The following are ten things a translation team should consider when translating John 3:16. Of course the entire context of not only chapter three but all of what John has written must be kept in mind, as well as what we know about Jesus from other Gospel writers. Decisions about key terms used in other passages should be considered. I’m sure other translators can add to this list, but these are the things the translation team I was part of especially had to think about when translating into their language of Mixtec, an indigenous language of Mexico
This is not an attempt to cover every aspect of the translation of John 3:16, but to raise awareness of some of the issues. It is also simplified so that it can be used to share in Sunday Schools, Bible studies and other teaching situations to show those not involved in translation some of the issues translation teams encounter. This should be especially interesting to most since this is such a well known verse.
- We do not know if Jesus said this or if John is telling us about Jesus
Commentators do not agree where Jesus stopped talking and the writer John began his commentary. Different versions of the Bible punctuate this section differently, depending whether they think Jesus said what is written in vs. 16-21, or whether they decide John wrote it about Him. All agree that Jesus said to Nicodemus what is written in vs. 10-15. It makes it harder to determine which view is correct in 16-21 since Jesus does speak in third person during most of His discussion with Nicodemus. Whether Jesus is speaking here affects in many languages how this verse in translated, especially in the Mixtec language.
The translation team must decide how verse 16 fits into the context, since vs. 15 is a mini summary of vs. 16. Vs. 15 says: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The actual first word of the verse is “Thusly”. So the verse starts out: For “thusly” (in the following way) God loved…
Many languages do not have a good understanding of God, or a belief that there is only “one” God. Investigation is needed to see if there is an acceptable word for God in the language, and what that word implies to the speakers of the language. Sometimes it may be possible to say, “The Creator of all things.” I was in Thailand several years ago and while looking at a Buddhist temple, a monk spoke some English to me, so I began talking with him. I finally asked him if he knew of Jesus. He had never heard of Jesus. I then asked if he knew of God, and that word also did not ring a bell. I thought for a moment, then said God is the one who made the world, and he seemed to grasp that idea. I once had a discussion with a man in the Mixtec village who told me Andrew (the town saint) was a better saint than Jesus. No matter how much I explained about the uniqueness of Jesus and who He is, the man was steadfast in his belief. Some people in this village also call the saints gods.
Translating love in the completive (past) aspect could imply in some languages that God does not love us any more (He “used” to love the world). In the Mixtec translation I was a part of, the team decided to express this in present tense (continuative aspect), “God loves us very much.” Greek, of course, has three words for love, “agape”, here, plus “philos” and “eros”, so the translation team will need to consider and test different words for love. This Mixtec variant also has at least three different words/phrases that can be used to express love, compassion, empathy, desire, etc.
- the world
The translation team must be careful about translating the word “world” (kosmos) literally, or it may imply that God loves the dirt, trees, etc. In Mixtec it was adjusted to say that God loves the people of the world.
- He gave
This is also a more profound idea than it seems at first glance since it can sound strange to say that God gave His son, like He gave Him away. Plus with a transitive verb like give, many languages require a direct object, to clarify to whom He gave Him. In Mixtec, after experimenting with using the idea that God “sent” Him, the team finally decided to keep the word give, plus add an arrival verb, so it comes out as: God gave him and he has arrived to this world.
This required the translation team to make a decision as to who is speaking in this verse because of the implications of the motion and arrival verbs. If Jesus is still speaking to Nicodemus, He would say, “God gave him/me and he(I) has/have arrived to this world (and is/am still here)” since arrival verbs in this context imply the speaker is still present. If it is John narrating, he would say, “He sent/gave Him and He came(and left).” “Come” in the completive (past) aspect implies the person being spoken about came and went. This would imply that John wrote the verse sometime after Jesus ascended to heaven.
It is very possible that the implied information is that He gave His only Son “to die for the sins of people”, or “so that God might forgive the sins of people” or something along those lines. Most of us are so familiar with this verse that we can easily say this verse without thinking about that. For many languages, just saying, “He gave” is an incomplete thought. It needs more context. In the Mixtec example, saying, “He gave His only Son and He arrived in this world” helps fill things in. If a translation team realizes their language needs/requires added information for “give” , what implied information do they feel comfortable “adding”? What type of translation are they aiming for? And how will this information need to be adjusted as they decide if Jesus is talking or if John is talking about Jesus?
- His only son
This is another phrase that is hard to translate because of all the implications when stating that God has children. Translators, especially in Muslim areas, have faced this issue, since it sounds very much like God has a wife, had sex, etc., and the people reject the translation. In Mixtec this is translated as, “His only son.”
Another issue is, if Jesus is talking, can a person talk about himself in third person in the language? Will people think that, if Jesus is talking, then He is talking about some other son, His brother, or even implying that He is not the son of God? Yet another issue is, should it say, “He sent ME, His only son”? If Jesus is still talking, this is a real option. This is an issue throughout the Gospels, and especially in the book of John.
- whoever believes in him
The teams need to consider carefully what word to use for believe, since James says that the devils believe, and tremble. In Mixtec it says that whoever trusts in him, which is a good Mixtec way of talking about faith. In many languages, you can believe in facts, but you cannot “believe” in people. You can trust them or have confidence in them, which works well here.
- shall not perish
Perish in what sense? Will it communicate, like some groups teach, that those who don’t go to heaven simply cease to exist? What are the people’s beliefs about the afterlife, What happens when a person dies? The Mixtec says that they will not die.
- but have eternal life
Does this term mean they will never experience death on this earth? Does the language have a word for eternal? If so, what does it imply? In Mixtec it says that they will be able to live forever.
A word for word translation with these adjustments in Mixtec is: For since God loves very much the people of this world, therefore he gave (ME) his only son to arrive in this world, and whoever trusts in him(ME), they will not die. Instead they will be able to live forever.