One of my favorite authors calls John 3:16 the most beautiful 25 words of the English language and I agree. The book he wrote was translated into Russian, where John 3:16 only occupies 21 words (not to mention that the original Greek is actually 26 words). When the book was translated into Russian, it maintained the figure of 25 words. It was a good translation, but sometimes when we explain the Gospel, we need to use localization.
If you have ever tried to teach through a translator, you may have noticed that some things just don’t translate all that well. One of the best Gospel verses out there is John 3:16, so I’d like to take a look with you at some of the nuances in English translations of this verse and how they carry over into Russian. If you do missionary work among Russian speakers, you’ll be prepared, but even if you work with other languages, perhaps you’ll know what to look out for. Here’s John 3:16 in English, Greek, and Russian:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (NKJV)
οὕτω γὰρ ἡγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται, ἀλλ᾿ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. (Greek)
Ибо так возлюбил Бог мир, что отдал Сына Своего Единородного, дабы всякий верующий в Него, не погиб, но имел жизнь вечную. (Russian)
I love John 3:16, whether it be in English, Russian, or Greek, and I especially love explaining the content of John 3:16 to others. But, there are some grammatical nuances that missionaries should know about when they want to explain John 3:16 through a translator. You see, when we see John 3:16 in English, there are some words that are translated from the Greek in ways that aren’t quite literal. We often take advantage of the English wording in our presentations, but other languages may translate things in a way that prevents exact translations from English. I’m not saying that English translations such as the NKJV are bad. In fact, I’m really glad that they’re polished. Here is what John 3:16 would look like if we translated straight from Greek:
In this way for loved the God the world, wherefore the Son of His the onlybegotten gave, so every the believer into Him not die, but has life eternal.
While you were reading my weird translation, you could probably tell that it was John 3:16, but if this was your first exposure to the Gospel, it probably wouldn’t make a good first impression. Here is an awkward English translation from the Russian Synodal Version:
For [or “because;” it’s an archaic word used mainly in literature] so loved God world, that [or what] gave Son His Onlybegotten, in order [another word used mainly in literature] every believer into Him, not die [yet another word used mainly in literature], but had life eternal.
Looking at the back translation from Russian, you could probably guess that it’s John 3:16. But, let’s take a look at some American idiomatic phrases we sometimes use with John 3:16 through the lens of a Russian translation.
Jesus says, “Whoever believes in Him” will be saved. We don’t have to do good works, get baptized, or anything else. John 3:16 says we only need to “believe in Him.”
I dogmatically agree with the above statement. But, the problem is that we can’t treat the phrase “believe in Him” as a direct quote from John 3:16. The Russian text, like in Greek, has the word, “believer” (as in a person) rather than the verb, “believe.” Now, if you spoke what’s written above, a translator could easily translate everything, and the audience would catch the idea. But, if you’re writing a tract, remember that English the quotation marks might not work in other translations.
“Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Notice that the Bible uses the present tense here. Everlasting life is not something that someone “will have,” but it’s something you can have right now
Amen! Eternal life is a present possession! …but, that’s not necessarily clear in other translations. In fact, it’s not even clear in English. “Should not perish” is in the future, but in the English sentence, someone could see “should” as modifying “have” …“should have everlasting life,” as if it’s in the future. I even had a friend who read, “whoever believes in Him should not perish” and said, “See there? He should not perish, but he still might perish.” That’s not what “should” means here. It simply means that the reason God gave His Son was so that believing in Christ results in receiving eternal life.
There’s a condition (Gr. hina “that” whoever believes…), so the Greek uses what’s called the subjunctive mood. It’s a weird grammar thing. The Greek uses the present tense “have,” but it becomes less clear in translations because different languages treat the subjunctive differently. In Russian, it’s actually in the past tense, like “had.” In the context, we can see that “have” or “had” is in the subjunctive because of the words, “so that” (Russ. daby). But, if we try to pluck out this one individual word and show that it’s present tense (which we could actually do in Greek), we run into trouble.
It says “everlasting life.” What is everlasting life? Everlasting means lasts forever. It lasts… forever… it’s ever–lasting
That is indeed the etymology of the English word, “everlasting.” But, it’s not the etymology of the Russian word, vechnaya. Even in many English translations, we’ll have the word “eternal,” which is similar to the Spanish word, eterna, and the French word, éternelle. Even the Wookie word, gaaar, is more similar to ggaaarr and has little etymological connection to gggarrrr.
For God loved the world so much that He…
True, God really loves us. But, that’s not what the “so” means in John 3:16. It’s actually more like, “in this manner.” A confusing word that looks like “so much” is actually in Russian, too, but it’s a poor reflection of the Greek, so I thought I’d note this misconception as well.
Well, I hope this has been food for thought. Wherever you end up serving, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere, it might be wise to keep these things in mind and talk them over with your translator in advance.