Supporting Article

Word Choice Challenges


In translating the Chinese Union Version (CUV) Bible, the choice of key words often presented a challenge. One example of word choice error was the word used for “sin” (ἁμαρτία in Greek, or “to miss the mark”) which was translated as zui (罪), crime, rather than guofan (过 犯), miss the mark, a more accurate translation (Strand, 2000). This created the misconception among many generations of Chinese listeners that sin is the breaking of civil and moral laws, rather than missing God’s mark. The same can be said for the word “fellowship” which was translated as jiaotong (交通), which in common Chinese usage means “traffic” or “communication,” while the preferred word choice would be tuanqi (团 契).

These errors might have been avoided had there been more involvement of Chinese translators. At the same time, these errors may have been difficult to avoid. Many of these theological concepts were not germane to Chinese culture, and thus time was required for Chinese church members to understand a concept before the preferred Chinese word could be chosen. However, since translation preceded the establishment of the church, the only option would have been for these errors to be corrected in later versions, but this did not happen.

Another early word choice decision focused on the term to use for God. Most cultures have a term for deity, but whether to use that term or introduce a new term is a critical translation decision (Eber, 1999; Zhao, 2010). The Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), asserted that the Chinese people had knowledge of the one true God as espoused in the Confucian Classics. Thus, Ricci advocated for the term shangdi (上帝) to refer to the Christian God (Lee, October 2005). Shangdi was used by emperors and historically associated with a kind of civil religion. However, shangdi does not represent a plurality, and thus, it is difficult to conceptualize with a triune God.

The indigenous term for god in Chinese, shen (神), is comparable to the lower case use of god in English. In China, it is not associated with any particular god. Over time, it has become more widely used in the Chinese church than shangdi and has become the basis of most theological writing. Shen was used in the earliest Protestant versions of the Bible. Yahweh, Yehehua (耶和华) in Chinese, was preserved in the Chinese Old Testament in its transliterated form. The term tianzhu (天主), the Lord of Heaven, was used by Catholics, but it has not been used by the Protestants to avoid being confused with Catholicism.

The debate over word choice continued, with different versions of the Peking version of the Bible using different terms. In 1850, however, the American Bible Society opted to go with the word shen. Yet, to this day, one can purchase both the shen and the shangdi versions of the CUV. Both shen and shangdi have been used by Christians, during a period when neither term has been much used in Chinese language in their historical sense, so that both terms refer primarily to the God of the Bible. Neither shen nor shangdi have much association with traditional Chinese concepts of deity.

Two lessons from this historical conversation bear reiterating. First, whether there is one true God, known in part through general revelation by all cultures, whose name should be used when introducing the God of the Bible, is a complex, but important theological decision. Furthermore, it has profound missiological implications. Are the people a tabula rasa upon whom all biblical truth must be written? Some fundamentalist missiologists would say yes. Or do the people bear vestiges of God’s image within their culture upon which to build the gospel? This would be the position of Matteo Ricci, and what sinologist James Legge referred to as the universal god (Chen, 2016).

Second, there is always a risk in making decisions in reaction against one’s opponents. While the Protestant translation of the Chinese Bible relied heavily on Catholicism, avoidance of the terms shangdi and tianzhu were influenced by the association of those terms with Catholicism. Translation is complex. Despite some word choices that might have been more accurately translated with different Chinese words, the Chinese Union Version of the Bible has been the Word of God for the Chinese church.

For the sources of references in this text, see the list of references following The Origins of the Chinese Union Version Bible by Mark A. Strand.

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand, PhD, professor in public health at North Dakota State University, lived in China with his wife and three children for nearly twenty years. While in China he was involved in medical research and development with a non-profit organization in collaboration with the Chinese government. View Full Bio