untranslatable verses

The Swedish Bibel 2000 declared the 69 Old Testament verses referenced herein as “untranslatable.” Typically, other Bible translations translate those verses and mention in footnotes that the translation is uncertain or give alternate readings. Christer Åsberg, the Translation Secretary with the Swedish Bible Society at that time, explains why the Swedish Bible Society decided to not translate these verses at all (in The Bible Translator 2007, p. 1ff.):

“In the new Swedish translation (SB) of 2000, [some verses are] not translated at all; [they are] indicated with three hyphens inside square brackets [- - -] [with a] reference to the appendix, where in the article ‘Text’ one will find a paragraph with roughly the following content:

In some cases the text is unintelligible and the variant readings differing to such an extent, that it is quite impossible to attain a reasonable certainty of what is meant, although some isolated word may occur, whose meaning it is possible to understand.

“If Bible translators find the Hebrew text untranslatable, what kind of text is it that they have produced in the translation into their own language? When a footnote says ‘The Hebrew is not understandable,’ what then is the printed text a translation of? And if the translators prefer to do without footnotes, are they then really released from the responsibility of informing their readers that the text they read is just mere guesswork?

“To leave a blank space in a Bible text seems to be an offensive act for many. (. . . ) To admit that a piece of Holy Scripture makes no sense at all may have been unimaginable in times past. In our enlightened era, an overprotective concern for the readers’ trust in the word of God is apparently a decisive factor when a translator tries to translate against all odds. The verdict ‘untranslatable’ is much more frequent in scholarly commentaries on different Bible books written by and for experts than in the translations or footnotes of the same books designed for common readers.

“Another reason (. . .) is a professional, and very human, reluctance to admit a failure. Also, many Bible translators lack translational experience of other literary genres and other classical texts where this kind of capitulation is a part of the daily run of things. They may have an innate or subconscious feeling that the Bible has unique qualities not only as a religious document but also as a linguistic and literary artifact. Completeness is felt to be proof of perfection. Some translators, and not so few of their clients, are unfamiliar with a scholarly approach to philological and exegetical matters. In some cases their background have made them immune to a kind of interpretative approximation common in older translations, confessional commentaries, and sermons. Therefore, their tolerance towards lexical, grammatical, and syntactical anomalies tends to be comparatively great.

“It is very hard to discern and to define the boundary between something that is extremely difficult and something that is quite impossible. I am convinced that all Bible translators in their heart of hearts will admit that there actually are some definitely untranslatable passages in the Bible, but are there a dozen of them or a score? Are there fifty or a hundred? Not even a group of recognized experts would probably pick out the same ten most obvious cases. (. . .)


  1. There are untranslatable passages in the Bible.
  2. How many they are is impossible to say—except for the translation team that decides which passages are untranslatable.
  3. An untranslatable passage cannot and should therefore not be translated.
  4. The lacuna should be marked in a consistent way.
  5. The translating team should stipulate their criteria for untranslatability as early as possible.
  6. It is an ethical imperative that the readers be comprehensively informed.
  7. Untranslatability has been and can be displayed in many different ways.
  8. An explanatory note should not confuse linguistic untranslatability with other kinds of textual or translational difficulties.
  9. The information given should make it clear that the translators’ recognition of untranslatability is a token of respect for the Bible, not a proof of depreciation.
  10. You shall not fear the void, but the fear of the void.”

With thanks to Mikael Winninge, Director of Translation, Swedish Bible Society

pronoun for "God"

God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself” in many English Bible translations when referring to the persons of the Trinity with the capitalized “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).

Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility (click or tap here to read more):

In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.

In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.

While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, many other Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. (Source: Zetzsche)

Early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970) also used 祂 to refer to “God.” Kramers points out: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”

Source: R. P. Kramers in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.

In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):

In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.

Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”

In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)

Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”

The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “kind,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong