The Greek that is translated as “in him was life” or similar in English is translated in Shipibo-Conibo as “that Word also caused to live,” in Umiray Dumaget Agta as “he is the one who gives life,” and in Tzotzil (San Andres) as “everything alive lives because of him,” and in Alekano as “he is the father of life.” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February, 1970, p. 1-125.)
The Greek that is translated as “the life was the light of all people” or similar in English is translated in Huehuetla Tepehua as “that one who gives life, he is the one who gives understanding to the minds of men,” in Ojitlán Chinantec as “he teaches people the right and straight way according to truth, as if to say, he illumines them,” in Tzotzil (San Andres) as “The one that causes people to live, he is like light. This one who is like light…,” and in Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac as “and he showed people what is truth. And thus he was as it were a light to the people.” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
Following are a number of back-translations of John 1:4:
- Uma: “He is the source of life, and He is the light that enlightens the hearts of mankind.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “The Word is the source of life and this life gives light to the thinking/mind of mankind.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And this Word of God, he also is the source of life which is forever. And this life is like light because it illuminates the darkness in the minds of all mankind.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “It is also he who is the source of life who/which can-be-compared to a light which illuminates the minds of people.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “This one who is called Word, his life is far-from-ordinary, it being the source of life of all people. And this one is the like-a-light/most-important-light so that people will be enlightened.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “He is that one who gives the new life. He is that one who opens the hearts of (= who gives understanding to) the people so that they know what is true. He who gives the new life is like a light that opens the hearts of the people.” (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” 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.”
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.)
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.
Translator: Simon Wong