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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 6) :Translation-Collocation Clashes
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."

IIn this installment we concentrate on the sixth element in this fabulous message, “he gave.” The verb “to give” in its primary sense, has to do with transferring possession or ownership. This would normally imply material objects. There are contexts such as the abhorrent institution of slavery where people can also be conceived of as objects of possession and transference. So in English, the appearance of “his only Son” as the direct object of “he gave” does not constitute an incomprehensible clash. However, there are other languages where the occurrence of a person as the direct object of “gave” would constitute a serious collocational clash – two elements that do not naturally go together.

Combining “he gave” with “his only Son” is unexpected in English, but still acceptable. The unusual nature of this collocation actually serves to highlight and draw attention to the statement. For the reader steeped in Bible knowledge, it helps to evoke images of Jesus’ birth, as well as his passion when he died as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for the sins of the world. Readers familiar with Old Testament Jewish history would likely be reminded of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaak. In fact the freight of meaning carried by this little phrase “he gave” is so great that contemporary readers who do not have a considerable understanding of the Jewish sacrificial system may have difficulty understanding the message without some explanation. Study Bibles, such as the New American Bible, seek to help the reader with this footnote, “a reference to both the incarnation and the death of Jesus; cf. Rom 8.32.”

The word used in the original Greek actually has a very broad range of meaning. It could mean: “give; grant, allow, permit; place, put; appoint; establish; give out, pay; produce, yield, cause; entrust; bring (offerings); inflict (punishment).” While the English verb “to give” also has a much wider meaning than the primary sense of transferring ownership, its secondary senses do not overlap precisely with the range of meaning of the Greek. The German language has the verb hergeben, derived from the verb “to give” but havingthe added connotation of giving something up or away. This helps to focus the sense in this context toward the meaning intended by the author, but still requires additional background knowledge and explanation for readers not familiar with the wider message of the Bible.

In other languages, the clash between “he gave” and “his only Son” may be even more pronounced. In the Kalinga language of the Philippines, in which I began my translation career, there is no context that would permit readers to understand the concept of giving one’s son. In this case it was decided to borrow the verb “sent” from the following verse. While the substitution of “sent” for “gave” in verse 16 does not retain the rich imagery of the original, in this case it is necessary to permit at least some comprehension of a difficult concept for readers who have very little biblical background knowledge.

The fact is that perfect translation is not possible, given the limited resources of any given language. Translation is always a compromise requiring choices that are difficult at times. Sometimes the choice is between two or more possible renderings, each of which provide only an imperfect representation of the originally intended meaning. At other times the choice may be between a rendering that is not quite accurate and one that would convey no meaning at all. Bible translators need your support in prayer. Our prayer is that the choices we make will help people understand the message well enough that they may be drawn to Jesus - God’s communication wrapped in humanity (John 1.14).

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