complete verse (John 3:16)

Following are a number of back-translation of John 3:16:

  • Tezoatlán Mixtec: “For since God loves very much the people of this world, therefore he gave his only son to arrive in this world, and whoever trusts in him, they will never die. Instead they will be able to live forever.”
  • Ayutla Mixtec: “Because since God loves so much the people of this world, therefore he sent me, his only son to this world. So whoever trusts in me, they will never die before God, instead they will receive life that never ends.”
  • Uma: “Like this God loves all people in the world, with the result that he gave his Only Child, so that whoever believes in that his Child, they will not receive punishment/condemnation, but they will receive good life forever.”
  • Kankanaey: “Since God’s love for people in this world is great, he sent his only Child so that whoever believes in him, he would not be separated from God to be punished, but rather there would be in him life that has no end.”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “God very much loves the people who live here on earth. Therefore he sent his only son to be killed in order that every one who believes in him will not be lost, rather he will have the new life forever.”
  • Tagbanwa: “For God really values very much all people here under the heavens. Therefore he gave his one-and-only Son, so that as for whoever will believe-in/obey and trust-in/rely-on him, he won’t get to go there to suffering/hardship, but on the contrary he will be given life without ending.”
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “All mankind is very big in the breath of God and because of this, even his only son he did not hold back, but rather he sent him here so that all who believe in him, their souls will not be punished, but rather they will be given life without end.”
  • Miahuatlán Zapotec: “Because God greatly loves people of the world, because of it, God sent his only son to earth so that all men who believe in God’s son, those men will not be lost to the evil thing. On the contrary, they will have life forever.” (Source for this and above: John Williams in the Seeing Scripture Anew blog.)
  • Yakan: “God really loved mankind, therefore he gave/handed over his only Son to be killed so that all who trust in his Son will not be separated from God but will live forever there in the presence of God.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Keley-I Kallahan: “Since God loves all people on earth so much, he sent his only child, so that all people who believe-obey him will not be far from God in the underworld of darkness, but will be given a second life with God that never ends.” Richard Hohulin (in Holzhausen 1991, p. 35ff.) explains how he and his team arrived at this translation (display by clicking or tapping here)

    The biblical text says that God loved “the world.” The Kalanguya [the speakers of Keley-I Kallahan] would understand this to mean that God so desired the earth that He gave His Son for it. This, of course, is not the meaning of this biblical passage. John did not mean the physical world, but the totality of all people on earth, to whom God’s love is directed. Therefore, the translator completes the sentence with “all people on earth” and thus expresses unmistakably for the Kalanguya what it is about.

    Now the little word “so” is still missing. But there is simply no corresponding word. Instead, the translator discovers the prefix naka, which is placed before the verb. It expresses about the same thing: God loves with great power, beyond what can be expected. So the prefix is added and thus the meaning is established.

    The next difficulty is the statement that God gave His “Son.” For this, too, the exact corresponding word is missing; the Kalanguya know only the more general word “child.” It could be supplemented to “child who was a boy.” But that would be a cumbersome, unnatural way of expressing it. Moreover, the Kalanguya would see in the emphasis on the child being masculine an indication that God just gave a boy, not a girl. So the translator leaves it with the word child. He can assume that in many other parts of the gospel it is clearly expressed that Jesus was masculine.

    Now it is still said that God “gave” his son. The Kalanguya would never say this, because they use that word only for giving things. People, in their view, cannot be “given.” The translator must take this into consideration as well. Finally, the word “send” is chosen as a substitute.

    Also, with the word “lost” or “perish” the translator struggles. The Kalanguya have no concept of eternal punishment or a hell. According to their traditional religion, they believe that after death people go to the underworld and continue to exist there as spirit beings. But this is not conceived as a punishment, but as the fate of all people. The translator builds on that concept, but tries to add that there is something terrible, terrifying behind the biblical concept of perishing. The result is a whole descriptive sentence for the one word “They will be far from God in the underworld of darkness.” Is this not going too far? Doesn’t the translator go beyond the original text with this? But what other possibilities are there for him? After all, he doesn’t want to give his people the idea that Jesus came only to save them from getting lost somewhere in the jungle and never being found again.

    The expression “eternal life” presents a final difficulty. For the word eternal, the Ifugao expression “unending” could be used. But if left at that, people would misunderstand it. Either they would understand in their traditional idea of the continued existence in the realm of the dead or as a continued life without dying. Neither of these is the meaning of the passage. So here, too, an explanatory paraphrase must express what is meant: “They will be given a second life with God that will never end.”

    A single verse — but how many questions there were to clarify, how many problems to consider! Yes, Bible translation is not an easy undertaking. It requires a good knowledge of the language, a deft touch, and also the courage to go beyond the usual notion of a literal translation in order to fully express the meaning of the original text. But it is worth the effort, because now also the Kalanguya can hear and understand it in their language: “Since God loves all people on earth so much, he sent his only child, so that all people who believe-obey him will not be far from God in the underworld of darkness, but will be given a second life with God that never ends.”

  • Daniel Shaw reflects on the complex translation of this verse into Samo. Click or tap here to see the story.

    As I learned in Sunday school, John 3:16 is what the Bible is all about — the Gospel in a nutshell. But how was I to communicate this verse without these key words? Like any other language, Samo is not deficient. I knew Nida and Taber’s famous dictum, ‘If it can be said in one language, it can be said in another.’ I quickly realized I had to get beyond the horizontal and surface plane. This was not just about how to translate John 3:16. That would have been simply a matter of applying translation principles to a particular language problem — a transposition of human ideas. Rather, I wanted to help them deal with the theological issue of who God is: God’s power, God’s relationship with human beings, and the far-reaching implications of that relationship for dealing with is¬sues of life, death, and eternal life. I needed to get beyond the immediate text to the whole of Scripture and allow the Samo to stand in awe at this incredible God who included them in his plan for humanity. What could this mean for them individually and as a group of former cannibals living in the dense rain forest on the Island of New Guinea?

    As a translator I knew how to solve the lexical and semantic problems. As an anthropologist I knew the importance of considering both the cultural setting of those who first received John’s Gospel, as well as the need to understand the Samo culture. I knew the value of analyzing collocational ranges. I appreciated the value of text /communication styles and how these are used for effective presentation of a mes¬sage. I also knew the Samo were aware of a ‘guy in the sky’ who was always ready to zap them when they did wrong (mothers would caution playing children not to make too much noise lest they attract his attention). But this was not the concept of God characterized in John 3:16 by the apostle.
    Eventually I discovered the concept of the ayo, of the oldest among a group of brothers who lived in a longhouse. This was a benevolent, caring man who was never in charge but always in control — a traffic director for the entire household. They spoke of him as ‘the authority person.’ When combined with an all-inclusive possessive pronoun this term eventually became the term we used for God — oye ayo, ‘our authority person.’ (See God.) When extended to all the people who ‘sleep in all the places of the earth’ (a way to communicate ‘the world’ — see world) the Samo began to appreciate God in a whole new way, in relationship to themselves and to their enemies.

    The relationship between the ayo and those in a longhouse reflected a strong, caring concern for everyone in the household — ‘love.’ For the Samo, a very practical, down to earth people surviving in a hostile environment, belief was a matter of experience. How do they know something is true? They see it, hear it, feel it! In short, they experience truth. This has profound implications far beyond trying to translate John 3:16. It relates to the broader context of all of John chapter 3, including Nicodemus’s awe of Christ and Israel’s experience with the brass serpent in the desert, particular experiences tied to the history of a specific people in a particular time and place. More broadly, it is about how humans experience God.

    As a Bible translator I was, in fact, communicating through this verse in its place within a text, an entire semantic constellation tied to the very purpose of Scripture. Suddenly the Samo found themselves in the flow of human involvement with a caring God who knew them and wanted to have an intimate, family-type rela¬tionship with them — not merely sit in judgment and zap them without warning. As a result of understanding John 3:16, the Samo also found themselves in relationship with people beyond their recognized circle of alliance, with the whole of humanity beyond their borders, including people they normally considered enemies (see thief (parable of the wise householder)). That the ‘one in control’ of their feared enemies, the Bedamoni, also had authority over them was not only revelatory, it was transforming. This new understanding — experienced through relationship — had eternal implications for a ‘life that would not end’ and gave insight to a spirit world populated by evil beings, but also included the pool of ancestors who constantly reentered the world to energize a newborn baby and move through the cycle of life once again to join the ancestors and assist the living in their struggle. These new and far-reaching theological in¬sights relating to the Samo also challenged my understanding of the text, forced me to reevaluate my own assumptions, and made me appreciate more deeply the Samo from whom I learned so much about God. (Source: Shaw / Van Engen 2003, p. 177f.)

bed, mat

The Greek terms that are translated “mat” or “bed” or similar in English are translated in Ebira as odooro or “stretcher.” Hans-Jürgen Scholz (in Holzhausen 1991, p. 42f.) explains the long odyssey of finding the right term: The regular term for “bed” (ode) didn’t work since this only referred to the traditional raised mud floor used for sleeping which was unmovable and could not be used in the story. The term iveedi was used for a movable bed with a metal frame also did not work since it exclusively referred to modern beds imported from Japan which of course could also not be used in the context of the story. The word for “mat” (uvene) was also impossible to use since traditional mats are fragile and and could not possible be used to lower someone down from the roof. Finally the term odooro for “stretcher” was used.

Still the first version that used that term and said “roll up your stretcher and leave” still had to be changed one more time since stretchers are traditionally made of old rags and only used once. Therefore in the final text it had to be emphasized that the odooro had to be just cleared out of the house as a courtesy by the healed paralytic rather than to be kept for further use.

The Pfälzisch translation by Walter Sauer (publ. 2012) uses Bahr, also “stretcher.” (source: Zetzsche)

desert, wilderness

The Greek that is translated as “desert” or “wilderness” in English is translated in a number of ways:

Note that in Luke 15:4, usually a term is used that denotes pastoral land, such as “eating/grazing-place” in Tagbanwa (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation).

See also wilderness and desolate wilderness.

demon

The Hebrew and Greek that is typically translated/transliterated in English as “demon” is translated in Central Mazahua as “the evil spirit(s) of the devil” (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).

In Sissala it is translated with kaŋtɔŋ, which traditionally referred to “either a spirit of natural phenomena such as trees, rivers, stones, etc., or the spirit of a deceased person that has not been taken into the realm of the dead. Kaŋtɔŋ can be good or evil. Evil kaŋtɔŋ can bring much harm to people and are feared accordingly. A kaŋtɔŋ can also dwell in a person living on this earth. A person possessed by kaŋtɔŋ does not behave normally.” (Source: Regina Blass in Holzhausen 1991, p. 48f.)

In Umiray Dumaget Agta it is translated as hayup or “creature, animal, general term for any non-human creature, whether natural or supernatural.” Thomas Headland (in: Notes on Translation, September 1971, p. 17ff.) explains some more: “There are several types of supernatural creatures, or spirit beings which are designated by the generic term hayup. Just as we have several terms in English for various spirit beings (elves, fairies, goblins, demons, imps, pixies) so have the Dumagats. And just as you will find vast disagreement and vagueness among English informants as to the differences between pixies and imps, etc., so you will find that no two Dumagats will agree as to the form and function of their different spirit beings.” This term can also be used in a verb form: hayupen: “creatured” or “to be killed, made sick, or crazy by a spirit.

In Yala it is translated as yapri̍ija ɔdwɔ̄bi̍ or “bad Yaprija.” Yaprijas are traditional spirits that have a range presumed activities including giving or withholding gifts, giving and protecting children, causing death and disease and rewarding good behavior. (Source: Eugene Bunkowske in Notes on Translation 78/1980, p. 36ff.)

In Lamnso’ it is translated as aànyùyi jívirì: “lesser gods who disturb, bother, pester, or confuse a person.” (Source: Fanwong 2013, p. 93)

In Paasaal it is translated as gyɩŋbɔmɔ, “beings that are in the wild and can only be seen when they choose to reveal themselves to certain people. They can ‘capture’ humans and keep them in hiding while they train the person in herbalism and divination. After the training period, which can range from a week to many years, the ‘captured’ individual is released to go back into society as a healer and a diviner. The gyɩŋbɔmɔ can also be evil, striking humans with mental diseases and causing individuals to get lost in the wild. The Pasaale worldview about demons is like that of others of the language groups in the area, including the Northern Dagara [who use kɔ̃tɔmɛ with a similar meaning].” (Source: Fabian N. Dapila in The Bible Translator 2024, p. 415ff.)

See also devil and formal pronoun: demons or Satan addressing Jesus.

snake

In Kuy culture, snakes are eaten, so here the Kuy translation says the equivalent of “a yellow snake” as these are taboo (source: David Clark). For the same reason, the term used in Barasana-Eduria is “eel” since eels are detested among the speakers (source: Larry Clark in Holzhausen 1991, p. 45).

See also serpent.

right hand of

The Greek and Hebrew that is typically translated as “(to the) right hand of” is often translated much more descriptively in other languages. In Yakan it is translated as “at the right side, here in the greatest/most important/most honored place/seat,” in Mezquital Otomi as “the right hand, at the place of honor,” in Chuj as “exalted at the right hand,” in Chichimeca-Jonaz as “in a high place there at the right,” in Lalana Chinantec as “make great,” in Isthmus Mixe as “given great authority,” in Morelos Nahuatl as “placed big” or “heart-strengthens me,” in Isthmus Mixe as “stays with me,” (source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August, 1966, p. 86ff), and in Teutila Cuicatec as “in all authority at the right side” (source: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.).

In Lamnso’, the seat on the right-hand side signifies that the person seated there would have a higher position than the one to his left (vs. just being a seat of honor). To circumvent any misunderstanding of the biblical text, the translation here refers to the “highest seat next to God.” (Source: Karl Grebe in Holzhausen 1991, p. 52)

For Old Testament examples of blessing and power associated with God’s right hand, see Gen 48:14, 48:17, Exodus 15:6, 15:12, Psalm 48:10, 80:15, 80:17, 89:13.

rock, sand

Fuyug houses are built with poles which cannot be put into rock, so in this passage the Fuyug translation for the term that is “rock” in English becomes “firm ground” and “sand” becomes “soft ground.” (Source: David Clark)

Likewise, and for the same reason, the wise man builds his house in Manam on “firm ground” as well. (Source: Blaine Turner in Holzhausen 1991, p. 47)

Since speakers of Karakalpak do indeed build their houses on sand, the translators had to find a slightly different solution to not imply that the Karakalpaks themselves are foolish. They ended up choosing shege qum, the term for loose yellow sand along river banks, since this indeed is a kind of sand Karakalpaks would not build their houses on. (Source: Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 57)

gospel

In choosing a word for the Greek that is typically translated as “gospel” in English, a number of languages construct a phrase meaning “good news,” “joyful report” or “happiness-bringing words.” In some instances such a phrase may be slightly expanded in order to convey the proper meaning, e.g. “new good word” (Tzotzil), or it may involve some special local usage:

  • “good story” (Navajo)
  • “joyful telling” (Tausug)
  • “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • cohuen ñoñets or “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237)
  • “good news” (Yanesha’) (source: Martha Duff in Holzhausen 1991, p. 11)
  • “voice of good spirit” (San Blas Kuna)(source: Claudio Iglesias [Mr. and Mrs.] in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 85ff. )
  • suviśēṣattinṟe (0സുവിശേഷം) or “good narrative” (Malayalam)
  • susmachar (ସୁସମାଚାର) or “good matter” (Odia)
  • suvārteya (ಸುವಾರ್ತೆಯ) or “good word” (Kannada) (source for this and two above: Y.D. Tiwari in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 132ff. )
  • the German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) translates as “all-transformative good news” (alles verändernde gute Botschaft), also “good news”
Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“In Rutul, it was only during the most recent consultant checking session that I realized that the Rutul word for Gospel – Incir (from Arabic إنجيل — Injil) — sounds and looks exactly like the word that means ‘fig’ in Rutul. This is a case of homonymy, in which two completely non-related words from differing historical sources have come to sound exactly alike. Most Rutul speakers know that incir means ‘fig’ because they grow this fruit in their yard or buy it at the market every week. However, because the religious sphere of discourse was heavily disparaged during the Soviet era, most people simply never encountered Incir with the meaning of ‘Gospel.’ This meaning of the word, which Rutuls of the pre-Soviet era knew from the Koran, simply fell into disuse and never had much reason for returning into contemporary Rutul since there is no Christian church established among the people. So if the translator continues to use the term Incir as the rendering for ‘Gospel,’ he runs the risk that most readers will, at best, read the word with a smile because they know that it also means ‘fig,’ and, at worst, will completely misunderstand the word. The seemingly ‘easy’ solution in this case is for the translator to use a Rutul neologism meaning ‘Joyful Message’ or ‘Good News,’ [see above] instead of Incir; but in fact it is not all that easy to make this change if the translator himself insists on using the historical word because at least some Rutuls still understand it as meaning ‘Gospel.’ This is a situation in which the translation team has to gradually grow into the understanding that a fully intelligible translation of Scripture is preferable to one that maintains old words at the cost of alienating much of the readership.”

For “good news,” see also Isaiah 52:7.