Photo: Alan Hood
Beyond Words

Translating the Gospel

Hart Wiens shares Part 11 and 12 of his series on translating the gospel.

Hart Wiens

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of 14 articles reflecting on the verse John 3:16 word by word. The series illustrates some of the challenges Bible translators face as they seek to present God’s Good News in every language spoken on earth. 

(Photo: Illustration by Ethan Livingstone)

Part 11: Grammatical Issues

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The tiny word “in” following the verb “believes” is the prepositionεἰς (pronounced like “ace” or “ice”) in Greek. As with many grammatical terms, this preposition carries little intrinsic meaning of its own. Its function is grammatical rather than semantic. Its significance can vary considerably depending on how it is used in context. Strong’s Greek Dictionary gives it the primary glosses to or into, but then goes on to give an entire paragraph of other glosses depending on how it is used. In combination with the verb “believes” the most natural rendering for this preposition in English is “in.”

Lack of understanding of differences in grammatical structure is one of the most common reasons for awkward and unnatural renderings in translation.
Hart Wien

What is really interesting in this verse is to observe how the addition of this tiny grammatical particle, with no real meaning of its own, impacts the meaning of the verse. We could leave it out and still have a perfectly meaningful sentence, but its thrust would be quite different. To say “everyone who believes him….” is very different from saying “everyone who believes in him….” The first kind of belief is merely mental assent and as James 2:19 points out, even the demons have that kind of belief in God. The addition of the small preposition “in” transforms the verb “believes” into something that involves a deep personal relationship with, and trust in, the person on whom the belief is focused—in this case, Jesus.

Unlike many other languages, English has an abundance of prepositions. For this reason teachers of English as a second or foreign language frequently encounter serious problems when they try to teach the English use of prepositions. For example, Spanish has one preposition “en” that serves as the equivalent of three prepositions in English: in, on, and at. Then there are many languages which do not use prepositions at all. Canadian Algonquian languages, for example, attach directional or location markers to nouns where English uses prepositions. What English expresses through the use of prepositions, many other languages accomplish through the use of different cases which are grammatical markers attached to nouns or verbs. An example is Estonian; it has 14 different cases.

Because of such differences in the grammatical structures of languages, it is important for translators to explore and understand the grammars of both the source language from which they are translating and the receptor language into which the translation is being made. Lack of understanding of differences in grammatical structure is one of the most common reasons for awkward and unnatural renderings in translation.

Part 12: Pronominal Reference

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The little pronoun “him” auton (αὐτὸν) in this verse profiles a particularly pesky issue in translation—the proper use of pronouns. Languages commonly substitute pronouns to take the place of nouns as a kind of communication shorthand. However, not all languages have the same pronouns or use them in the same way.

For example, the Kalinga people in the Philippines have three different forms of the first person plural pronoun. So every time the pronoun “we” or its Greek equivalent occurs in Scripture, the Bible translator must determine for the Kalinga language whether the communicator intends to include the audience or not and if so, whether the audience consists of just one person or more than one. In Matthew 8:25, Jesus is asleep during the storm and the disciples shout, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” Here the Kalinga translator must decide whether the disciples are intending to imply that Jesus will drown along with them or not. The Kalinga translator must make a choice where Greek and English do not.

With the right translation tools, it is possible to achieve higher standards of quality in Bible translation.

English, on the other hand, requires us to make a choice about gender in our use of the third person singular pronouns “he” and “she,” while many other languages, including Kalinga, have only one generic third person singular pronoun. So the English language presents a problem for translators in a verse such as Matthew 16:24. The NIV quotes Jesus as saying, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Yet it is quite evident that Jesus’ invitation is given to anyone, not just to males. In the past the English pronoun “he” was understood to refer to a person of the masculine gender as well as generically to any person whether male or female. This is how the NIV intends to use it here. However, in contemporary English, people no longer understand the pronoun “he” as generic. 

So most new versions of the Bible avoid the use of the third person singular pronoun and find a way to ensure that readers will interpret Jesus’ invitation as including them, regardless of their gender. The CEV reads, “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.”

Another kind of ambiguity occurs with the use of pronouns when it is unclear what the antecedent is. In the statement, “Peter went to John because he owed him money,” it is not clear who is meant by the pronouns “he” or “him.” Either pronoun could refer to Peter or to John. There is a similar ambiguity in the use of the pronoun “him” in John 3:16. It could refer back to the Son or to God. The Translator’s Handbook produced by the United Bible Societies to alert translators to potential pitfalls, profiles this problem as follows: “It is important to indicate clearly that everyone who believes in him refers to the Son, not to God.”

With tools such as these it is possible to achieve higher standards of quality in Bible translation today. The Canadian Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators are deeply involved in making tools accessible to translators worldwide through computer resources. These tools help ensure that the Bible can be translated into many more languages at higher quality—bringing their speakers the Word in the language of the heart. 

Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Bible Society’s “Translating the Gospel” article series, written by Hart Wiens, CBS director of Scripture translation. Hart and his wife Ginny served with Wycliffe Canada in a Bible translation project among the Kalinga people in the Philippines for 19 years. More recently, Hart has been a Wycliffe Canada board member.

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