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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 2) :Translation or Transliteration
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."

This is the second in a series of articles examining some of the challenges encountered by Bible translators. Our point of reference for this exercise is John 3.16. Last time we examined some of the issues that a Bible translator faces even with seemingly innocuous little words such as for.

In this article we deal with one of the most important challenges a Bible translator faces, the translation of the expression for God. The importance of this small word is captured in the following statement by Lawrence O. Richards in his Expository Dictionary of Bible Words: “Multiple volumes have been written to explore this short word” (312).

The Bible assumes that God exists. It opens with the words, “In the beginning God…” But to the Hebrew people, in whose language the Old Testament was originally written, the names and titles used were extremely significant and communicated a lot about their understanding of who God is. In view of the multiple volumes that have been produced on this short word – God, it is obvious that one brief article is inadequate to really do justice to the topic. Consequently, I will limit myself to a discussion of the Greek expression found in this verse.

In cultures where the Christian tradition is already well entrenched, there is often not much of a decision left because an acceptable way of referring to God has already been established. However, in those languages where Christian teaching is new and the Scriptures are being translated for the first time, the decision about how to translate the Greek in this verse can be quite far-reaching. I recently heard a speaker from one of our First Nations express the pain his people have suffered as a consequence of the decision made by early Christian missionaries to reject the common term for the Creator in that particular native language in favour of a borrowed word. As a result God has always seemed like a foreign God to them.

Our two official languages in Canada help illustrate the two basic approaches that translators have tended to follow. The French language uses Dieu for God. This is essentially an adaptation of the Greek, passed down through Latin. French is one of the Romance languages with roots going back to Latin. The Latin word for God is Deus, a transliteration of the Greek .

Martin Luther, John Wycliffe and others who translated the Scriptures into the Germanic languages such as German and English, followed another common approach. Instead of a transliteration of the Greek word, they chose the native English and German words, God and Gott, commonly used among pre-Christian Germanic tribes to refer to the supreme or ultimate reality.

Translators, who choose this solution of using a common native term for God, frequently face the reality that the indigenous term may have meanings associated with it that are at odds with the biblical understanding of who God is. On the other hand, this solution has the advantage that the term is already familiar and allows people to learn about the God they encounter in the Bible as one who is already known to them by another name. The apostle Paul modeled this strategy in communicating the Gospel in Athens: “That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you” (Acts 17.23).

When translators choose the solution of transliterating a word for God taken from another language, they must face the possibility that the God of the Bible may seem foreign to the people for whom the translation is being prepared. At the same time, this option is more likely to avoid the tendency of inadvertently introducing an understanding of God that is not supported in Scripture.

Regardless which route a translator follows in choosing a suitable word to translate the term will not really be totally adequate to convey all the aspects of God as revealed in the Bible. Ultimately the meaning of the term chosen will need to be filled out by a study of what the Scriptures reveal about this supreme being – the creator of the universe.

No revelation of God is more complete than Jesus Christ – God made real to us in human form. That is why the writer of the Gospel according to John says, “In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God” (CEV). In Jesus, God became one of us and demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible how much he cares about each one of us individually. That is the great Good News which the verse under discussion (John 3.16) expresses so succinctly. That is why it is such good news and why we go to so much effort and expense to ensure that all people have the opportunity to discover it in the language they understand best.

In the next issue we will examine the challenges we face when translating the Greek term represented by the little English word so.

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

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