complete verses (Isaiah 53:1-6)

Following is a back-translation of Isaiah 53:1-6 in the Chichewa interconfessional translation (1999):

[1] “Who has believed these things that we have heard?
Who recognizes the power of Chauta [see tetragrammaton (YHWH)] in these things?
[2] As you know, that servant of his grew up as a young shoot before the eyes of God, and also like a root in hard, dry soil.
He had no real appearance or a handsome face, that we might be looking at him.
There was no beauty about him to attract us.
[3] That very one people despised and rejected.
He was a person of sufferings, accustomed to pain.
He was like a person whose friends cover their eyes on seeing him.
People despised him, and we regarded him as nothing.
[4] “Most surely, he endured sufferings which we ourselves should have felt,
and he received pains which we our-elves should have received.
But we thought that it was God who was punishing him, and striking him and causing him to suffer. [5] But they stabbed him because of our sins,
and they smashed him because of our evils.
The punishment that befell him has given us peace,
and his sores have healed us.
[6] We all had gone astray like sheep.
Each one of us was just walking along his own way.
So Chauta caused him to carry the guilt of all of us.

(Source: Wendland 1998, p. 151f.)

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (Isa. 53:5)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)

The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, the Jarai translation and the Adamawa Fulfulde translation, use the inclusive pronoun (“referring to the speakers and their fellow Judeans in exile”).

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”), “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 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.”

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 first person pronoun referring to God.

Learn more on Bible Odyssey: Gender of God .

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong

Translation commentary on Isaiah 53:5

This verse underlines the theme of the servant suffering for those (or with those) who had rejected him.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: These two lines are parallel and synonymous in meaning. But renders the common Hebrew conjunction, which is literally “And.” Most of the versions consulted render it as a contrastive conjunction here. However, it may be translated “And,” since this verse continues to describe the servant’s suffering referred to in the previous verse. The Hebrew passive participles rendered wounded and bruised refer to his physical suffering. The verb for wounded comes from the same Hebrew root as the noun for “grief” in verses 3-4. It can also mean “pierced” (New International Version, Revised English Bible, New American Bible). The verb translated bruised carries the sense of something being “crushed” (New International Version, Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh). It suggests great suffering.

The Hebrew preposition min rendered for twice in these two lines is a key to understanding the nature of the servant’s suffering. The view that his suffering was vicarious depends on its interpretation. The preposition min normally points to a separation (rendered “from”), but it does have a wide semantic range. However, it rarely has the sense of “on behalf of.” The Hebrew preposition with that sense would be be, which can denote some kind of exchange. So it is probably best to view the preposition min here as meaning “because of” (Good News Translation), indicating that the servant suffered as a result of the people’s sins. New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh reflects this sense by rendering these two lines as “But he was wounded because of our sins, Crushed because of our iniquities.”

The Hebrew word for transgressions refers to deliberate rebellion against God (see the comments on 43.25). For iniquities see 1.4.

Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole is literally “The chastisement/punishment of our peace [was] on him.” This means the servant’s suffering resulted in bringing the well-being of those who rejected him. The Hebrew word for chastisement refers to discipline or correction, so it has a positive purpose. Here it leads to the wholeness of the people. Good News Translation, New International Version, and Bible en français courant use the term “punishment.” Made us whole renders the Hebrew word shalom. For this word see the comments on 26.12.

And with his stripes we are healed is parallel and synonymous in meaning with the previous line. His stripes refers to the marks left on the servant’s body after he was beaten. The Hebrew term rendered stripes refers to a blow or hit and is used here to speak of the servant’s physical suffering. Instead of stripes, New Revised Standard Version, New Jerusalem Bible, and New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh use “bruises.” Good News Translation and Bible en français courant say “blows,” while New International Version and Revised English Bible have “wounds.” We are healed is a poetic way of describing restoration, the return to a state of well-being (see also 57.18-19). This expression is similar in meaning to made us whole. Both these figurative expressions are taken from the medical world. If they are rendered literally, they should not give the impression that the people needed some medical treatment and that by beating the servant they were healed. If there is such a risk, the verb healed may be rendered “restored.” For both expressions Revised English Bible has “restored us to health” and “we are healed”; Good News Translation uses “We are healed” and “made whole”; and New International Version translates “brought us peace” and “we are healed.” Possible renderings that replace the medical imagery are “made us good/strong … we are set right” and “took care of us … we are [fully] helped/sustained/supported.”

Some languages may prefer active forms for the passive verbs in this verse. There is not any claim here that God was the agent for the healing. The third translation example below uses active forms, without mentioning an agent.

For the translation of this verse consider the following examples:

• But he was pierced because of our rebellion,
crushed because of our sins.
He suffered to make us whole again,
and by his bruises we are healed.

• Our rebellion caused him to be pierced,
our sins led to his being crushed.
He suffered so that we might be made whole,
his bruises gave us healing.

• Our disobedience led to his suffering,
our sins caused his pain.
He suffered so that we could become whole again,
his bruises restored us to full health.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Sterk, Jan. A Handbook on Isaiah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2011. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .