What is truth?

The Greek that is translated into English as “What is truth?” is translated into Dogrib as Nàowo ehkw’ıı ayìı welè?: “What may the truth be anyway?”

Dwayne Janke (in Word Alive 2003, p. 16) tells the story of this translation:

“One challenging passage is John 18:37-38, where Christ tells Pontius Pilate that everyone on the side of truth listens to Him. In response, Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’ and walks away.

“Jaap [Feenstra, an SIL translation consultant] turns to Alice [Sangris, a Dogrib co-worker for translation verification] after reading the verses. ‘Why, Alice, would he say, Nàowo ehkw’ıı ayìı awèidi? “What do you mean with truth?’?’

“Alice seems unsure. But after Marie Louise [Bouvier-White, a Dogrib translator] reads the verses again, Alice says, that to her, Pilate is asking a genuine question.

“‘It’s supposed to be a rhetorical question,’ Jaap replies. ‘Pilate is saying. We don’t even know what truth is.’

“Marie Louise catches onto the concept: ‘Pilate went out (of the room) because ‘truth’ doesn’t mean anything to him.’

“Mary [Siemens, another Dogrib translator] offers an optional wording that makes the Dogrib translation ot Pilate’s question more sarcastic in tone. The group discusses and tweaks the phrasing, until in Dogrib it says: ‘What may the truth be anyway?'”

I find no crime in him

The Greek that is translated as “I find no crime in him” or similar in English is translated as “Not a single fault do I find in this man” in Ojitlán Chinantec, “I don’t find any sin in this man” in Huehuetla Tepehua, “It is not known to me even a little bit of bad which he has done” in Aguaruna, “I think this man has no sin” in Chol, and “It is not apparent that this man is guilty” in Yatzachi Zapotec.

(Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)

complete verse (John 18:38)

Following are a number of back-translations of John 18:38:

  • Uma: “Pilatus retorted: ‘Ah! What is that that you (sing.) call truth?’ After that, Pilatus went back outside and he said to the Yahudi people: ‘I did not find even one kind of his wrong.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “Pilatus said, ‘What is the truth?’ When Pilatus had said this, he went out again to the Yahudi and he said to them, ‘I cannot find any reason for judging this person.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And then Pilate said, ‘It would be good if someone knew what the true teaching is (but no one does).’ And then when he had said this, Pilate went out to the Jews, and he said to them, ‘I can’t find any sin that he’s done.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Whereupon Pilato said, ‘What perhaps is that-aforementioned truth?’ Then he again went-out and said to the Jews, ‘I know of no sin/crime of his.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “‘So what really is truth?’ asked Pilato. ‘No-one knows what is truth.’ When Pilato had said that, he went out again and said again to the Judio, ‘There’s nothing which I can whatever of sin in that person.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Pilate said to him, ‘Whoever can know about the true word?’ Having finished with the questioning, Pilate went outside to speak with the Jews. He said to them, ‘I do not find this man guilty of sin.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

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. 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. (Source: Zetzsche) 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.

See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong