Following are a number of back-translations of Mark 3:21:
Uma: “So there were some people who said; ‘He’s crazy!’ When Yesus’ relatives heard that, they went to get him.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “When the relatives of Isa heard about this, they went to get him. For the people said Isa’s mind was destroyed (that he was crazy).” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “When the companions of Jesus heard about what he was doing, they came to get him because they thought that he was deranged.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “When his siblings/cousins heard-the-news, they set-out to go fetch him, because there were some who were saying that he was crazy.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “When some of the relatives of Jesus heard news of it, they went there to get him for they said, ‘He’s gone crazy!'” (Source: Tagbanwa 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.
hoi par’ autou literally ‘those along with him’: this idiom may mean ‘his followers,’ ‘his friends,’ or ‘his family.’ King James Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version prefer ‘his friends’; it would seem, however that ‘his family,’ ‘his relatives’ is what is indicated, in the light of vv. 31ff.: this rendering is adopted by Manson, Moffatt, Goodspeed, The Modern Speech New Testament, Translator’s New Testament, O Novo Testamento de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo. Revisdo Autorizada, Le Nouveau Testament. Version Synodale.
kratēsai (cf. 1.31) ‘to seize,’ ‘to take control of’ (Translator’s New Testament), ‘to seize by force’ (The Modern Speech New Testament).
elegon gar ‘for they were saying’: there is division of opinion over who is referred to by ‘they were saying.’ Most translations assume that the subject is ‘his relatives’ (‘his friends’) of the previous clauses; following Turner, however, some see here another example of the impersonal plural (cf. 2.18) whose meaning would be ‘people were saying,’ ‘it was being said’: so Moffatt, Translator’s New Testament; Lagrange on disait. There is no way finally to determine which interpretation is correct.
hoti ‘that’: recitative, introducing direct speech.
exestē (cf. 2.12) ‘he is beside himself,’ ‘he has lost his senses.’ As Burton points out, this aorist describes a present state, the result of a past action, and is best translated by the present tense.
It would seem from the context that a somewhat more intimate group than ‘friends’ were those so concerned about Jesus’ health as the result of his being constantly with the thronging crowd. Accordingly, one may use ‘those of his household’ (a common equivalent of family and relatives) or ‘those who were close to him’ (a close rendering of the Greek phrase). Indonesian and Javanese render ‘his blood-relations.’
Seize must be carefully translated or the wrong connotation may be given. After all, his family wanted to rescue him from the importuning crowd, not to manhandle him, a not uncommon connotation of words meaning ‘to seize.’
Two types of mistakes tend to occur in translating He is beside himself: (1) that Jesus was demented and (2) that he was demon possessed (particularly in view of the following charge by the scribes). There is no doubt that the Greek term is a strong one, and often does signify complete mental derangement, but in this context it means that Jesus’ family thought he was demented. It was this fear which prompted his solicitous associates to try to rescue him. In Tzeltal the appropriate equivalent is ‘his head had been touched,’ which is an expression to identify what might be called the half-way stage to insanity. In Amganad Ifugao one may say ‘he acts as though he were crazy.’ In Shilluk the equivalent is ‘he is acting like an imbecile,’ and in Shipibo-Conibo one may say ‘his thoughts have gone out of him.’ In Pamona the translation is ‘he is outside his senses,’ in Indonesian ‘he is not by his reason.’
Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert G. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1961. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .