dialogue.
Rev Xu Xiaohong, Chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM), stressed the importance of this year's topic, urging that Bible translation should be faithful to the original texts and should use language that is easily understood by the contemporary readers. Appropriate annotations should also be provided to aid in understanding the Bible.
Oldi Morava, Director of the International Mission of BFBS, looked forward to a time of mutual learning by people across different backgrounds, saying, “Together, we could explore techniques for nuanced translation and intercultural understanding, and fresh insights in each presentation.”
On the importance of this year’s theme, Dr Bernard Low, Co-Director (Ministry), UBS China Partnership, said, “It is a theme that is very central to the Christian faith. Saints, scholars, and interpreters from ancient times down to the present have produced versions of the Bible in the language of their day while remaining true to the original.” He reiterated the commitment of UBS to support the Bible translation work of the Chinese Churches, one that is “rooted in local contexts, utilising new technology.”
Bible Translation in Light of the Texts, Times and Culture
As with past seminars, this year’s presenters brought with them valuable insights and perspectives. Here are a few highlights featuring papers presented by Chinese Church leaders, the academia and UBS.
Rev Geng Weizong, Chairman of the Shanghai Christian Council, in his paper “The Word Became Flesh Among Us - Translating, Interpreting, and Preaching the Bible,” stressed the divine inspiration of the Scripture (2 Tim 3:16a) as well as the need to pay attention to the times and society when translating the Bible. Looking at the history of Chinese Bible translation, he explored its historical value and role in advancing the Sinicization of Christianity and embodying God’s Word in Chinese context (cf. 1 John 1:14).
Prof Christopher Hancock, Director of Oxford House Research Ltd, addressed the question, “Are cultures, texts and translation fluid and meaning-making problematic?” He argued in his paper, “The Interrelation of Culture, Texts and Translation,” that “culture is not a passing reality: it possesses substance, form and expectations and that texts possess an irreducible element of meaning that resonates with individuals locally and globally.”
To effectively indigenise the Christian faith in China’s context, an understanding of its recent development in Chinese society is indispensable. Professor Chen Na of Fudan Development Institute of Fudan University brought invaluable insights to the discussion with his paper on “The Ongoing Process of the Phenomena of New Religions in Contemporary China.” His paper delved into the revival of Christianity in China, the age of online religion, public policy and public opinion to help the audience appreciate some aspects of the inner workings of new religions in China today.
What would be an example of a Bible translation that reflects an appreciation of the nuances in Chinese culture and language? By first acknowledging the vital contributions of the early Jesuit missionaries and key Chinese Bible translators like Xu Bin and Shen Zekuan, Father Lan Xiaopeng, Executive Vice-President of Shanghai She Shan Seminary and co-author Dr Li Qiang of SASS, spotlighted The Complete New Testament (1994) as an achievement in the ongoing process of cultural adaptation and indigenisation by the Catholic Church in China. The translation was done by the She Shan Seminary, carried out under the direction and supervision of Bishop Jin Luxian.
Bringing with him a wealth of experiences in Bible translation, Dr Misheck Nyirenda, UBS Global Translation Advisor, explored the critical role of epistemology in translation, offering insightful case studies from the dynamic context of Africa. Taking into consideration the need to negotiate the epistemological framework of the source ‘text’ and target ‘text’, he encouraged local Bible interpreters and translators to take a leading role in interpreting and translating the Scripture within their own cultural and linguistic landscapes.
"Through the Seminar, I see possibilities for future studies and research and I’m inspired to run the race faithfully for the Lord.” - Wan Tingxiang, fourth year student of Huadong Theological Seminary
The two-day Seminar saw rigorous and dynamic exchanges amongst the participants. For the seminary students, it was a rare opportunity to engage with both Chinese and international scholars and academicians. Wan Tingxiang, fourth year student of Huadong Theological Seminary, said, “I am very thankful and honoured to be here for the first time. Despite the diverse backgrounds and nationalities of the speakers, they interacted with much humility and grace. Through the Seminar, I see possibilities for future studies and research and I’m inspired to run the race faithfully for the Lord.”
Dr Joshva Raja John, Director of International Bible Advocacy Centre at BFBS, aptly brought the seminar to a close by thanking Prof Yan and his team, urging all present to approach their work with unwavering dedication as a service unto the Lord and giving thanks for the two centuries of rich history of Bible translation in China. He said, “This seminar, a convergence of global scholars, church leaders, and students, sought to forge a culturally rooted Christian witness, acknowledging the transformative power of the Bible to unify and bring divine wisdom closer to diverse communities.”
Dr Bernard Low, UBSCP Co-Director (Ministry), was grateful to God that this year’s Seminar could take place in Shanghai. He observed that the participants, whether from China or overseas, were delighted that they could meet in person to dialogue on the Bible in China. “We thank God for this privilege to partner institutes of higher learning in China like SASS to promote research, advance scholarship, foster dialogues, and strengthen relationships. We hope that opportunities like this for Bible advocacy will continue and increase in the years to come.”
Story: Cynthia Oh
2023© UBS China Partnership