More Details on Why the Deaf Man Misunderstood John 3:16 in Japanese

Question from WM in Oregon:
I’m unclear about John 3:16.  What does it say in Japanese (how do they understand it)?  How is it understood in Japanese Sign?  I understood from your explanation that it is not clear – and that it is very clear in English.  And, like many verses in English, maybe it is clear because our Judeo-Christian Culture and overall theology that we have grown up with makes it clear.  We take so much for granted.

What John 3:16 says in Japanese is really the same as it says in English, and Japanese people will understand it pretty much the same as you would (except, as you say, there may be nuances from culture and tradition that are slightly different). It’s not a problem with the Japanese translation. The Japanese is about as clear as the New American Standard–a little wooden, but with some effort, mostly intelligible if you’ve been to college or did reasonably well in high school, and understand church-ese.

Our problem is not with the Japanese Bible per se. Our problem comes when you have a Deaf person for whom Japanese is a second language. Some Deaf people become very competent in their second language. (With your abilities, if your Bible was in French or Latin, you could probably get pretty good at reading and understanding it too.) But this person was about average. And in his case, though he eagerly wished to read and understand, the grammar of Japanese is so different from the grammar of JSL (Japanese Sign Language) that he simply couldn’t understand it. He did what many Deaf people do, he used a separate sign for each of the separate Japanese words, and “signed” the Japanese sentence (minus the case endings since they don’t exist in Japanese Sign Language) straight from the Japanese Bible. Then he worked to understand what he just signed.

However, as with any translation, there is no one-to-one correlation.  So when he signs it, what a Japanese speaker understands as “so that not even one person will perish” becomes for him “there is one person who doesn’t perish.” This insinuates that all the others did perish, of course. A very big difference!

I think I can explain how this happens. If you put English words in Japanese word order, you get: “one person stance destroy thing not, . . .” First, you can see how little sense it makes if you don’t know Japanese. Second, the difference between JSL and Japanese:  In Japanese, not negates the whole clause, so that there is “not one person in the position of being destroyed.” In JSL, the “not” only connects with “destroy thing”, so you end up with one person standing (in JSL, it looks visually like a person is standing up) as a “not-destruction-thing”, which clearly means that everyone else is destroyed (another strong visual image), with one person left standing.

I hope this answers the question–its kind of hard when you can’t show the signing and are stuck with just English.

About Mark and Mary Esther Penner

Mark works as an adviser and resource to a Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project that plays a key role in the worldwide sign language Bible translation movement. Mary Esther founded a non-profit organization that partners with local communities and organizations to collect, refurbish and send wheelchairs throughout Asia.
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