Following are a number of back-translations of Ephesians 2:17:
Uma: “That is why Kristus came here to spread the news of peace to you who are far from God, and to them who were already close.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “Therefore Almasi came here to tell that it is possible for us (incl.) all to be reconciled to/with God. You have been told the non Yahudi, the ones who were far from God and we (excl.) the Yahudi also, the ones who were close to God.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Christ came here to the earth and He explained to us the Good News about peace so that we might become one with God. As for you who were not Jews whose minds were very far away from the true God, and for us Jews who were always thinking about Him, He explained to us the way that (incl.) we might become one with Him.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “Yes, Cristo came to preach to you who were far from God and to us (excl.) of-course who were close to him the good news that it was possible for us to be joined to God.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “He came down here to the world because he taught the people how true peace of mind/inner-being might be theirs, you who are not Jews who are those referred to as being far from God, and we (excl.) who are Jews who were close to him.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
Tenango Otomi: “Christ came to tell the good news to people in order to fix things up. He told the word to the people who didn’t know God, and also to the Jews who already knew God.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
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”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).
Modern Mandarin Chinese, however, offers another possibility. Here, 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, some Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. Among the translations that use 祂 to refer to “God” were early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970). R.P. Kramers (in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.) explains why later versions of Lü’s translation did not continue with this practice: “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.”
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.”
In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)
In Thai, the pronoun phra`ong (พระองค์) is used, a gender-neutral pronoun which must refer to a previously introduced royal or divine being. Similarly, in Northern Khmer, which is spoken in Thailand, “an honorific divine pronoun” is used for the pronoun referring to the persons of the Trinity (source: David Thomas in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 445). In Urak Lawoi’, another language spoken in Thailand, the translation often uses tuhat (ตูฮัด) — “God” — ”as a divine pronoun where Thai has phra’ong even though it’s actually a noun.” (Source for Thai and Urak Lawoi’: Stephen Pattemore)
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,” “king,” 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.
Some Protestant English Bibles use a referential capitalized spelling when referring to the persons of the Trinity with “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself.” This includes for instance the New American Standard Bible, but most translations, especially those published in the 21st century, do not. Two other languages where this is also done (in most Bible translations) are the closely related Indonesian and Malay. In both languages this follows the language usage according to the Qur’an, which in turn predicts that usage (see Soesilo in The Bible Translator 1991, p. 442ff. and The Bible Translator 1997, p. 433ff. ).
See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.
In the Greek text verses 17-18 are one sentence, with a minor break (semicolon) at the end of verse 17.
As the Greek stands, “and coming he preached peace” represents action that follows the crucifixion and death of Christ (of verses 14-16). This is somewhat strange and must be taken to refer, as Abbott says, to “Christ preaching by His Spirit in the apostles and other messengers of His” (so Robinson, Salmond, Westcott). Murray restricts it to Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, but this seems quite impossible. At no time is Christ reported to have preached to Gentiles as a group; his ministry was restricted to the homeland Jews. The best way to handle this seems to be as New English Bible and Good News Translation have done it: “So he came and proclaimed,” So Christ came and preached; Jerusalem Bible “Later he came” is not to be recommended.
Preached the Good News translates the Greek verb “to proclaim good news”; the direct object of the verb is “peace,” which means in this whole section “reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.”
The Good News of peace may be expressed as “the Good News that tells about peace” or “the Good News that is the means of people becoming reconciled.”
“Peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Revised Standard Version): this takes up the language of verse 13 and more closely reflects the words of Isaiah 57.19, “Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the Lord” (Revised Standard Version). Good News Translation has made explicit that those “who were far off” are Gentiles and “those who were near” are Jews.
In some instances there may be a problem involved in the figurative use of far away and near to. Sometimes the distinction may be expressed in terms of the degree of failure or lack in association, for example, “to you Gentiles who lacked so much in relation to God and to the Jews who lacked very little in relationship to God.”
Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert C. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1982. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .