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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 5) :Translation - Primary and Secondary Senses
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."

In this installment we concentrate on the fifth element in this fabulous message, “the world.” This phrase is challenging for Bible translators because the Greek word kosmos is used with at least five different shades of meanings in the New Testament. Depending on the context, it may mean ‘the universe,’ ‘the earth,’ ‘the inhabitants of the earth,’ ‘the way people live in the world,’ or ‘everyone and everything that is alienated from God.’ John 1.10 illustrates three of these meanings in one verse.

When we encounter words used in a variety of ways, it is helpful in translation to distinguish between primary and secondary senses. For example, the English word “run” has the primary meaning of ‘motion with quick steps on alternate feet.’ It also has literally dozens of secondary senses. When used with “nose,” “motor” or “stocking,” it has three very different meanings, none of which would be translated by the word for “run” in French, Spanish or most other languages. It is the secondary senses of words that create the most challenges for translators, because they are rarely transferable from one language to another.

It is common in Scripture to find words used in such a way that the whole stands for one of its parts. For example Luke uses “Moses” to stand for what Moses wrote (Luke 16.29), and in Acts 2.4 “tongues” represent the languages spoken with the tongue. The technical name for this rhetorical device is “metonymy.”

The Greek word kosmos as used in John 3.16 is a clear example of metonymy. Here “the universe” stands for the people who live in it. God’s love here is focused on people rather than on the universe as a whole. Genesis pictures the Creator expressing pleasure with all of creation (“it was good”), but not love. The agape love in John focuses on people, the only beings capable of responding to God in faith.

Translators who fail to consider the secondary sense of the Greek word kosmos used here may end up with a rendering that represents God’s love as focused on the earth, a lifeless lump of clay, rather than on the people with whom he identified supremely in his incarnation. The Contemporary English Version ensures that the intended meaning of the original is conveyed clearly with the rendering, “God loved the people of this world so much that….” Although “the people” are not stated in the literal Greek text of the original, they are clearly the intended objects of God’s great love. Newer translations of the Bible such as the Contemporary English Version can help the reader to understand more clearly what the original authors wanted to communicate.

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