Where There is No Passive

You probably heard it from your teachers: “Avoid writing in the passive! The passive is best avoided when possible.” (And if they used a sentence like the second one, they were caught in their own trap.)

 To refresh your memory: active sentences—subject-verb-object—tend to be clear and direct. Paul broke the window. In a passive sentence, what had been the object of an active sentence becomes the subject, and the subject becomes the object. The window was broken by Paul.

 The passive voice can be useful sometimes, especially if you’re the window breaker. Once the sentence has been rendered passive, the object can even be dropped, leaving: The window was broken. And—ta da!—Paul gets off the hook.

(Photo: provided)

 In many languages, “demoting the subject” like this is a key function of the passive. But the Doku language of the Solomon Islands has no passive option. All sentences are active, which means we can’t hide “whodunnit” with a passive.

 This raises significant issues for translating the New Testament. The New Testament writers must really have been “uneducated” (Acts 4:13). Perhaps they didn’t listen to their teachers. Or, maybe the Spirit had His own good reasons. However it came to be, 3,588 of the Greek New Testament’s 28,114 verbs are passive.

 What is a Doku translator to do? Sometimes the subject isn’t demoted, so we can simply switch subject and object to make an active sentence. In Mark 1:9, “Jesus was baptized by John” becomes “John baptized Jesus.” Sometimes we can add a generic third-person subject. Mark 1:14 changes from “after John had been arrested” to “after they had arrested John.”

 But those strategies don’t always work. Take, for example, the healing of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:1-12. Rather than healing the man at the outset, Jesus, seeing the faith of His friends, said to the paralyzed man, “My child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).

However it came to be, 3,588 of the Greek New Testament’s 28,114 verbs are passive.

 By using a passive to demote the subject, Jesus set up a scene rich with meaning beyond a “mere” healing. Jesus doesn’t say who forgave the man’s sins, just that it was accomplished. The teachers of the law picked up on the passive right away: “Why does this man speak that way? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus then tips His hand by asking which was easier—to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk?” And then the punchline: “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . get up, pick up your mat, and go home.”

 We thought hard about how to render this section in Doku. In the end, we had Jesus say, “My child, I forgive your sins.” It’s somewhat unsatisfying to have Jesus tip His hand before the crucial moment, but it is an accurate and clear translation. Sometimes, the language compels us to make tradeoffs in attaining those hard goals.

 Just 3,587 passives to go.


Paul Unger and his wife Cathy have served in a Bible translation project for the Doku-speaking people of Solomon Islands since 2001. Graduates of the Canada Institute of Linguistics, Wycliffe’s training partner in Langley, B.C., they are based in Western Canada. The Doku language is also known as Lengo.

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