Logos, Word

Newman / Nida describe some of the difficulties surrounding the translation of the Greek “Logos” which is typically translated as “Word” in English (click or tap here to read more):

“The term ‘the Word’ has a rich heritage, by way of both its Greek and Jewish backgrounds. For the Greeks who held to a theistic view of the universe, it could be understood as the means by which God reveals himself to the world, while among those who were pantheistic in outlook, the Word was the principle that held the world together and at the same time endowed men with the wisdom for living. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the Word could be used both of the means by which God had created the world (Ps 33:6) and through which he had revealed himself to the world (Jer 1:4; Ezek 1:3; Amos 3:1). Among certain of the Greek-speaking Jews of New Testament times, there was much speculation about the ‘wisdom’ of God, which God ‘made in the very beginning, at the first, before the world began’ (Prov 8:22-23). (…) By the time that John writes his Gospel, the Word is close to being recognized as a personal being, and it has roles relating to the manner in which God created the world and to the way in which God reveals himself to the world that he brought into being. Moffatt [whose English translation of the New Testament was published in 1913], realizing the difficulty in finding a term equivalent in meaning to the one used by John, transliterates the Greek term: ‘the Logos existed in the very beginning’ [see also Hart’s translation below]; while Phillips [New Testament translation published in 1958] at least makes an effort to give his translation meaning: ‘at the beginning God expressed himself.’

“Though the Greek term logos may be rendered ‘word,’ it would be wrong to think it indicates primarily a grammatical or lexical unit in a sentence. Greek has two other terms which primarily identify individual words, whether they occur in a list (as in a dictionary) or in a sentence. The term logos, though applicable to an individual word, is more accurately understood as an expression with meaning; that is, it is ‘a message,’ ‘a communication,’ and, as indicated, a type of ‘revelation.’ A literal translation, therefore, more or less equivalent to English ‘word,’ is frequently misleading.

“In some languages there are additional complications. For example, in some languages the term ‘word’ is feminine in gender, and therefore any reference to it must also be feminine [or neuter — see German below]. As a result, the possible use of pronouns in reference to Jesus Christ can be confusing. Furthermore, in many languages a term such as ‘word’ must be possessed. One cannot speak about ‘the word’ without indicating who spoke the word, since words do not exist apart from the persons who utter them.

“Because of these and other difficulties, many translators treat the term ‘Word’ or Logos as a title, and that is precisely what it is. The very fact that it is normally capitalized in English translations marks it as a title; but in many languages the fact of its being a title must be more clearly indicated by some explicit expression, for example, ‘the one who was called the Word’ [see Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac below] or ‘the one known as the Word’ [see German below] In this way the reader can understand from the beginning that ‘Word’ is to be understood as a designation for a person.

“Therefore, this first sentence in John 1:1 may be rendered ‘Before the world was created, the one who was known as the Word existed’ or ‘… the person called the Word existed.’ In languages which employ honorific forms it is particularly appropriate to use such an indication with the title ‘Word.’ Such a form immediately marks the designation as the title of deity or of a very important personage, depending, of course, upon the usage in the language in question.”

Translation for “Logos” include:

  • Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac: “the one who is called the Word”
  • Sayula Popoluca: “the Word by which God is known”
  • Miahuatlán Zapotec: “one who revealed God’s thoughts”
  • Alekano: “God’s wise Speech”
  • Tojolabal: “he who told us about God” (Source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February, 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “Jesus Christ the person who is the Word, he who gives eternal life”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “the Word that gives new life to our hearts”
  • Garifuna: “the one named Word, the one who gives life” (Source for this and two above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)
  • Tzeltal de Oxchuc y Tenejapa (Highland Tzeltal): te C’opile: “the Word” (in a new, 2001 version of the New Testament to avoid the previous translation “the Word of God,” a term also used for “Bible.” — Source: Robert Bascom)
  • Mairasi: “The Message” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • German: Er, der ‘das Wort’ ist: “He who is ‘the Word'” — this solution circumvents the different gender of Jesus (masculine) and “das Wort” (neuter) (in: Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, 3rd edition: 1997)
  • Anindilyakwa: Originally translated as N-ayakwa-murra or “he having the properties of a word/message/language.” Since this was not understandable, it is now “Jesus Christ, the one who revealed God who was hidden from us” (Source: Julie Waddy in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 452ff.)
  • Kwang: “He who is called ‘The reality (lit: the body) of the Word of God himself’” (source: Mark Vanderkooi)
  • Tonga: Folofola: “Originally, the term is used in the kingly language and is related to the meaning of unrolling the mat, an indispensable item in Tongan traditions. The mats, especially those with beautiful and elaborate designs, are usually rolled up and kept carefully until the visit of a guest to the house. The term thus evokes to the Tongans the idea of God’s Word being unrolled to reveal his love and salvation for mankind.” (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.)
  • Ajië: (click or tap here to read an explanation by Maurice Leenhardt — in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 154ff.):

    “There are other words that the learned translators of the West have in vain tried to render into rich tongues as French or Latin. They found obscure expressions for the common ‘word’ or ‘speech’ (…) It would seem that these words would present insurmountable difficulties for the translator in primitive languages. Missionaries of the Loyalty Islands could not find the word to translate ‘Word,’ nor have they imagined that there could be a corresponding term in the native language. They simply introduced the Greek word into the vocabulary, pronouncing it in the native fashion, ‘In the beginning the Logos’. These people are intelligent; and do not appreciate pronouncing words which make no sense whatsoever. However, when a Caledonian speaks French, he translates his thoughts as they seem to him the most adequate. He can easily express himself relative to the man who has conceived good things, has said them, or done them. He simply describes such a person as, ‘The word of this man is good’. Thought, speech, and action are all included in the New Caledonian term no. In speaking of an adulterous man one may say, ‘He has done an evil word’. One may speak of a chief who does not think, order, or act correctly as, ‘His word is not good’. The expression ‘the Word of God’ is limited in our speech to meaning of the divine Scriptures, but in New Caledonian it includes the thoughts and acts of God, ‘God said and it was done’. The New Caledonian has no difficulty in seeing the Word becoming action, becoming flesh, the word becoming a physical reality. Our deceased colleague Laffay once said: ‘I prefer to read John in the Ajië rather than in French’.

The recent English New Testament translation by David Bentley Hart (2017), that uses the transliteration Logos for the Greek Λόγος, says this about its translation (p. 549ff.): “In certain special instances it is quite impossible for a translator to reduce [Λόγος] to a single word in English, or in any other tongue (though one standard Chinese version of the Bible renders logos in the prologue of John’s Gospel as 道 (tao), which is about as near as any translation could come to capturing the scope and depth of the word’s religious, philosophical, and metaphoric associations in those verses, while also carrying the additional meaning of “speech” or “discourse”).”

Below you can find some background of this remarkable Chinese translation (click or tap here to read more):

Dao 道, which developed into a central concept of classical Chinese philosophy, originally carried the meaning of “path” and “(main) road.” From there it developed into “leading” and “teaching” as well as “say” and “speak.”

As early as the 7th century BC, however, dao appears with the meaning “method.” With this and the derived meaning of “the (right) way” and “moral principle,” dao became one of the central concepts of the Confucian writings.

In Daoist writings (especially in the Daodejing), dao goes far beyond the Confucian meaning to take on creative qualities.

With this new compendium of meaning, the term became suitable for numerous foreign religions to represent central points of their doctrine, including Buddhism (as a translation for bodhi — “enlightenment”), Judaism (similar to the Confucians as the “right [Jewish] way”), and Islam (likewise the “right [Muslim] way”).

The Jesuits, who had intensively dealt with Confucianism from the 16th century on, also took over dao as the “correct (Catholic) way,” and the so-called Figurists, a group of Jesuits in the 18th century who saw the Messianic figure of Jesus Christ outlined in Chinese history, went so far as to point to the existence of John’s Logos in the dao of Daodejing.

In later Catholic Bible translations, dao was rarely used as a translation for Logos; instead, the Latin Verbum (from the Latin Vulgate) was transliterated, or yan 言 — “language”, “meaning” — was used, usually with the prefix sheng 圣 — “holy” (also used by the Russian Orthodox Church).

Protestant translations, however, began to use dao as a translation for Logos in the 1830s and have largely retained this practice to this day.

Some voices went so far as to describe Logos and dao as a point of contact between Christianity and the Chinese religions. By its gradual shaping in Greek and Jewish philosophy, Logos had become an appropriate “word vessel.” Similarly, dao’s final formation in Daodejing had also assumed the necessary capacity to serve as a translation for Logos.

The origins of dao and Logos have some clear differences, not the least being the personal relationship of Logos as the Son of God with God the Father. But it is remarkable that using dao as the translation of Logos emulates John’s likely intention with the use of Logos: the central concept of the philosophical and religious ideas of the target culture was used to translate the central concept of Christian theology.

This was not possible in the case of European cultures, which for the most part have offered only translations such as Word or Verbum, terms without any prior philosophical or religious meaning. Only advanced civilizations like China — or ancient Greece — were able to accomplish that. (Summarized version of: Zetzsche, Jost. Aspekte der chinesischen Bibelübersetzung. R. Malek (ed.) Fallbeispiel China. Beiträge zur Religion, Theologie und Kirche im chinesischen Kontext. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 1996.)

Peng Kuo-Wei adds this perspective (in Noss / Houser, p. 885): “The Chinese term chosen for logos is not hua (‘word’ or ‘utterance’) but dao from which the term ‘Taoism’ is derived and which can denote a general principle, a way (concrete or abstract), or reason. Thus, Chinese readers can understand that the dao of God is not just words spoken by God, but it constitutes the guiding salvific principle underlying the whole biblical account, including his action in history and teaching and action of Jesus whom he sent. Jesus is the dao of God because his ministry, death and resurrection comprises the fulfillment and realization of God’s theological and ethical principles for humanity.”

The English translation by Sarah Ruden (2021) uses “true account in John 1. She explains (p. lxiii)_ “Logos can mean merely ‘statement’ or ‘speech,’ but it also has lofty philosophical uses, especially in the opening of the Book of John, where it is probably connected to the Stoic conception of the divine reasoning posited to pervade the universe. The essential connotation here is not language but the lasting, indisputable, and morally cogent truth of numbers, as displayed in correct financial accounting: this is the most basic sense of logos.”

Word of life

The Greek that is translated as “Word of life” in most English versions is translated as “the one named Word, the one who gives life” in Garifuna and “the one called word that is in charge of all life” in Tzotzil.

Source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22.

Jerusalem (gender of)

“In the book of Lamentations, Jerusalem is presented as a series of feminine metaphors. (…) She is called a widow, a queen among the provinces, the Daughter of Zion, the Virgin Daughter of Judah. She weeps at night, her tears flow like a river, her lovers fail to console her. From beginning to end, Jerusalem is a woman. However this aspect of the text cannot be reproduced in the Garifuna translation, because in this language all cities are masculine. Jerusalem becomes the king of all provinces and the lovers who fail to console him are women.” (Source: Ronald Ross in Omanson 2001, p. 374)

saint

The Greek that is translated as “saint” in English is rendered into Highland Puebla Nahuatl as “those with clean hearts,” into Northwestern Dinka as “those with white hearts,” and into Western Kanjobal as “people of prayer.” (Source: Nida 1952, p. 146)

Other translations include:

  • Ixcatlán Mazatec: “followers of Jesus” (source: Robert Bascom)
  • Tzeltal: “whom God possesses”
  • Highland Totonac: “children of God”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “clean-hearted people” (source for this and two above: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
  • Garifuna: “people consecrated to God”
  • Isthmus Mixe: “the ones who believe God’s words”
  • Ayutla Mixtec: “those of God’s”
  • Tepeuxila Cuicatec: “people God has cleansed” (source for this and three above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

female first person singular pronoun in Psalms

In Garifuna the first person singular pronoun (“I” in English) has two forms. One is used in women’s speech and one in men’s speech. In the Garifuna Bible the form used in men’s speech (au) is typically used, except when it’s clear that a woman’s speech is quoted (for instance in John 4:9) or in Psalms where the women on the translation team insisted that the form used in women’s speech (nuguya) would be used throughout the whole book.

Ronald Ross (in Omanson 2001, p. 375f.) tells the story: “Throughout most of the translation, [the distinctions between the different forms of the pronouns] presented no problem. Whenever the speaker in the text was perceived as a man, the male speech forms were used; and when a woman was speaking, the female speech forms were used. True, the women members of the translation team did object on occasion to the use of the male forms when the author (and narrator) of a book was unknown and the men translators had used the male speech forms as the default. Serious discord arose, however, during the translation of the Psalms because of their highly devotional nature and because throughout the book the psalmist is addressing God. The male translators had, predictably, used the male form to address God, and the male form to refer to the psalmist, even though women speakers of Garifuna never use those forms to address anyone. The women contended that they could not as women read the Psalms meaningfully if God and the psalmist were always addressed as if the readers were men. The men, of course, turned the argument around, claiming that neither could they read the Psalms comfortably if the reader was assumed to be a woman.

“Initially there seemed to be no way out of this impasse. However a solution was found in the ongoing evolution of the language. There is a strong propensity for male speech and female speech to merge in favor of the latter, so the few remaining male forms are gradually dying out. Moreover, male children learn female speech from their mothers and only shift to the male speech forms when they reach adolescence to avoid sounding effeminate. However they use the female form buguya when addressing their parents throughout life. So the women wielded two arguments: First, the general development of the language favored the increasing use of the female forms. Secondly, the female forms are less strange to the men than the male forms are to the women, because the men habitually use them during early childhood and continue to use them to address their parents even in adulthood. Therefore, the female pronominal forms prevailed and were adopted throughout the book of Psalms, though the male forms remained the default forms in the rest of the translation.”

See also female second person singular pronoun in Psalms.

complete verse (3John 1:1)

Following are a number of back-translation of 3John 1:1:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “I in my old age am writing to you dear Gayo. Truly I love you.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “I am the Old-Man Leader, I am sending this paper to you, dear Gaius, loved one. And also I love you in regards to the true Word which we (dual) believe.”

Isthmus Zapotec: “I am an old man. I am writing this letter to a friend of mine, (whose) name is Gayo, whom I truly love.”

Garifuna: “I, an elderly person, write to my friend the one named Gayo (necessary to avoid the connotation of writing to a rooster), the one whom I love. I love you with all my heart (genuine love).”

Source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.

Son of God

The Greek that is translated as “Son of God” in English is translated in Shipibo-Conibo as “God’s Child” and in Garifuna as “God’s offspring.” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)

Nida (1984, p. 113) remarks on this “It was a common expression in Hebrew to say that someone was the ‘Son of…’ something to express that they shared characteristics with that thing etc. E.g. ‘son of peace’ ‘son of thunder.’ Therefore ‘Son of God’ meant that Jesus shared characteristics with God. This wasn’t carried over into Greek and was interpreted more biologically.”

See also Son of Man and Sons of Thunder.

serve tables, wait at tables

The Greek that is often translated as “serve tables” or “wait at tables is translated in the following ways:

complete verse (1 John 3:14)

Following are a number of back-translations of 1 John 3:14:

  • Uma: “If we love our relatives, we know that we have been freed from death and we have received good life forever. People who don’t love their relatives, they have not yet been freed from death.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “We (incl.) know that now we (incl.) are no longer as if (figuratively) dead but we (incl.) really live. We (incl.) know this because we (incl.) love now our (incl.) fellow-men. The one who does not love, he is still as if figuratively dead.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “We (incl.) know that long ago what we were able to expect was death forever. And we know also that now we have life forever. The reason we know this is because our companions are now very dear in our breath. Anyone whose companions are not dear in his breath can still expect death forever.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Never-mind, because we know that we will not be separated from God as (we were) previously, but rather from now on we have life that has no end. We know that that is true, because we love our companions who believe. For the one who doesn’t love his fellow human-beings, it’s like he is still dead, because he is still separated from God.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “But it’s clear to us that as for us, we are no longer like dead in the sight of God, but rather we are now being given life which is without ending. We know this because we now really value our siblings in believing. As for the one who doesn’t yet value like this, it’s like he is still under the jurisdiction of death.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Before it seemed we lived, but it was like as though we were dead. Now we have met up with new life because we love our brethren. He who does not love his brethren seems to live yet it is like as though he were dead.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “Because we love our fellows therefore we know we are no longer with our head-hearts like a dead person as we were before. We have eternal life now. If we do not love our fellows then we are still like dead people with our head-hearts.”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “We know that we have left the road of death, and we have taken the road of life. This we know because we love our siblings. He who has no love resides in the power (dominion) of death.”
  • Tzotzil: “Because we love the brethren, therefore we know that we have left behind that we die. We now belong to it, that we live forever. If we don’t love the brethren, it is because we still belong to it, that we die.”
  • Garifuna: “We are dead. Now we have come to possess life. We know it because we love our own kind ones (brethren). The one who does not love his own kind ones, he is still here (existing) in death.” (Source for this and three above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)

complete verse (2 John 1:13)

Following are a number of back-translations of 2 John 1:13:

  • Uma: “Many greetings from all the children of your (sing.) female relative here, who is chosen by God. Finish here.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “The children of your sibling send word that they love/remember you. Wassalam” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “The children of your sister here who are also chosen by God send you greetings.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “The children of the woman who is your (singular) sibling/cousin whom God also chose greet you (plural). Only this is what I am able to say.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “You (sing.) are greeted by the children of your (sing.) sister who also has been chosen by God like you (sing.).” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Also greeting you are the sons of our sister who also is chosen by God.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “The children of your sister, greet you. Your sister also and her children have been chosen and God has saved them. Amen.”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “They send their greetings the children of your sister (a woman’s sister), she also chosen of God. This is what I tell you now.”
  • Isthmus Zapotec: “The children of your sister (term for spiritual sister, not relative) whom God chose send greetings to you (sg.). Amen.”
  • Garifuna: “Your (younger) sister’s children/offspring greet you, the one (feminine) whom God chose. Here is the end of my writing to you. (A closing greeting that is used in the culture).” (Source for this and two above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)

complete verse (1 John 3:18)

Following are a number of back-translations of 1 John 3:18:

  • Uma: “My children, let’s not be loving in lips only, let’s not say that we love our relatives and we not do anything to help them. We [should be] loving with our behavior, for that is really true love.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “My children-grandchildren, don’t let us (incl.) just love with words/speech. But if we (dual) say we (dual) love our (dual) fellow-man, we (dual) should make our (dual) words true/confirm/verify them and cause good deeds to accompany (the words) toward them (the fellow-men).” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “My dear children, it’s necessary that our love for our companions is not just mere words, but rather it is necessary that we show our love for them by means of our actions.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “You who are my children, our manner-of-loving our companions, it should not be merely in our words only, but rather it should be from-the-heart and it should be shown in what we are doing.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “You who are like my children, what is good is, we are not just saying that we value one other, but rather we are showing through what we are doing that this valuing of ours is true.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Listen, my children, only let it not come from your mouths that we love our fellowmen, rather let it be apparent that we truly love, let us help our fellowmen.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “My little children, we must not love our fellows just with words. We should not just say we love our fellows, but we must love them wholeheartedly and help our fellows.”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “My dear children, let us not just talk about love, but let us really do it.”
  • Tzotzil: “My children, don’t let it be in vain we say that we love each other, don’t let’s lie. Let our work appear that we love each other really and truly.”
  • Garifuna: “My children. Let us love each other, not just that which is speaking nor just that which we say. Let us love one another genuinely, that which we show by means of what we do.” (Source for this and two above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)

complete verse (3 John 1:1)

Following are a number of back-translations of 3 John 1:1:

  • Uma: “This letter is from me the Elder, I send it to my friend Gayus, whom I truly love.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “This letter/writing is from me the Elder of the trusters in Isa Almasi, I send this to you Gayus, my friend whom I love.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “As for me the old person, I write to you, Gaius, my friend whom I hold very dear.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “My esteemed Gaius, I who have written this, it’s Juan who is a leader of the believers. My love for you (singular) who are my friend is from-the-heart. May your (singular) life there be good and your (singular) body also be strong like the strength of your (singular) faith.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “My friend Gayo whom I truly hold dear, there-with-you is my letter, I who am the senior-elder.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “I lead in relation to God’s word, I greet you my dear friend Gayo. I truly love you.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “I in my old age am writing to you dear Gayo. Truly I love you.”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “I am the Old-Man Leader, I am sending this paper to you, dear Gaius, loved one. And also I love you in regards to the true Word which we (dual) believe.”
  • Isthmus Zapotec: “I am an old man. I am writing this letter to a friend of mine, (whose) name is Gayo, whom I truly love.”
  • Garifuna: “I, an elderly person, write to my friend the one named Gayo (necessary to avoid the connotation of writing to a rooster), the one whom I love. I love you with all my heart (genuine love).” (Source for this and three above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)