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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 4) :Translation Across Cultures
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."

“Love” is the heart of the Gospel message. Greek and Hebrew have many different words for “love.” The Greek verb agapao used here is just one of several. By contrast most languages, including English, are impoverished in their “love language.” So we face huge challenges when searching for suitable ways to represent what the Bible says about love.

The love of a mother for her child is quite different from the love expressed by a man for his wife. Yet in English we use the same word – “love.” The Greek language has two very distinct words to express these different kinds of love. The Greek-English Lexicon, edited by world famous translation scholar Dr. Eugene A. Nida, lists 25 entries under the topic of “love,” based on at least seven different Greek root words.

The Gospel message is about the love God has for us. Conveying this is complicated in cultures where the concept of a god who loves people is not familiar. Animistic cultures are more concerned about the many “gods” who might harm them. In Kalinga, a language spoken in the Philippines, the word used for love really means “to want or desire.” It may also carry sexual connotations. In one African language the only word available for love means “to please.” This would imply that the world pleased God so much that…. In such circumstances, we struggle to find ways to minimize the likelihood that people will misunderstand the Gospel message.

With complex and loaded words like love, it is almost always impossible to discover the precise equivalent in another language. English has only one word for a range of concepts requiring a number of different Greek words, so it cannot possibly express the meaning as powerfully as the original. We translators do our best to express the intended message clearly and precisely. People benefit from reading the Bible in many versions. Each one helps to illuminate the rich meaning of the original.

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