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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 7) : Metaphorical Language
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 seventh element in this message of life, “his only Son.” On the surface it seems quite straightforward. John presents Jesus as God’s only Son. From the perspective of the translator there are at least two significant challenges. The first clue that there is more to this nominal phrase than the sum of its parts is the capitalization on “Son.” This is the publisher’s way of alerting readers to the fact that this word is being used in a special sense.

Webster’s primary definition of son is “a male offspring especially of human beings.” In John 3.16, the pronoun his links this phrase back to God making it clear that the reference is not to a human being but to God. The notion of God having offspring is extremely difficult to grasp. To the Islamic mind it is sacrilegious since it appears to bring God down to the level of humans. Christians interpret this as an anthropomorphism (using human images to explain something about God).

In what way is it possible for the eternal God, the creator of all life, to engender offspring? Obviously the word son is being used to communicate something different than is conveyed by its primary sense in our language. In fact, there is a rich tradition in Hebrew and Greek literature both inside and outside the Bible with respect to the usage of this word. This background helped the original readers understand the reference to Jesus as the Son of God in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense. It signals a relationship of intimacy and respect similar to the ideal relationship between a human father and son. It also serves to reinforce the traditional Christian understanding about the special circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus. But there is no implication of a sexual union between God and Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is not possible to incorporate all this background in a translation.

While the various metaphorical uses of the word son in ancient Greek and Hebrew literature prepared the original readers of John’s Gospel to understand the word in a non-literal sense, many other languages lack this background. In most cases translators have little choice but to use an equivalent term in the language signifying “offspring” and hope that their readers will receive further teaching to help them understand the special relationship between Jesus and God.

John himself helps his cause a little by using the adjective translated here as “only.” Once again the resources of the English language are inadequate to capture the full range of meaning communicated by the word in Greek. For centuries this word was incorrectly translated in English versions as “only begotten.” Scholars today are virtually unanimous in their opinion that this rendering is an unfortunate adherence to the Latin Vulgate by translators of the KJV and other early English versions rather than an accurate representation of the meaning of the Greek. All now agree that it means “only” in the sense of “unique.” John is trying to reinforce his special use of the noun “son” by making it clear that the relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was unique.

There is a sense in which all of us can be called sons or children of God (Galatians 3.26), but what John is seeking to communicate is that Jesus stands in a unique relationship to God which human language can capture only imperfectly in a term like ‘son’. This is the best word he can find. But he also wants us to see that there is a special, unique aspect to the relationship between Jesus and God. So he adds the modifier “unique” and in the written text we use a capital “S” on “son.”

Given the limited resources of human language, perfect communication about God is impossible. Translating what has been revealed to us in Scripture into the thousands of languages spoken in our world today adds another level of complexity. Translators in every age and in every language do their best to communicate concepts that are sometimes too difficult for words. It is especially in such circumstance that as translators we are thankful we are not alone but that we work in partnership with the Holy Spirit and with the Church.

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