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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 12): Pronominal Reference
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)

The little pronoun "him" in this verse profiles a particularly pesky issue in translation - the proper use of pronouns. Substituting pronouns to take the place of nouns as a kind of shorthand in communication is a common feature of language. However, not all languages have the same pronouns or use them in the same way.

For example, the Kalinga people in the Philippines have 3 different forms of the first person plural pronoun. So every time the pronoun "we" or its Greek equivalent occurs in Scripture, the Bible translator must determine for the Kalinga language whether the communicator intends to include the audience or not and if so, whether the audience consists of just one person or more than one. So in Matthew 8.25 where Jesus is asleep during the storm and the disciples shout, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" the Kalinga translator must decide whether the disciples are intending to imply that Jesus will drown along with them or not. The Kalinga translator must make a choice where Greek and English do not.

English, on the other hand, requires us to make a choice about gender in our use of the third person singular pronouns "he" and "she" while many other languages, including Kalinga, have only one generic third person singular pronoun. So the English language presents a problem for translators in a verse like Matthew 16.24. The NIV quotes Jesus as saying, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Yet it is quite evident that Jesus invitation is given to anyone. In the past the English pronoun "he" was understood to refer to a person of the masculine gender as well as generically to any person. This is how the NIV intends to use it here. However in contemporary English most people no longer understand the pronoun "he" as generic, so newer versions of the Bible avoid the use of the third person singular pronoun and find a way to ensure that readers will interpret Jesus invitation as including them, regardless of their gender. Thus the CEV uses the more inclusive: "If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me."

Another kind of ambiguity occurs with the use of pronouns when it is unclear what the antecedent is. In the statement, "Peter went to John because he owed him money" it is not clear who is meant by the pronouns "he" or "him." There is a similar ambiguity in the use of the pronoun "him" in John 3.16. It could refer back to the Son or to God. This ambiguity does not exist in the original Greek text, however. Thus the United Bible Societies' Translator's Handbook notes: "It is important to indicate clearly that everyone who believe in him refers to the Son, not to God." The Handbook also points the translator to a potential solution with the suggestion that "It may be necessary in some languages to say specifically 'everyone who believes in God's Son'."

Armed with tools such as the Handbook it is possible to achieve higher standards of quality in Bible translation today. The Canadian Bible Society is deeply involved in making such tools accessible to translators world-wide through its leadership in the development of the Institute for Computer Assisted Publishing. These tools mean that many more Scriptures can be translated in many more languages - bringing the Word of God to all people in the language of their heart.


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