The Greek that is translated as “with you (or: whom) I am well pleased” in English is often translated in other languages with figurative expressions, including “you are the heart of my eye” (Huastec), “you arrive at my gall” (with the gall being the seat of the emotions and intelligence) (Mossi), “I see you very well” (Tzotzil), “you make me very happy” (Sayula Popoluca), “my bowels are sweet with you” (Shilluk) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida), “you pull at my heart” (Central Pame), “my thoughts are arranged” (Mashco Piro), “my heart rests in you” (Wè Southern) (source for this and two above: Nida 1952, p. 127).
Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 17:5:
- Uma: “While Petrus was still speaking, suddenly a shining cloud came down overshadowing them, and from in that cloud they heard a speaker who said: ‘This is my Child whom I love. He makes-glad my heart. Listen to his words!'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “So-then while Petros was still speaking there appeared a light/bright cloud above them and they were overshadowed and there was a voice from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son whom I really love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “While he was still speaking, they were covered by a shining cloud, and coming from the cloud they heard someone suddenly speaking, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “While he was still talking, a blinding-bright cloud suddenly-arrived and blocked-them all -from-view. Then there was a voice from the cloud that said, ‘This-one is my child whom I love, who always-satisfies me. Listen to what he says!'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “As Pedro was still speaking, they were overshaddowed by a glistening cloud. That cloud is from-where-seemed-to-come speech which said, ‘This one he is my very-dear Son, who really is my joy/satisfaction. Listen well to him.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “Peter was still talking when a cloud covered where they were. The cloud really shone. There was heard then there in the cloud that God was speaking. He said: ‘This one here is my Son whom I love. With him I am pleased. Concerning the words this one will speak, pay attention to them,’ he said.” (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.
See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.
Translator: Simon Wong