Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of 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.
Primary and Secondary Senses
“ 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 world”—this phrase is challenging for Bible translators because the Greek word kosmon (κόσμον) is used with at least five different shades of meanings in the New Testament. Depending on the context, it may mean “the universe,” “the earth,” “the inhabitants of the earth,” “the way people live in the world,” or “everyone and everything that is alienated from God.” John 1:10 illustrates three of these meanings in one verse.
When translating words used in a variety of ways, we must distinguish between primary and secondary senses. For example, the English word “run” has the primary meaning of “motion with quick steps on alternate feet.” It also has literally dozens of secondary senses. When used with “nose,” “motor” or “stocking,” it has three very different meanings—none of which would be translated by the word for “run” in French, Spanish or most other languages. It is the secondary senses of words that create the most challenges for translators, because they are rarely transferable from one language to another.
In Scripture, words are commonly used in such a way that the whole stands for one of its parts. For example Luke uses “Moses” to stand for what Moses wrote (Luke 16:29), and in Acts 2:4 “tongues” represent the languages spoken with the tongue. The technical name for this rhetorical device is “metonymy.”
The Greek word kosmon (κόσμον) as used in John 3:16 is a clear example of metonymy. Here “the universe” stands for the people who live in it. God’s love is focused on people rather than on the universe as a whole. The book of Genesis pictures the Creator expressing pleasure with all of creation (“it was good”), but not expressing love. The agape love in John’s Gospel focuses on people, the only beings capable of responding to God in faith.
Translators who fail to consider the secondary sense of the Greek word kosmon (κόσμον) used here may end up with a rendering that represents God’s love as focused on the earth, a lifeless lump of clay, rather than on the people with whom he identified supremely in his incarnation. The Contemporary English Version, for example, ensures that the intended meaning of the original is conveyed clearly with the rendering, “God loved the people of this world so much that. . . .” Although “the people” are not stated in the literal Greek text of the original, they are clearly the intended objects of God’s great love.
Translations of the Bible that carefully consider primary and secondary sense meanings help the reader to understand more clearly what the original authors wanted to communicate.
“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)
Here we concentrate on the sixth element in this fabulous message, “he gave.” The verb “to give” in its primary sense, has to do with transferring possession or ownership and normally implies material objects. In contexts such as the abhorrent institution of slavery, people can also be objects of possession and transference. In English, “his only Son” as the direct object of “he gave” is not incomprehensible. However, in many other languages it would constitute a serious collocational clash—two elements that do not naturally go together.
The unusual nature of this collocation highlights and draws attention to the statement. To readers steeped in Bible knowledge, it helps to evoke images of Jesus’ birth and His death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Readers familiar with Old Testament Jewish history are reminded of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Most contemporary readers may need an explanation such as those offered in study Bibles. In other languages, the clash between “he gave” and “his only Son” may be even more pronounced. In the Kalinga language of the Philippines, there is no context for readers to understand the concept of giving one’s son. In this case it was decided to borrow the verb “sent” from John 3:17, while not retaining the rich imagery of the original, is necessary to help readers who have very little biblical background.
Perfect translation is not possible, and even very good translation requires difficult choices. Sometimes the choice is between two or more possible renderings, each of which provide only an imperfect representation of the originally intended meaning. At other times the choice may be between a rendering that is not quite accurate and one that would convey no meaning at all.
As Bible translators, we need the prayer support of God’s people so that the choices we make will help people understand the message in a way that will draw them to Jesus—God’s communication wrapped in humanity (John 1:14).
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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