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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 1) :Translation in Context
by Hart Wiens, CBS Director of Scripture Translation

The famous theologian, Karl Barth, was once asked what he thought was the most profound truth of the Christian faith. Thoughtfully he responded, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

This truth is succinctly expressed in John's Gospel, chapter 3 verse 16. This verse has often been called the Gospel in a nutshell. In a series of articles reflecting on this verse word by word, I will use this great affirmation of God's love for us to illustrate some of the challenges Bible translators face as we seek to restate God's Good News in every language spoken on earth.

The first fact that a person used to reading the Bible in English must face is that this 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 an English gloss 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 verse? Such a process results in a serious loss of continuity, especially when different versions are being used. Reading Bible verses in isolation should therefore be avoided, both when studying and when translating the Bible.

The Greek wordmay have a number of English glosses, depending on the context in which it is used. It is found eight times from John 3.16 to 4.8 and in those eight occurrences the translators of the NRSV have used 6 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 in conjunction 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 discourse.

In this particular context, the word translated "for" signals that in verse 16 John is giving a further amplification of 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. I encourage readers to look at different English versions to see how they have done this, especially some of the modern versions such as the Contemporary English Version or the New English Bible. Also, if you know another language, see how translators have accomplished the discourse connection in that language.

In the next issue we will look at one of the biggest challenges a Bible translator faces how to translate the word for "God."

For more information and discussion on this topic, please contact us by .

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