5th July 2019

Using Grammar to Communicate Truth

The greatest desire that missionaries or Bible teachers have is to communicate the truth to their hearers. That's why we spend years learning the skills needed in linguistics, phonetics and grammar. All these skills came into play in getting us to the point where we can share the gospel and communicate effectively.

It’s important to realise that the Word of God is not only the explicit Word of God in the black and white text of the pages but also the implied Word of God. Here’s what I mean.

Language Variations

Languages are constructed in different ways. I realised this when I was in the process of going from the original Greek language through a modified literal English version such as the NASB (New American) and then into the target language of the people group we were working amongst.

A great example is the use in the Greek of the passive and active voice. Passive and active voices are used both in Greek and English but not in our target language in West New Britain in PNG. Every passive construction in the Greek could, by and large, be translated into English. The problem came when translating from English into the target language.

The target language only has active constructions. An example of a passive construction would be “The ball was hit by John.” In active voice, this would be “John hit the ball.” Both are saying the same thing in a different way. In the Bible, passive constructions are often used and the actor doing the action is hidden. Sometimes this is because the actor was God Himself or because the actor was not known. The reader fills in the blanks. In effect, the Word of God is not just the letters on the page, but it is also what it is saying by extension of what the grammar is demanding.

Here is an example from Mark 2:5. Jesus addressed a paralytic man saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” This is a passive construction and the actor is omitted. We know the actor is implied to be either God or Jesus. In our target language, the translator had to supply the actor. The verse ends up looking like the following: “My son. I have let your bad ways to be gone.” In fact, this is a literal English translation of what we translated into the target language. The actor supplied is “I” because it is Jesus who is forgiving the paralytic man. Now everything is brought out into the open and the actor has been made explicit.

A Translator’s Job

So, the Word of God is not just the explicit Word of God but the implied Word of God. There are many figures of speech and grammatical constructions in the Bible where grammatical information has been omitted in either the original language, or it needs to be omitted in the receptor language. It is the job of the translator or the Bible teacher to supply what is implied and to bring information into the open that has been hidden in the English but is known in the Greek.

Sometimes it is not easy to know what the implied information is and that is where we can get into problems. A rule taught in Bible translation courses is that where the original is not specific, then you should try and keep it just as vague. This leaves the way open for different possibilities.

Challenge and Reward

Communicating the gospel and all the vast pieces of information contained in the entire message is not easy, but it is exciting and rewarding. When you see truth communicated and see the lights go on in the hearer’s eyes, you know that it has been worth it all. We saw the lights go on in the eyes of the people we translated for. Now the church is still going strong 10 years after receiving the New Testament translation in their language.

Steve Henley

Steve was a Bible Translator and worked together with his wife Cathi in a tribe in West New Britain in Papua New Guinea. The team there completed the New Testament translation in 2007. Steve now pastors a church in Queensland, Australia.