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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 11): Grammatical Issues
by Hart Wiens, CBS Director of Scripture Translation

"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 - NRSV)

In this issue we are focusing on the tiny word "in" following the verb "believes." It is the preposition (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."

Yet, with no real meaning of its own, the addition of this tiny grammatical particle impacts the meaning of the verse. 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.

English has an abundance of prepositions compared with many other languages. 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. And the opposite situation is also common: 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. So a language like Estonian 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.

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