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.)
  • 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. 549p.): “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 add this perspective (in Noss / Houser, p. 885): “The Chinese term chosen for logos in the 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.”

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.

complete verse (1John 5:14)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 5:14:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “And we are not afraid to pray before God, because God heeds us so long as what we ask is worthy of our asking him.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “We don’t fear to come near to God, because if what we ask for is in accordance with God’s will, we know that he hears well our word.”

Tzotzil: “Because our hearts are the same with God (we are of the same mind as God), thus we are not afraid when we talk to him. We know that he grabs our words.”

Garifuna: “Here is what we know/are sure God will do: If we ask with him as by means of his desire (in accordance with his will), he will hear us.”

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

complete verse (1John 5:18)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 5:18:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “We know that any of us if we are children of God we are not evil doers, because Jesus Christ God’s son is covering-protecting us in order that the deceiver will not win out over us(in) causing us to believe (obey) him.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “We know that all whoever are born anew by God, don’t reside in sin. But God’s Son guards them, and the big-evil-one can’t remove them from God;”

Tzotzil: “We know that if we have been born again in the presence of God thus we do not now seek sin. Because God’s Son is caring for us thus the devil cannot molest us.”

Garifuna: “We know that the one who has become God’s offspring does not come to have the custom of sinning. God’s offspring will take care of that person. It is impossible for the devil to do anything with him.”

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

complete verse (1John 1:1)

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

Yatzachi Zapotec: “We proclaim to you (plural) about Jesus Christ the person who is the Word, he who gives eternal life. He was already present when the world began. We heard his words, we saw him and we looked at him and we touched him.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “I will tell you about the Word that gives new life to our hearts. The Word was already living at the very beginning. He is one and the same Jesus Christ whom we saw living here, and we heard what he said. Also we watched him with our eyes, and we touched him with our hands.”

Tzotzil: “The one whose character is he is, (was from the beginning) we heard his words. We saw him. Many times we looked at his face. We touched him. It is the one called word that is in charge of all life.”

Garifuna: “I write to you (plural) concerning the one named Word, the one who gives life…”

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

complete verse (1John 5:20)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 5:20:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “And we know that God’s son has come and has caused us to understand in order that we know the person who is truly God. And we are joined together with the person who is truly God in that we are joined together with Jesus Christ.The true God is Jesus Christ’s father and he gives eternal life.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “And we know that God’s Son really arrived in the world. And he caused us to know God, the true (who is really) God. And we live with the real God because we live with Jesus Christ. And he is truly God, He who gives us the new life of our hearts that will never end.”

Tzotzil: “We know also that the Son of God came. Because he has given us the wisdom of our hearts therefore we have come to know the true God. We are in the presence of the true God because we are in the presence of his Son, that is Jesus Christ. He is the true God. He gives us our life forever.”

Garifuna: “We know that God’s offspring has come in the world. Then he caused us to know the genuine God. We are with (progressive) the genuine God, the one who is Jesus Christ God’s offspring. That God is the genuine one. Also he is the one who gives the life which does not end to us.”

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

complete verse (1John 1:2)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 1:2:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “He revealed himself to us and we saw him and we say that he lives eternally. And we proclaim to you (plural) that he is with our (in) father God and how he revealed himself to us.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “And he the Word who gives the new life showed himself to us in that he became a person. And we saw that he really became a person. So that’s what we are telling you now, that he is the one who was living, and lives now, and will never end. He was living with his Father and later came into the world and showed himself to us.”

Tzotzil: “He showed himself that he is the giver of life. We saw him. Therefore we tell you (plural) what he is like the giver of everlasting life, who was there with our (inclusive) Father God. Afterwards he came and showed himself before us.”

Garifuna: “The one who gives life has been shown to us…”

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

complete verse (1John 5:21)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 5:21:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “My little children, do not worship anything other than only God.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “My dear children, we must not believe the deceiving (untrue) gods. This is what we will think on now.”

Tzotzil: “Therefore, my children, idols are not useful to us in any way (means that we should not have anything to do with them). Thus let it be.”

Garifuna: “My children/offspring. Don’t you bow down (worship) before whatever thing that is not God.”

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

complete verse (1John 2:15)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 2:15:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “Do not you desire intensely to do like the evil head-hearted people do, and likewise do not you desire intensely the things you will have in this world. We know if we are desiring intensely to do like the evil head-hearted people are doing, we have not yet come to love our father God.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “Don’t like the world, neither the deeds of the world. If someone likes (loves) the world, he doesn’t esteem God.”

Tzotzil: “Don’t let it be that your hearts get taken up with what belongs to the world and what is here in the world. Because if our hearts are taken up with what belongs to the world, we don’t love our Father God.”

Garifuna: “Don’t you love the world’s character/conduct, nor any of the things which are in the world. If a person loves that which pertains to the world, he does not love (our) Father.”

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

complete verse (2John 1:2)

Following are a number of back-translation of 2John 1:2:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “We (ex) love you because we know what is true and we will walk with it forever.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “We (ex) love you because you plant in your hearts the true Word, which resides in our hearts, and will never be lost.”

Isthmus Zapotec: “We (ex) love you because we are acquainted with that which is true now. And we will never forget it.”

Garifuna: “From within the belief which we are within, we have come to love you (the source of our love for you is our belief). This belief will be with us forever.”

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

complete verse (1John 3:10)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 3:10:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “This shows who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil. Whoever of us if we do not walk straight (are not righteous) we are not the children of God. And whoever of us if we do not love our fellowman we are not the children of God.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “In this way we can know which are children of God and which are children of the devil. He who habitually doesn’t do good isn’t God’s child, neither is one who doesn’t love his sibling.”

Tzotzil: “HThus it appears if we are the children of God, or if we are the children of the devil. Because if what we do is evil, if we do not love the brethren, we are not God’s children for sure.”

Garifuna: “The one who is not level (righteous) is not God’s offspring, nor the one who does not love his own kind ones (brother). Thus it is that God’s offspring and the devil’s offspring are known.”

Sayula Popoluca: “We know God’s sons and the Devil’s man because whoever doesn’t do that which is true, and doesn’t love his brother is not God’s son.”

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

complete verse (2John 1:3)

Following are a number of back-translation of 2John 1:3:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “I ask before our father God and his son our Lord Jesus Christ that they will help you and pity you and cause you to be well off in your head-hearts (be at peace) because you are acquainted with what is true and you love your fellows each of you the other.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “My siblings, we all believe the same true Word, and also we love one another. And will remain in our hearts God’s blessing, and God’s favor, and continually will rest our hearts God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.”

Isthmus Zapotec: “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ will be kind to us and will have pity on us and quiet ourhearts. And truly they love us.”

Garifuna: “From within the true belief and love, God the one who is (our) Father will give kindness to you, pity/compassion, and tranquility (peace). Also (our) owner (our Lord) Jesus Christ the one who is (our) Father’s offspring will give it.”

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