Translating the Gospel

The first fact that a person used to reading John 3:16 in English must face is that this verse was originally written in Greek.

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

Part 1

Translation in Context

The first fact that a person used to reading the Bible in English must face is that the John 3:16 verse was originally written in Greek. To fully understand and appreciate all of the nuances of the text we must look at what John actually wrote.

Here is the text in Greek with its English meaning under each word:

Since this series of articles is written for the benefit of English readers, we will follow the order of words as it is found in a more familiar form of the text taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

“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.”

The first word in our English version is “for.” In the Greek this is actually the second word. It is a small word, but it brings with it a number of issues that the translator must consider. This little word is used to signal that John 3:16 was not written in isolation. It is part of a larger text. In fact the chapter and verse numbers found in our Bibles were not in the original text.

This is an important point, not only for the translator, but also for the reader or student of the text.

Every verse of the Bible should be read and studied in its entire context rather than as a verse in isolation from the larger text. To read, study or translate a verse of Scripture in isolation violates the integrity of the text. Yet how often have you been to a Bible study where participants are each assigned to read one of several verses scattered throughout the Bible? Such a process results in a serious loss of continuity. Reading Bible verses in isolation should therefore be avoided, both when studying and when translating the Bible.

“For” Six Ways

The Greek word γὰρ may be translated by a number of different English words, depending on the context in which it is used. It is found eight times from John 3:16-4:8. In those eight occurrences, the translators of the NRSV have used six different ways of representing it. In 3:16 it is “for;” in 3:17 “indeed;” in 3:19 “because;” in 3:24 “of course;” in 3:34, it is left untranslated in its first occurrence; and in 4:8 it is represented by ( ) to set the verse off as parenthetical.

In linguistics, we call this little word a “discourse particle” because it has no specific meaning alone, but together with other words it helps to connect what is being said in the overall context.

English versions frequently do not translate this particle by any single word, but rather let its meaning come out in the way that sentences are put together in the overall flow of the text.

Most Effective Ways

In this particular context, the word translated “for” signals that, in verse 16, John amplifies the statement the writer has made in the previous paragraph. There he says that, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In verse 16, John elaborates by telling how and why God offers us eternal life. Translators must choose the most effective means at their disposal in the particular language for which they are translating to signal the connection between verse 16 and the preceding context. Even within the same language there may be a variety of ways of accomplishing this.

Part 2

Translation or Transliteration?

“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.”

One of the most important challenges a Bible translator faces is translating the expression for God. The importance of this small word is captured in the following statement by Lawrence O. Richards in his Expository Dictionary of Bible Words: “Multiple volumes have been written to explore this short word.”

The Bible assumes that God exists. It opens with the words, “In the beginning God. . . .” But to the Hebrew people, in whose language the Old Testament was originally written, the names and titles used were extremely significant. These names and titles communicated a lot about the Jews’ understanding of who God is. In view of the multiple volumes that have been produced on this short word God, it is obvious that one brief article can’t really do justice to the topic. So, I will limit myself to a discussion of the Greek expression ὁ θεὸς found in this verse.

Far-reaching Decision

In cultures where the Christian tradition is already well entrenched, there is often not much of a decision left; an acceptable way of referring to God has already been established.

However, in those languages where Christian teaching is new and the Scriptures are being translated for the first time, the decision about how to translate the Greek ὁ θεὸς in this verse can be quite far-reaching.

I recently heard a speaker from one of our First Nations express the pain his people have suffered as a consequence of the decision made by early Christian missionaries.

They rejected the common term for the Creator in that particular native language in favour of a borrowed word. As a result God has always seemed like a foreign God to them.

Our two official languages in Canada help show the two basic approaches that translators have tended to follow. One is transliteration. The French language uses Dieu for God. This is essentially an adaptation of the Greek, passed down through Latin. French is one of the Romance languages with roots going back to Latin. The Latin word for God is Deus, a transliteration of the Greek ὁ θεὸς.

Facing an Important Reality

Martin Luther, John Wycliffe and others who translated the Scriptures into the Germanic languages such as German and English, followed a second common approach. Instead of transliterating the Greek word, they chose the native English and German words, God and Gott.

These were commonly used among pre-Christian Germanic tribes to refer to the supreme or ultimate reality.

Translators who choose this solution of using a common native term for God, frequently face an important reality: the indigenous term may have meanings associated with it that are at odds with the biblical understanding of who God is. On the other hand, this solution has the advantage that the term is already familiar and allows people to learn about the God they encounter in the Bible as one who is already known to them by another name. The apostle Paul modelled this strategy in communicating the gospel in Athens: “That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you” (Acts 17.23).

Filling Out Meaning

When translators choose the solution of transliterating a word for God taken from another language, they must face the possibility that the God of the Bible may seem foreign to the people for whom the translation is being prepared. At the same time, this option is more likely to avoid the tendency of introducing an understanding of God that is not supported in Scripture.

Regardless of which route a translator follows in choosing a suitable word to translate the term ὁ θεὸς, it will not really be totally adequate to convey all the aspects of God as revealed in the Bible. Ultimately the meaning of the term chosen will need to be filled out. How? By a study of what the Scriptures overall reveal about this supreme being, the creator of the universe.

In the next issue we will examine the challenges we face when translating the Greek terms represented by the English words “so” and “loved.”

Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Bible Society’s “Translating the Gospel” article series, written by Hart Wiens, CBS director of Scripture translations. Wiens 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 the Wycliffe Canada board chairman.

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Note to Self: Pray for Bible Translators

Let’s intercede for translators working and struggling to find the best solutions in each unique language.