narrative order (1Sam 18:12)

The Hebrew that is translated as “Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with David but had abandoned him” or similar in English had to be restructured in San Blas Kuna that follows a subject-verb-object order (Hebrew uses verb-subject-object or subject-verb-object and English uses subject-verb-object) “to have cause and effect. They put first that Saul realized that God no longer helped him but he did help David. So he became afraid of David.”

God

There are various approaches to the translation of the Greek theos and Hebrew elohim or el that are translated as “God” in English. Click or tap here to see more.

While some of the main language groups of European languages have the origin of their translations go back to somewhat nebulous sources (see below), many other languages use a translation that can be more easily traced back to its original meaning.

Click or tap here to see the translations by many Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages.

Eugene Nida (1947, p. 204ff.) provided a theoretical framework for ways to select a translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)

“The name for God in an aboriginal language is one of the keystones to the entire theological structure and Bible teaching. The problem is by no means as simple as it may at first appear. Some translators, not finding in the pagan religious system, exactly the word which they think appropriate, have introduced a foreign name for God, e.g. Spanish Dios or English God. They have thought that such a word would have prestige because it comes from the language of a culturally dominant group. The fact that such a borrowed word seems to have no bad connotations appears to justify its use. It is assumed that the native people will automatically come to understand by the borrowed word for ‘God’ exactly what we understand by the same term. The translator has counted upon taking a word with zero meaning and giving it the proper content. This is not so easily done as imagined. In almost every case the native will immediately try to equate this new name of God with one of the gods of his own religious system. Since all people attempt to understand the unknown in terms of the known, it will not be very long before the natives will have worked out what seems to them a perfectly consistent equivalent for the new term.

“On the other hand, the translator may attempt to use some native word for ‘God’ which seems applicable. A further investigation may reveal that there are many characteristics which are given to this god in native legend which are quite inconsistent with Biblical truth. The translator’s examination must be thorough, for he does not want to run the risk of using a term which does not contain at least the central core of meaning which is essential.

“The translator should not be fearful of using a native word for ‘God.’ He should remember that in terms of the native culture the Greek word theos, the Latin deus, and the Gothic guþ could hardly be termed exact equivalents to the concept of God as taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, these terms did possess the essential core of meaning. It is interesting to note that they are generic terms. In no case were they the names of one particular god. The use of names such as Zeus, Jupiter, or Woden would not have been wise, for these specific names included a great deal of legend as to the individual peculiarities, excesses, and immoral actions of the particular gods. In the generic terms, however, there existed enough of the fundamental core of religious significance that they have been used successfully. In Greek, theos designated any god. In the plural it could be used to include all the gods. In the Bible this generic term is used and made to apply specifically to only one God. The Christians took a term which designated any important supernatural entity and by context and teaching made it apply to only one such entity. Where this same situation exists in another culture, there is no reason for believing that this process could not be repeated, and with good results.

“In choosing the name for God it is important to consider the usage of the trade language. Very frequently the native church is assimilated into the church group speaking the trade language or the national language. The native church also draws much of its leadership from among those who speak the trade language. A similar name for God is valuable, but it is not absolutely essential.”

Indigenous terms

Following are examples of what Nida above considers “native words.” (Click or tap here to see)

  • Lakota: Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka (“the universal spiritual power” — source: Steve Berneking in Beerle-Moor / Voinov, p. 119 — click or tap here to see more)

    “The Lakota translators have intentionally chosen to use the traditional Lakota name of the Deity instead of the name ‘God.’ Past missionary movements across North America have colonized Indian people to assume that the word ‘God’ is the appropriate gloss for traditional understandings of the Deity. Even more troubling, the waves of violence — physical, social, and psychological — were more often than not carried out in the name of ‘God.’ In an intentional strike against this violence (…) these Lakota translators are using the name Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is the universal spiritual power, sometimes wrongly rendered in English ‘Creator’ or ‘Great Spirit.’ In Lakota spirituality, however, Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is not personified with any name. What Christians would refer to as ‘God’ is understood as a spiritual force or energy that permeates all of creation and is manifest in numerous ways in the world around us at any given moment and in any given place. So, to assume that the name ‘God’ is an appropriate gloss to translate Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka fully and culturally not only reflects some latent ‘imperial’ attitude, it also negates and oppresses the deep understanding of Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka for the Lakota people. Therefore, the choice of the Lakota translators to bring Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka into the biblical text is an attempt to heal and to reconcile the brokenness in the history of their people.”

  • Ap Ma: Yamom (“the creator” — click or tap here to see more)

    Yamom is the creator. He made the trees and everything else we see in the world around us. There is no tradition as to where Yamom lives, and he is never seen. ‘We do not know him directly. We know only that he was in his own place and at his word everything was created. A person might sit somewhere and reflect, ‘How could such a thing as a coconut tree grow out of that nut?’ The answer is that these things that people could never do could only have been done by Yamom. Yamom is sometimes referred to as Yadima, which means ‘word’ or ‘story.’ It is a kind of euphemism so that one doesn’t have to say the real name. There is a feeling that if the name is used carelessly, the person may experience some kinds of problems. According to the traditional culture, Yamom himself never gave anyone direct messages. However, the konim ‘spirits,’ would sometimes mention him: ‘Yamom says the rains are coming,’ or ‘Yamom says the eels are coming.'”

  • Keapara: palagu (“God” or “spirit of humanness” — click or tap here to see more)

    “Apart from the meaning ‘God,’ palagu is used in ordinary speech to mean something like ‘spirit of humanness.’ Each person is born with their own palagu, and this is what makes them able to become mature human beings. If the palagu leaves a person, then that person will begin to act in strange ways. In this way it is rather like the English word ‘mind.’ There is a special concern for babies, because the palagu of a baby is easily separated from the baby. When preparing to give a baby a bath, or if a person is carrying a baby under big trees, or at night, people are often encouraged to call out Kivani palaguna O, onove rake kaumai — ‘Baby’s spirit, come after us.’ If the baby’s palagu does not come, then the baby will become very fussy and difficult. The family must then try to figure out how to get the palagu to come back. Perhaps they will pray. There is often a feeling that something has gone wrong within the family, and this must be straightened out before the baby’s palagu will return.”

  • Mbandja: Chuchu (the traditional maker of world and mankind) — click or tap here to see more)

    “People claim that he made the world and mankind. What is more, he likes mankind. But his people did not like him. To escape from him, they ran away and have practically forgotten about him, though he has never forgotten about them. Here, embedded in the legends of the people, lies the truth which the missionary may use. He may show the people how far they have wandered from God and how He has not forgotten about them. In fact, He sent His Son in order that He might reconcile them to Himself.”

  • Kovai: Yoba Maro (variant of Molo, a traditional cultural hero)
  • Waskia: Kaem (general word for revered spirit)
  • Misima-Panaeati: Yabowaine (traditional god who lives in the sky and helps with journeys or fights)
  • Zimakani: ‘Bi’bukia’mene (“True supernatural being” — source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff. — click or tap here to see more)

    In Zimakani there were supernatural beings called ‘bi’buki. The stars are among the ‘bi’buki, as are the sun and moon. Kau was the traditional god of the Zimakani, their ancestral folk hero. They would say Kau is our ‘bi’buki. Using this term as a base, a form ‘Bi’bukia’mene was developed. It means ‘The True (masculine, singular) ‘bi’buki‘ This is the term being used for ‘God.'”

  • Ajië: Bao (“a spirit,” “an ancestor,” or “a corpse” — source: Clifford, p. 79-91 — click or tap here to see more)

    Maurice Leenhardt, the missionary and translator in charge of the first and only Ajië translation “believed at first that the Melanesian experience of Divinity could be brought directly over into Christianity. In 1905 he began experimenting with using bao (a spirit, an ancestor, or corpse) to clarify in the native language the ‘visions’ spoken of in the Gospels. (…) The Christian God had to appropriate the essence of Melanesian spirits by taking possession of their generic name, Bao. (…) [Leenhardt wrote to his father in 1913:] If Jehovah is really that which is visible since the creation then the pagans must have an obscure revelation of God at the heart of their beliefs. This is a minimum of experiences upon which the preaching of the Gospel can be based, And this we shouldn’t reject the entire jumble of their gods in order to give them a new god with a foreign name; rather we should search for the word in their language, even the strangest word, into which can be translated the visible experience of God. (…) The bao concept would have to be reunderstood, not as a generic term but capitalized, as a personal name. (…) Leenhardt was encouraged by his discovery that bao had always been a highly adaptable concept. It could apply not merely to a corpse, recent ancestor , or magical divinity, but its masculine ‘power’ could sometimes fuse spontaneously with feminine-totemic principle of life. (…) In adopting the language of totemic myth to evoke the Christian Bao (…) Leenhardt in effect broadened the God of European orthodoxy in two crucial ways. In translating his deity, the missionary made ‘Him’ more androgynous, a totem-bao of feminine ‘life’ as well as of masculine power.”

  • Ngäbere: Ngöbö (source: Nida 152, p. 37f. — click or tap here to see more)

    Nida tells this story: “Frequently the translator is indebted to pagan shamans for some of the most important terms. For years Efrain Alphonse tried to find the Ngäbere name for ‘God.’ Many of the people did not know the word, and others refused to give it. Though there was a belief in a beneficent Creator, His name was too sacred to be known by the uninitiated. On one occasion, Mr. Alphonse went with some of his Ngäbe helpers to visit an old medicine woman back in the recesses of the tropical forest of Bocas del Toro. After being ushered into the presence of this greatly revered (…) woman, they answered at length the many questions she asked. Finally she began to chant and sing and as her voice rose higher and higher, she shouted out in trance-like ecstacy so that all could hear, ‘These men are talking about Ngöbö, the God of heaven and earth, Listen to them!’ There was the name ‘Ngöbö,’ the very word which Mr. Alphonse had been seeking for so many years. It came from the lips of a native diviner and sorceress, but all agreed that this was the name of God, and throughout the years it has been used by the Ngäbe Christians.”

  • Gbaya: (originally: “to ooze; to anoint, to rub on” also “spirit” later “god” and finally a proper name for “God” — source: Noss, Current Tends 2002, p. 157ff. — click or tap here to see more)

    “When the Gbaya translator of the Bible, like the Protestant and Catholic missionaries who first translated Scripture texts into Gbaya, adopts the traditional term for God, what does this mean theologically? The issue is not whether this term fits into the broad sweep of African Traditional Religion as it is referred to by modem African theologians, but what kind of God is this? The noun may be derived from the verb so which means ‘to ooze; to anoint, to rub on.’ This term, which may have a basic meaning similar to ‘spirit,’ has come to be used as the equivalent of ‘god’ and as a proper name for ‘God.’ Folk etymology explains that this word depicts the unique power of God in that he created himself like sap oozing from the trunk of a tree. This God is the Creator God who created Adam and Eve and who also created the Gbaya ancestors. To the Gbaya this is YHWH of the Old Testament. (…) The theological implications of this practice are two-fold. First, the use of a vernacular term offers legitimacy to traditional beliefs. Secondly, there may appear to be a clash between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the translated text if the traditional term is retained (…) Lamin Sanneh observes two possible explanations with regard to this issue (1988:18). The first is that what any one language may say may not totally describe God; the second is that all languages may be inherently inadequate with regard to religious truth. Gbaya readers interpret the translated text in the light of tradition and transmitted knowledge. Adam and Eve are seen against the backdrop of the folklore heroes, Wanto and his wife Laaiso. Like Adam and Eve, Wanto and Laaiso are archetypes of humankind whose descendants pay the price of their misdeeds in those ancient times of the beginning. Just as Adam and Eve suffer the consequences of their deeds and are deprived of their pristine garden, so also Wanto and Laaiso lose the paradise that is created for them by an unknown benefactor of Gbaya myth.”

  • Khmer: Preah Chea Mchas (“Illustrious one who is master” — “Because a concept for ‘God’ does not exist in Buddhism” (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, 233ff.)
  • Wayuu: Maleiwa (“Wayuus had automatically made the correspondence between the Christian God and their own Maleiwa. They considered them identical” — source: Nida 1947, p. 207)
  • Akan: Onyame or Onyankopon (“the supreme God” — source: J. Loewen in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 201ff.click or tap here to see more)

    “If we take an African example and consider the Akan of Ghana we see that they recognize Onyame or Onyankopon as the supreme God. Both of these names are personal and cannot be pluralized, but they also recognize the abosom, called idols or fetishes in the earlier dictionaries, but now called god/gods by Akan scholars. A is the prefix which pluralizes a root, bo means ‘stone’ or rock’ and som means ‘to worship.’ Thus the word as a whole literally means ‘rock things people worship.’ While the above example is from a single tribal society, the model it presents is duplicated in many, if not most West African societies. In such situations the local word gods will probably cover the domain of two Hebrew words gods and idols.”

  • Northern Indian languages including Hindi, Nepali, Assamese, and Bengali use “Ishwar (Assamese: ঈশ্বৰ, Bengali: ঈশ্বর) or Param-Ishwar (“Supreme Ishwar”) (Hindi and Bengali: परमेश्वर). “This is a term used widely in Hindu scriptures in different senses. It is mainly used as a title, usually associated with the Hindu god ‘Siva.’ But there are passages in some scriptures where Ishwar is used as a name of a personal god who is the maker or master of the universe.”
  • Southern Indian languages tend to use Deva, “another term tor a divine being. But this is not a personal name: it is a term to refer to any divine being, of which there are plenty in the Hindu pantheon. The term means ‘respectable or glorious being,’ so it has a positive sense.” Languages include Gujarati: દેવ, Kannada: ದೇವರ, Marathi: देव, Malayalam: ദൈവം, Tamil தேவன், Telugu దేవుడు (source for this and above: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Hooper, p. 86f.). This term is also used in some Indonesian languages: Sangir and Batak Toba: Debata (source: Rosin, p. 200)
  • Many Bantu languages use Mungu (or a form thereof), the “traditional creator and sustainer of the world and of all life in it,” including Swahili, Nyanja, Digo, Bena, Pokomo, Gogo, Pogolo, Sanga, Rundi, Kinyarwanda, Bemba, Chuwabu, Ngungwel (sources: Bühlmann, p. 146 and E. Wendland in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 430ff.)
  • Most Polynesian languages use Atua, the traditional concept for “spirit” or “god,” including Gilbertese, Māori, Tuvalu, Rarotongan, Tahitian, Samoan (Atua), Rotuman (‘Ạitu), or Tonga (‘Otuá) (Source J. Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.; click or tap here to see more)

    “The word is Polynesian, although it has long been used in parts of Melanesia too. In Polynesia it originally had various meanings, many of which were very distant from the Christian meaning. In the first place there are countless atuas, while the Christian God is one only, even though He be a Trinity in Unity — and that difficulty would have to be faced later. But at bottom an atua is only a spirit, not necessarily masculine, or good or powerful, and certainly a very poor foundation for conveying the Christian concept of God. The term atua is applied to gods possessing personal names, as well as to ancestral spirits and even to dead chiefs. In many ways its coverage corresponds to that of kami in Japanese. In Samoa one could even speak of an atua of war, thunder, etc. Yet this term atua has been employed everywhere in Polynesia by all the missions, from the first efforts of the London Missionary Society up to the present time.” (Source: A. Capell in The Bible Translator 1969, 154ff.

    The Indonesian “Tuhan,” wich is also used in Malay and Urak Lawoi’ (as Tuhat) possibly derives from atua as well (source: Stephen Pattemore)

Adoptions of terms from other languages

Translations of God with loan words (what Nida above styles as “introduction of a foreign name for God”) include the following. (Click or tap here to see)

  • The term used for God is Allah or some variation of this word in most predominantly Muslim regions in the Middle East (Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, etc.) but also in other Muslim parts of the world as a loan word from Arabic, including in Wolof (Yàlla), Kpelle (Ɣâla), Hausa and Pulaar (Allah), Malay and Indonesian (Allah — depending on the version sometimes for YHWH and in exchange with Tuhan — see Atua above — click or tap here to see more)

    Reasons for using Allah include that “the loan word Allah is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew names of God El, Elohim, Eloah in the Hebrew Old Testament;” that “Arab Christians from before the dawn of Islam have been praying to Allah, and Allah was used by Christian theologians writing in Arabic. So the Christian usage of Allah is actually older than Islam;” “Allah is the word used for ‘God’ in all Arabic versions of the Bible;” “Christians in countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and other places in Asia and Africa where the languages are in contact with Arabic, have almost all been using the word Allah as the Creator God and the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Source: D. Soesilo in The Bible Translator 2001: p. 414ff., reproduced online here.)

  • A number of languages in predominantly Spanish speaking areas are using forms of Spanish Dios, including Tojolabal (Dyosi), Chol (Dios), Quetzaltepec Mixe (Tios), Kekchí, K’iche’ (all: Dios) (Source: Robert Bascom)
  • A number of languages in Papua New Guinea use the English “God” and the German “Gott” (dating back to the German occupation of PNG in the late 19th and early 20th century), including Tok Pisin / Waboda / Mussau-Emira: God, West Kewa: Gote, Goto, Onobasulu: Gode, Bamu: Godi, Yagaria (Source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
  • The traditional Kâte term Anutu was adopted by a number of other languages in Papua New Guinea: Adzera: Anutu; Dedua: Anutu; Nukna: Ánutu — source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.) — click or tap here to see more)

    “‘Anutu’ — despite his apparent insignificance in the mythological system — could not be placated by humans. ….Thus, although the … name Anutu had several variations and was understood in several ways, it was apparently for the Kâte people, living in the cradle of the Lutheran Mission, the most acceptable translation for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God.’ (…) Kâte was selected by the early Lutheran missionaries working in the area to serve as a church lingua franca. As the Lutheran church spread through the Finisterre Mountains and on into the Highlands, the Kâte language went along. God therefore became known in all of these areas as Anutu. In areas where the Lutherans remain strong, the name Anutu tends to be used even today. In other areas, such as among the Melpa speakers around Mount Hagen, many Lutherans continue to use Anutu, but this name has not been acceptable to Christians of other denominations. On the other hand, Anutu is still used in the Baiyer River area, north of Mount Hagen, even though most Christians in the area are now Baptist rather than Lutheran.”

Translations of Attributes of God for a translation of “God”

A translation principle not described by Nida is the translation of “God” with descriptive terms. Following are some examples. (Click or tap here to see)
  • Mazahua: “the Great Spirit”
  • Navajo: “the Eternal Spirit” (Navajo also uses the English borrowing “God” in the combination Diyin God: “Holy God”)
  • San Blas Kuna: “the Great Father”
  • Kipsigis: Jehoba (“the great ruler” — which accidentally resembles Jehovah)
  • Northwestern Dinka: Nhialich (“one in the above”) (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961)
  • Banaro: Nor Mik (“the Great Father”)
  • Imbongu: Gote Pulu iye (lit. “root man”); Ola iye (lit. “above man”)
  • Gwahatike: baraŋ al (“creator”); tikula al (“creator”)
  • Bola: Vuri (“super being”)
  • Guhu-Samane: Ohonga (“Someone who is permanently sitting on a chair. The word for ‘king’ is derived from the same word.” — source for this above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
  • Aja: Mawu (“there is nothing greater”) (source: Joshua Ham)

Translations of “God” in maturing contexts

In some cases it took failed attempts before finding the “right” translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)

“When the first missionaries, teachers, and catechists came to the Huli country in the 1950s, they may have done some investigation of the Huli worldview before they began to preach.

“But they apparently did not find any obvious local word for ‘God,’ and they began teaching the people about ‘Ngode,’ a Huli-ized form of the English name. In recent years some Huli people have suggested that in fact the Huli did have their own name for God: ‘Datagaliwabe.’

“This led the missionaries of both the Evangelical Church of Papua and of the Roman Catholic Church to investigate the matter more carefully. It soon became clear that there was a traditional figure with the name Datagaliwabe who was still talked about by the Huli people.

“According to traditional Huli belief, Datagaliwabe lives up above the clouds in a place called Dahuliya andaga. This is in fact the term which has been used to translate ‘heaven’ in the Huli Bible. Datagaliwabe is very concerned about how people act. People know what is right, but they often act in ways that they know are not right. When they do this, Datagaliwabe may punish them. He is able to know what people are doing wherever they are. It is not possible to hide one’s actions from him or to deceive him. If a person wants to get away from one of the evil spirits, one can always run away to another area. One cannot run away from Datagaliwabe.

Before Huli people became Christian, they were very much afraid of powerful spirits who could do much to harm them, such as causing sickness. It was important to make offerings to appease these spirits and to keep them on one’s good side.

Datagaliwabe was not like these evil spirits who had to be ‘paid’ in order to get their help. One never made offerings to him. Therefore he must be God.

“In times of sickness or trouble, people would sometimes call out, ‘Father Datagaliwabe, help me.’ All of these traditional beliefs certainly supported the possible connection of Datagaliwabe with God. On the other hand, there was at least one problem. For the Huli, Datagaliwabe was not the creator. The old Huli stories said that it was the Sun (Ni) who created the world. This seemed to be a relatively small point that could easily be dealt with. The most serious problem seemed in fact to be that Christians were used to calling God Ngode.

“Would they be willing to change? The translation of the Old Testament was in process while this investigation was going on, so the matter was discussed in detail by the checking team, which included representatives of almost all of the major churches working in the area. Most of the group felt that it was willing to give Datagaliwabe a chance. As books were being completed, it was the policy of the team to publish trial editions. So for several years an experiment was conducted, using both Ngode and Datagaliwabe together in the text. Readers were told that they were not supposed to read both names, but to choose whichever one they preferred.

“In the meantime, a more serious problem surfaced. Representatives from one of the churches on the edge of the language argued that in their area Datagaliwabe has other characteristics different from those described above, which make it inappropriate to use this name as a name for God. As the time for publication of the Bible neared, it was clearly necessary to make a choice. At first, different churches made different choices, and it looked as though the Bible Society might be put in the unhappy position of having to publish separate editions with different names for God. However, as the Huli people thought about the implications of this decision, they themselves realized that some other solution must be found. Representatives from the different churches were invited to another series of meetings, where they were apparently convinced of the importance of finding a single solution that everyone could accept.

“The eventual decision was to continue the practice of the various trial editions, printing both names together in the text, as ‘Ngode Datagaliwabe.'”

“Missionaries working in the Pawaia language reported that the local people had originally been using the word “Got.” However, this name had been confused by the people with “an unsavory character in a legend.” Because of this the missionaries decided to try an expression meaning “The Powerful One.” They say that the term chosen has been accepted by the people.” (Source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)

The Chinese and the Korean “Term Question”

The translation of the Greek theos and the Hebrew elohim (or in the case of early Catholics, the Latin deus) into Chinese was easily the most passionately discussed translation in the history of Bible translation. (Click or tap here to see)

Jesuit missionaries had come to China in the late 16th century had to find a Chinese term for “God.” An early Chinese term for “God” was dousi 陡斯, a mere transliteration of the Latin deus, but from 1583 on tianzhu — “Lord of Heaven” — was used. It was seen to be of no or little previous religious coinage. Very soon, though, the leader of the Jesuit mission Matteo Ricci, embraced the terms tian 天 — “heaven” — and shangdi 上帝 he had found the Christian God in Chinese literature. After Ricci’s death this caused conflict in the Catholic mission, because Franciscan and Dominican missionaries understood these terms as too pre-occupied by Chinese notions of religion. The question was eventually brought to Rome during the 1630s. In 1705 and again in 1742 the Vatican forbade the use of these terms. The whole episode is known as one part of the “Question of Rites.” The Catholic church in China today still employs tianzhu 天主for the translation of “God,” clearly shown in the Chinese term for “Catholicism” — tianzhujiao 天主教.

Protestants who arrived much later started to have a similar argument in in 1847, when missionaries of various nationalities and Protestant denominations attempted to have a common Bible version for China. This lead to the greatest controversy of the Protestant mission in China, the “Term Question.”

For them, the most important terms in question were shen 神 and shangdi 上帝.

“The side supporting shen held that it was the only true translation for the biblical ‘God,’ even though it never had had this meaning historically because of the absence of a Chinese monotheistic faith. However, it was comparable to the Greek θεός and the Latin deus in its being a generic term describing the highest class of Chinese gods, including shangdi. This also made it possible to use this term in the plural. For these reasons, shen was held to be the term which could best be adapted to the meaning of the Christian God. Shangdi, on the other hand, was understood as a name rather than a generic term, which could not be used in the plural.

“The other side maintained that the Christian God had revealed himself in ancient China, especially during the time of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1122-255 BC). Belief in him had been set forth even in the Confucian classics, where shangdi was described as the highest deity. Shangdi was regarded in Chinese mythology as the creator of all things, including shen, which in most cases meant ‘spirit’ and in only very rare cases ‘deity,’ although it was used for ‘false gods.’ Shen could not be used for ‘God’ but only for another person of the Trinity, namely the ‘Spirit.’ This final point complicated the matter immensely, and made a compromise much more difficult because the shen advocates had determined ling 灵 to be the right term for Spirit.’

“These few examples only touch the surface of the numerous arguments that were raised from either side. The reasons behind the arguments were of an ideological nature and basic for the understanding of mission work in China. Those who argued for shen were convinced that the Chinese had never known the Christian God, and had therefore no equivalent term to describe him; they believed, however, that shen could grow into a suitable term. The other side represented an Old Testament belief that God had revealed himself even in China, and had been to some extent known throughout Chinese history. They believed that it was only necessary to ‘reawaken’ the Chinese knowledge of Christianity, whereas the other side had to introduce a whole new concept. In addition, the conflict often also had the appearance of a national struggle, because to a high degree the lines were drawn between British (and German) (pro-shangdi) and American missionaries (pro-shen).

“This conflict resulted in various editions of Bibles being published by the different sides with their respective preferred terminology. A modern analysis of the conflict even reveals a positive aspect of the use of two terms. According to at least one view, one of the terms represents a concept of divine immanence (shen), while the other one represents transcendence (shangdi) which gives the Chinese church an advantage that other churches don’t have.

“The same kind of pragmatism can be found in the fact that the (one character term) shen is typically preceded by a ‘reverential’ space which allowed the printing plates to be used twice by accommodating the (two character term shangdi.” (Source: Zetzsche 1999, p. 83f., 90, 275).

While the Korean translation of God did not develop into as full-blown a conflict as the one in China, it’s still interesting to follow. (Click or tap here to see)

The Protestant translation of elohim and theos in Korean is ha-na-nim 하나님, the supreme deity revered and worshiped by most of the Korean people even when their national religions were Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism.” (Source: Min Suk Kee in The Bible Translator 2013, p. 332ff.)

According to Ahn (2011, p. iif.) there “was a significant theological continuity between the Chinese and Korean Term Questions. The Term Question in both China and Korea proceeded on a similar pattern; it was a terminological controversy between an indigenous theistic term (Chinese Shangdi and Korean Ha-na-nim) on the one hand and a neologism (Chinese Tianzhu and the corresponding Korean Ch’on-zhu) or a generic term (Chinese Shen and the corresponding Korean Shin) on the other hand. Central to both Term Questions was the theological issue of whether a primitive monotheism, congruent with Christian belief, had existed among the Chinese and Koreans. It will suggest that whilst those who adhered to a degeneration theory of the history of religions used either Shangti or Ha-na-nim as the name of the God of the Bible, those who rejected the existence of primitive monotheism preferred to use the neologism or the generic term.

“[However], a significant divergence between the Term Question in China and that in Korea. Whereas the Term Question in China became polarized for over three centuries between two equal and opposite parties — between the Jesuits (Shangdi) and the Dominicans-Franciscans (Tianzhu), and later between the Shangdi party and the Shen party in Protestant missions, that in Korea was a short-term argument for three decades between a vast majority (of the Ha-na-nim party) and a small minority (the opponents of Ha-na-nim). (…) The disproportion in Korea in favor of Ha-na-nim was due to the much closer analogy between Ha-na-nim and the Christian trinity, as seen in the Dan-Gun myth [of Ha-na-nim sending his son to earth, see here], than was the case with Shangdi in Chinese religion. For this reason, the thesis concludes by suggesting that the adoption of the indigenous monotheistic term, Ha-na-nim, in a Christian form contributed to the higher rate of growth of the Korean church compared to that of the church in China.”

Kee agrees: “(…) Such a rapid growth of Christianity in Korea should be ascribed to ha-na-nim, the indigenous god deeply rooted and long revered in the hearts of Koreans. Surely, as some evangelists have claimed, the Israelite god was incarnated as ha-na-nim in Korea. Or, to put it the other way round, ‘ha-na-nim was baptized to be born again,’ as Sung Deuk Ok has wittily observed.”

The popularity of ha-na-nim is maybe even more surprising since, unlike the similar Catholic term ha-neu-nim 하느님 for God, it is ungrammatical in Korean. Kee says:

“Reviewing the history of the survival of the name is truly intriguing. We may enjoy the irony which is evident when a logical absurdity no longer matters in the face of purely practical considerations. Ha-na-nim is composed of ha-na and nim. While the latter means ‘dear one’ or ‘lord,’ the tricky problem lies with the first part, ha-na. The earliest form of this is ha-nă or ha-nal meaning ‘heaven,’ which orthographically developed into both ha-nal and ha-neul. When the suffix nim is added, they are spelled, respectively, ha-na-nim (하나님) and ha-neu-nim (하느님), with the phoneme /l/ (ㄹ) omitted, as is common in Korean orthography. Though both mean the same, ‘heavenly lord,’ ha-na-nim was much preferred to ha-neu-nim. This is partly due to a wordplay on ha-na. While it is a shortened form of ha-năl (“heaven”), ha-na by itself, independent of ha-năl, signifies the number ‘one.’ Consequently ha-na-nim, regardless of its original meaning ‘heavenly lord,’ sounds like a proud reference to ‘One Lord.’

“Could the spelling ha-neu-nim possibly challenge ha-na-nim again in the future? I would answer that this is very unlikely and unnecessary. The name ha-na-nim may be absurd, but ironically its inherent weakness may turn to great advantage in situations where it is challenged. The proud oneness of the Christian God implied and applied in the name must be left untouched.”

For further reading on the translation of “God,” see Rosin 1956.

Kingdom (of God / heaven)

The German Good News Bible (Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch) (1st edition: 1968, 2nd edition: 1982, 3rd edition: 1997) says this about the translation of the Greek expressions that in English are often translated as “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” respectively:

An example for how a term evolved is the rendering of ‘heavenly kingdom’ or ‘kingdom of God.’ A verbatim translation will be misunderstood by most readers today: as if it talks about a kingdom that is located in heaven, when in reality it refers in the Bible to God being the ruler, to that area in which that rule has been realized and everything that human beings can expect because of that. Dependent on the context, the term is therefore translated differently in this present version: When it focuses on the presence of God’s kingdom it is rendered as ‘God establishes his rule’ (‘Gott richtet seine Herrschaft auf’), when the focus is on the future it is translated as ‘Once God finalizes his creation (or ‘work’) . . . ‘ (‘Wenn Gott sein Werk vollendet . . .’), and when the focus is on that finished creation it is ‘God’s new world’ (‘Gottes neue Welt’).” (p. 299)

The respective translation choice in that German translation:

Daud Soesilo writes this about the translation of those terms in the Malay translation:

In the New Testament [of the Revised Malay Translation (Alkitab Berita Baik, 1996)] “the Kingdom of God/Heaven” does not refer primarily to a region, or place, or to a political or national territory.
The meaning of “kingdom” is fundamentally that of “sovereignty” or “rule.” Since the primary idea is that of kingship, kingly rule, or sovereignty of God, rather than of the sphere or realm in which his rule operates, the sense of this term should be expressed in translation as “kingly rule,” “reign,” or “sovereignty,” rather than by the literal “kingdom.” Translating “Kingdom of God” The most common literal translation of the term “Kingdom of God” in Malay is “Kerajaan Allah.”
And “Kerajaan Syurga” is used for its variant “Kingdom of Heaven.” However, careful linguistic analysis of the meaning and usage of the term “kerajaan” “kingdom” shows that when it is unmarked it carries the following components:

  • a territory
  • in which a king rules
  • his people

Thus the expressions “Kerajaan Allah” and “Kerajaan Syurga” have primarily a territorial sense, rather than expressing the idea of “kingly rule.” This means, then, that we should consider replacing the literal renderings “Kerajaan Allah/Syurga” with expressions that are better able to give the New Testament meaning of “he basileia tau theou,” as expressed in the following components:

  • God’s kingly rule, including his activity in bringing about his rule in this world
  • the people God rules over, in particular those who accept his rule in their lives,
  • the situation in which God rules completely, which is the consummation of God’s activity of bringing about God’s rule. (This is the situation which the German Common Language Bible “Die Gute Nachricht” translates as “God’s New World.” From one point of view, however, this use of the expression is the one that relates most closely to the “territory” sense mentioned above.)

The Malay translation team has tried to render the expression “he basileia tou theou” faithfully and meaningfully according to the main focus in each context in which it occurs. However, to help readers who are looking for the formal features of the term, we have added footnotes that give a literal rendering. (Source: Daud Soesilo in The Bible Translator 2001, p. 239ff.)

(See also Barclay Newman in: The Bible Translator 1974, p. 401ff.)

Likewise in the Gurung translation the term was also, depending on context, rendered in four different ways:

  • God’s power at work in the world,
  • the personal response to God, in obedience and receiving blessing,
  • God’s future open ruling of the world,
  • the ultimate blessings of God’s rule in heaven.

(Source: Warren Glover in The Bible Translator 1978, p. 231ff. — here you can also find comprehensive list of examples where which translation was applied.)

Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages:

  • Tzeltal: “persons like these will reach God’s government” (as in Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16: “the Kingdom of God belongs to those”) or “the jurisdiction of God” (in the sense of where God has the authority)
  • Western Kanjobal: “receive God as king”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “like God to rule over”
  • San Miguel El Grande Mixtec: “agree to God reigning over”
  • Kekchí: “power (or authority) of God”
  • Laka: “God’s commanding”
  • Javanese: “the rule of God”
  • Huave: “where God rules”
  • Huastec: “God as ruler”
  • San Blas Kuna: “God’s government”
  • Navajo: “what God has charge of”
  • Sayula Popoluca: “to have God rule over”
  • Tzotzil: “to have God as chief”
  • Highland Puebla Nahuatl: “the leadership of God”
  • Wayuu: “where God is chief” (this and examples above in Bratcher / Nida)
  • Fuyug “God’s clan”
  • Mono: “sana lala’aha nang” – “area of chiefly rule”
  • Martu Wangka: “The Father looks after his own relatives” (source for this and the two preceding: Carl Gross)

believe, faith

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

Translations of the Greek pistis and its various forms that are typically translated as “faith” in English (itself deriving from Latin “fides,” meaning “trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence”) and “believe,” cover a wide range of approaches.

Bratcher and Nida say this (1961, p. 38) (click or tap here to read more):

“Since belief or faith is so essentially an intimate psychological experience, it is not strange that so many terms denoting faith should be highly figurative and represent an almost unlimited range of emotional ‘centers’ and descriptions of relationships, e.g. ‘steadfast his heart’ (Chol), ‘to arrive on the inside’ (Chicahuaxtla Triqui), ‘to conform with the heart’ (Uab Meto), ‘to join the word to the body’ (Uduk), ‘to hear in the insides’ (or ‘to hear within one’s self and not let go’ – Nida 1952) (Laka), ‘to make the mind big for something’ (Sapo), ‘to make the heart straight about’ (Mitla Zapotec), ‘to cause a word to enter the insides’ (Lacandon), ‘to leave one’s heart with’ (Baniwa), ‘to catch in the mind’ (Ngäbere), ‘that which one leans on’ (Vai), ‘to be strong on’ (Shipibo-Conibo), ‘to have no doubts’ (San Blas Kuna), ‘to hear and take into the insides’ (Kare), ‘to accept’ (Pamona).”

Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages (click or tap here to read more):

  • Western Kanjobal: “truth entering into one’s soul”
  • Highland Puebla Nahuatl: “following close after”
  • Huichol: “conform to the truth”
  • Loma: “lay one’s hand on it”
  • Mashco Piro: “obey-believe”
  • Mossi: “leaning on God” (this and all the above acc. to Nida 1952, p. 119ff.)
  • Thai: “place one’s heart in” (source: Bratcher / Hatton 2000, p. 37)
  • Cameroon Pidgin: “to put one’s heart in God” (source: Jan Sterk)
  • Kafa: “decide for God only” (source Loren Bliese)
  • Martu Wangka: “sit true to God’s talk” (source: Carl Gross)
  • Awabakal: ngurruliko: “to know, to perceive by the ear” (as distinct from knowing by sight or by touch — source: Lake, p. 70) (click or tap here to read more)

    “[The missionary translator] Lancelot Threlkeld learned that Awabakal, like many Australian languages, made no distinction between knowing and believing. Of course the distinction only needs to be made where there are rival systems of knowing. The Awabakal language expressed a seamless world. But as the stress on ‘belief’ itself suggests, Christianity has always existed in pluralist settings. Conversion involves deep conviction, not just intellectual assent or understanding. (…) Translating such texts posed a great challenge in Australia. Threlkeld and [his indigenous colleague] Biraban debated the possibilities at length. In the end they opted not to introduce a new term for belief, but to use the Awabakal ngurruliko, meaning ‘to know, to perceive by the ear,’ as distinct from knowing by sight or by touch.”

  • Language in southern Nigeria: a word based on the idiom “lose feathers.” Randy Groff in Wycliffe Bible Translators 2016, p. 65 explains (click or tap here to read more):


    What does losing feathers have to do with faith? [The translator] explained that there is a species of bird in his area that, upon hatching its eggs, loses its feathers. During this molting phase, the mother bird is no longer able to fly away from the nest and look for food for her hungry hatchlings. She has to remain in the nest where she and her babies are completely dependent upon the male bird to bring them food. Without the diligent, dependable work of the male bird, the mother and babies would all die. This scenario was the basis for the word for faith in his language.

J.A. van Roy (in The Bible Translator 1972, p. 418ff.) discusses how a translation of “faith” in a an earlier translation into Venda created difficult perceptions of the concept of faith (click or tap here):

The Venda term u tenda, lutendo. This term corresponds to the terms ho dumela (Southern Sotho), and ku pfumela (Tsonga) that have been used in these translations of the Bible, and means “to assent,” “to agree to a suggestion.” It is important to understand this term in the context of the character of the people who use it.

The way in which the Venda use this term reveals much about the priority of interpersonal relationships among them. They place a much higher priority on responding in the way they think they are expected to respond than on telling the truth. Smooth interpersonal relationships, especially with a dominant individual or group, take precedence over everything else.

It is therefore regarded as bad form to refuse directly when asked for something one does not in fact intend to give. The correct way is to agree, u tenda, and then forget about it or find some excuse for not keeping to the agreement. Thus u tenda does not necessarily convey the information that one means what one says. One can tenda verbally while heartily disagreeing with the statement made or having no intention whatsoever to carry out what one has just promised to do. This is not regarded as dishonesty, but is a matter of politeness.

The term u sokou tenda, “to consent reluctantly,” is often used for expressing the fatalistic attitude of the Venda in the face of misfortune or force which he is unable to resist.

The form lutendo was introduced by missionaries to express “faith.”

According to the rules of derivations and their meanings in the lu-class, it should mean “the habit of readily consenting to everything´.” But since it is a coined word which does not have a clearly defined set of meanings in everyday speech, it has acquired in church language a meaning of “steadfastness in the Christian life.” Una lutendo means something like “he is steadfast in the face of persecution.” It is quite clear that the term u tenda has no element of “trust” in it. (…)

In “The Christian Minister” of July 1969 we find the following statement about faith by Albert N. Martin: “We must never forget that one of the great issues which the Reformers brought into focus was that faith was something more than an ‘assensus,’ a mere nodding of the head to the body of truth presented by the church as ‘the faith.’ The Reformers set forth the biblical concept that faith was ‘fiducia.’ They made plain that saving faith involved trust, commitment, a trust and commitment involving the whole man with the truth which was believed and with the Christ who was the focus of that truth. The time has come when we need to spell this out clearly in categorical statements so that people will realize that a mere nodding of assent to the doctrines that they are exposed to is not the essence of saving faith. They need to be brought to the understanding that saving faith involves the commitment of the whole man to the whole Christ, as Prophet, Priest and King as he is set forth in the gospel.”

We quote at length from this article because what Martin says of the current concept of faith in the Church is even to a greater extent true of the Venda Church, and because the terms used for communicating that concept in the Venda Bible cannot be expected to communicate anything more than “a mere nodding of assent”. I have during many years of evangelistic work hardly ever come across a Venda who, when confronted with the gospel, would not say, Ndi khou tenda, “I admit the truth of what you say.” What they really mean when saying this amounts to, “1 believe that God exists, and I have no objection to the fact that he exists. I suppose that the rest of what you are talking about is also true.” They would often add, Ndi sa tendi hani-hani? “Just imagine my not believing such an obvious fact!” To the experienced evangelist this is a clear indication that his message is rejected in so far as it has been understood at all! To get a negative answer, one would have to press on for a promise that the “convert” will attend the baptism class and come to church on Sundays, and even then he will most probably just tenda in order to get rid of the evangelist, whether he intends to come or not. Isn’t that what u tenda means? So when an inexperienced and gullible white man ventures out on an evangelistic campaign with great enthusiasm, and with great rejoicing returns with a list of hundreds of names of persons who “believed”, he should not afterwards blame the Venda when only one tenth of those who were supposed to be converts actually turn up for baptismal instruction.

Moreover, it is not surprising at all that one often comes across church members of many years’ standing who do not have any assurance of their salvation or even realise that it is possible to have that assurance. They are vhatendi, “consenters.” They have consented to a new way of life, to abandoning (some of) the old customs. Lutendo means to them at most some steadfastness in that new way of life.

The concept of faith in religion is strange to Africa. It is an essential part of a religion of revelation such as Christianity or Islam, but not of a naturalistic religion such as Venda religion, in which not faith and belief are important, but ritual, and not so much the content of the word as the power of it.

The terms employed in the Venda Bible for this vital Christian concept have done nothing to effect a change in the approach of the Venda to religion.

It is a pity that not only in the Venda translation has this been the case, but in all the other Southern Bantu languages. In the Nguni languages the term ukukholwa, “to believe a fact,” has been used for pisteuo, and ukholo, the deverbative of ukukholwa, for pistis. In some of the older Protestant translations in Zulu, but not in the new translation, the term ithemba, “trust”, has been used.

prophet

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

Eugene Nida wrote the following about the translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms that are typically translated with “prophet” in English:

“The tendency in many translations is to use ‘to foretell the future’ for ‘prophesy,’ and ‘one who foretells the future’ for ‘prophet.’ This is not always a recommended usage, particularly if such expressions denote certain special native practices of spirit contact and control. It is true, of course, that prophets of the Bible did foretell the future, but this was not always their principal function. One essential significance of the Greek word prophētēs is ‘one who speaks forth,’ principally, of course, as a forth-teller of the Divine will. A translation such as ‘spokesman for God’ may often be employed profitably.” (1947, p. 234f.)

Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages (click or tap for details):

  • San Blas Kuna: “one who speaks the voice of God”
  • Central Pame and Vai: “interpreter for God”
  • Kaqchikel, Navajo, Yaka: “one who speaks for God”
  • Northern Grebo: “God’s town crier” (see more about this below)
  • Sapo: “God’s sent-word person”
  • Shipibo-Conibo, Ngäbere: “one who speaks God’s word”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “one who speaks-opens” (a compound meaning “one who discloses or reveals”)
  • Sierra Totonac: “one who causes them to know” (in the sense of “revealer”)
  • Batak Toba: “foreteller” (this and all the above acc. to Nida 1961, p. 7)
  • Ekari: “person who speaks under divine impulse”
  • Chinese: 先知 xiānzhī — “one who foreknows” (or the 1946/1970 translation by Lü Zhenzhong: 神言人 shényánrén — “divine-word-man”)
  • Uab Meto: “holy spokesman” (source for this and two above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Kouya: Lagɔɔ gbʋgbanyɔ — “the one who seeks God’s affairs” (source: Saunders, p. 269)
  • Kafa: “decide for God only” (source: Loren Bliese)
  • Martu Wangka: “sit true to God’s talk” (source: Carl Gross)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “word passer” (source: John Beekham in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22)
  • Obolo: ebi nriran: “those with power of divine revelation” (source: Enene Enene)

In Ixcatlán Mazatec a term is used that specifically includes women. (Source: Robert Bascom)

About the translation into Northern Grebo:

In some instances these spiritual terms result from adaptations reflecting the native life and culture. Among the Northern Grebo people of Liberia, a missionary wanted some adequate term for ‘prophet,’ and she was fully aware that the native word for ‘soothsayer’ or ‘diviner’ was no equivalent for the Biblical prophet who spoke forth for God. Of course, much of what the prophets said referred to the future, and though this was an essential part of much of their ministry, it was by no means all. The right word for the Gbeapo people would have to include something which would not only mean the foretelling of important events but the proclamation of truth as God’s representative among the people. At last the right word came; it was ‘God’s town-crier.’ Every morning and evening the official representative of the chief goes through the village crying out the news, delivering the orders of the chief, and announcing important coming events. ‘God’s town-crier’ would be the official representative of God, announcing to the people God’s doings, His commands, and His pronouncements for their salvation and well-being. For the Northern Grebo people the prophet is no weird person from forgotten times; he is as real as the human, moving message of the plowman Amos, who became God’s town-crier to a calloused people.” (source: Nida 1952, p. 20)

See also prophesy and prophesy / prophetic frenzy.

baptism, baptize

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

About the translation of the Greek term that is usually transliterated with the terms “baptism” or “baptize” (baptise) in English (for other English translations see below), Bratcher / Nida (1961) say this (click or tap for details):

“[It] has given rise not only to an immense amount of discussion in terms of its meaning within the Judaeo-Christian historical context, but also continues to introduce serious problems for translators today. In many instances the recommendation has been to transliterate, i.e. employing some indigenous equivalent of the sounds of the word in some more prestigious language spoken in the region, e.g. English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese. Though this solution tends to remove some theological controversies, it does not completely satisfy everyone, for not only does it avoid the problem of the mode of baptism, but it leaves the Scriptures with a zero word. Unfortunately, many of the controversies over the indigenous equivalent of baptism arise because of a false evaluation of a word’s so-called etymology. For example, in Yucateco the word for baptism means literally ‘to enter the water’, but this term is used freely by both Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, even though it might appear to be strictly ‘Baptist nomenclature.’ Similarly, in Kekchí, an even ‘stronger’ term ‘to put under the water’ is employed by Nazarenes and Roman Catholics. Obviously the meanings of these Yucateco and Kekchí words are not derivable from their literal significance but from the fact that they now designate a particular kind of Christian rite. To insist on changing such a well-established usage (and one to which immersionists could certainly not object) would seem quite unwarranted. The situation may, on the other hand, be reversed. There are instances in which immersionists are quite happy to use a term which though it means literally ‘to put water on the head’ [see below for the translation in Northern Emberá] has actually lost this etymological value and refers simply to the rite itself, regardless of the way in which it is performed. A translator should not, however, employ an already existing expression or construct a new phrase which will in its evident meaning rule out any major Christian constituency.

“There are, of course, a number of instances in which traditional terms for ‘baptism’ need modification. In some situations the word may mean only ‘to give a new name to’ (one aspect of christening) or ‘to be one who lights’ (referring to a custom in some traditions of lighting a candle at the time of baptism). However, in order to reproduce the core of significant meaning of the original Biblical term, it is important to explore the entire range of indigenous usage in order that whatever term is chosen may have at least some measure of cultural relevance. In Navajo, for example, there were four principal possibilities of choice: (1) borrowing some transliterated form of the English word, (2) constructing a phrase meaning ‘to touch with water’ (an expression which would have been acceptable with some groups in the field, but not with others), (3) using a phrase meaning ‘ceremonial washing’ (but this expression seemed to be too closely related to indigenous practices in healing ceremonies), and (4) devising an expression meaning ‘to dedicate (or consecrate) by water’, without specifying the amount of water employed. This last alternative was chosen as the most meaningful and the best basis for metaphorical extension and teaching.

“On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that the meaning of ‘washing’ must be rejected in all languages. For example, it is quite appropriate in Kpelle culture, since it ties in with male puberty rites, and in the San Blas Kuna society, since washing is a very important aspect of female puberty ceremonies, in some translations ‘water’ is introduced into the expression for baptism, but the quantity and means of administrating it are left quite ambiguous, e.g. ‘to get (take, receive) water’ (Tzeltal). Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona and Batak Toba render the verb ‘to pour water over, give a bath’.” (Source: Bratcher / Nida)

Other examples of translation include:

  • Javanese, Indonesian: transliterated forms of the Greek “baptizo”
  • Pamona, Wejewa: “to bathe, wash with water”
  • Sundanese: “to apply water to”
  • Padoe: “to make one wet with water”
  • Batak Simalungun: “to wash with a little bit of water” (“used in speaking of a ceremony in which very small children are ceremonially cleansed”)
  • Kambera: “to dip into”
  • Balinese: ngelukat (a Balinese initiation ceremony in which persons were sprinkled with consecrated water) (source for this and above: Biblical Terms in The Bible Translator 1952, p. 225ff.
  • Kwara’ae: “holy wash” (traditional church term for baptism) (source: Carl Gross)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “to wash” (Catholic: “to name;” Seventh Day Adventists: “to bathe”) (source: James Lauriault in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 56ff.)
  • Northern Emberá: “head-poured” (source: Loewen 1980, p. 107)
  • Halh Mongolian: argon ochial (“holy washing”) (“The people in Mongolia are strictly religious and understand the meaning very well. They are familiar with the idea of water being used as a symbol of a new life and having received ‘holy washing’ means to have entered into a new sphere of life.”) (Source: A. Marthinson in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 74ff.)
  • Many Germanic languages use a term that originally means “dip” or “make deep”: German: Taufe, Danish: dåbSwedish: dop, Norwegian: dåp, Dutch: doop, Faroese: dópur
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: (Spanish loan word and transliteration of the Greek term) bautizar (Source: Otis M. Leal in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 164ff.
  • For more about this see here.

    “The Yatzachi Zapotec know the practice of baptism and have a word to express it. There would thus seem to be no problem involved. Unfortunately, however, the word for ‘baptize’ is a compound, one part being a word nowhere else used and the other part being the word for ‘water.’ Perhaps ‘water-baptize’ is the closest equivalent in English. For most contexts this presents no problem, but if the word is used in Mark 1:8, it would say, ‘He will water-baptize you with the Holy Ghost.’ In Zapotec the idea is unintelligible. To meet the problem, the Spanish word ‘bautizar’ was introduced at this point though the Zapotec word is ordinarily used. The disadvantages of this substitution are obvious, but no better solution was found.”

  • Uab Meto: antam oe (“to enter into the water”) (Source: P. Middelkoop in The Bible Translator 1952 p. 165ff.)
  • For more about this see here.

    Formerly in Uab Meto the word used for ’baptism” was ‘nasrami’ which actually came by way of Arabic from ‘Nazarene.’ Its meaning was ‘to make a Christian’ and the idea was that the one who baptized actually made Christians. Such an expression was obviously inadequate. We have used for ‘baptize’ the phrase in ‘antam oe’ which means ‘to enter into the water.’ This phrase can be used for sprinkling, for water is used as a symbol of the new life, and being baptized means for the Uab Meto to enter into a new sphere of life. Baptism is so frequently spoken of in connection with the giving of the Holy Spirit that the proper associations have arisen in the thinking of the people.”

  • Chinese: Catholic: 洗 (“washing”); non-Baptist Protestant 聖洗 shèngxǐ (“holy washing”); Baptist: 浸洗 jìnxǐ (“immerse and wash”) (In the history of Chinese Bible translation the translation of the Greek baptizo was a point of great contention, so much so that in the 19th Century Baptists had a completely different set of Bible translations and even today are using different editions with the different term of the same versions that other Protestants use.) (Source: Zetzsche 2008)

The disagreement about whether the translation of the Greek baptizo needed to include “immersion” not only caused conflict in China, it also led to splits — and different translations — in English-speaking countries: “The influential British and Foreign Bible Society had been a major supporter of the [Baptist] Serampore mission, but it finally severed its support in 1836 because of the Baptist interpretation of the Bible translations produced there. This led to the formation of the separate Baptist Bible Translation Society in Great Britain in 1840. Almost concurrently, in 1837, the American and Foreign Bible Society was founded in the United States as an offspring of the American Bible Society, over a controversy about a Baptist Bengali Bible translation. The American and Foreign Bible Society itself experienced another split in 1850, when a sub-group rejected the transliteration of baptizo in the English Bible and formed the American Bible Union, which published its own English New Testament in 1862/63” that used the term “immerse” instead of baptize see here). (Source: Zetzsche 2008)

redeem, redemption

The Greek and Hebrew terms that are translated as “redeem” or “redemption” in most English translations (see more on that below) are translated in Kissi as “buying back.” “Ownership of some object may be forfeited or lost, but the original owner may redeem his possession by buying it back. So God, who made us for Himself, permitted us to accept or reject Him. In order to reconcile rebellious mankind He demonstrated His redemptive love in the death of His Son on our behalf.

“The San Blas Kuna describe redemption in a more spiritual sense. They say that it consists of ‘recapturing the spirit.’ A sinful person is one in rebellion against God, and he must be recaptured by God or he will destroy himself. The need of the spirit is to be captured by God. The tragedy is that too many people find their greatest pleasure in secretly trying to elude God, as though they could find some place in the universe where He could not find them. They regard life as a purely private affair, and they object to the claims of God as presented by the church. They accuse the pastor of interfering with the privacy of their own iniquity. Such souls, if they are to be redeemed, must be ‘recaptured.'”

Source: Nida 1952, p. 138.

In Ajië a term is used, “nawi,” that refers to the “custom of planting a small tree on land cursed either by the blood of battle or some calamity.” Clifford (1992, p. 83ff.) retells the story: “Maurice Leenhardt tells how he finally arrived at a term that would express ‘redemption.’ Previous missionaries had interpreted it as an exchange — an exchange of life, that of Jesus for ours. But in Melanesian thinking more strict equivalents were demanded in the exchanges structuring social life. It remained unclear to them how Jesus’ sacrifice could possibly redeem mankind. So unclear was it that even the natas [Melanesians pastors] gave up trying to explain a concept they did not understand very well themselves and simply employed the term “release.” So the matter stood, with the missionary driven to the use of cumbersome circumlocutions, until one day during a conversation on 1 Corinthians 1:30, [Melanesian pastor and Leenhardt’s co-worker] Boesoou Erijisi used a surprising expression: nawi. The term referred to the custom of planting a small tree on land cursed either by the blood of battle or some calamity. ‘Jesus was thus the one who has accomplished the sacrifice and has planted himself like a tree, as though to absorb all the misfortunes of men and to free the world from its taboos.’ Here at last was a concept that seemed to render the principle of ‘redemption’ and could reach deeply enough into living modes of thought. ‘The idea was a rich one, but how could I be sure I understood it right?’ The key test was in the reaction of students and natas to his provisional version. They were, he reports, overjoyed with the ‘deep’ translation.

The translation into English also is noteworthy:

“In Hebrew there are two terms, ga’al and padah, usually rendered ‘to redeem,’ which have likewise undergone significant changes in meaning with resulting obscurity and misunderstanding. Both terms are used in the Old Testament for a person being redeemed from slavery. In the case of padah, the primary emphasis is upon the redemption by means of payment, and in ga’al the redemption of an individual, usually by payment, is made by some relative or an individual of the same clan or society. These two words, however, are used in the Old Testament in circumstances in which there is no payment at all. For example, the redemption of Jews from Egypt is referred to by these two terms, but clearly there was no payment made to the Egyptians or to Pharaoh.

“In the New Testament a related problem occurs, for the words agorázō and exagorazó, meaning literally ‘to buy’ or ‘to buy back’ and ‘to buy out,’ were translated into Latin as redimo and into English normally as ‘redeem.’ The almost exclusive association of Latin redimo with payment became such a focal element of meaning that during the Middle Ages a theory developed that God had to pay the Devil in order to get believers out of hell and into heaven.

“As in the case of the Old Testament, New Testament contexts employing the Greek verb lutroó, literally ‘to redeem’ or ‘to ransom,’ do not refer primarily to payment but focus upon deliverance and being set free. But even today there is such a heavy tradition of the theological concept of payment that any attempt to translate lutroó as ‘to deliver’ or ‘to set free’ is misjudged by some as being heretical.”

Source: Nida 1984, p. 114f.

See also redeemer.

patience, patient

The Greek terms that are translated as “patient” or “patience” are translated in a variety of ways.

Eugene Nida (1952, p. 130) gives some examples:

“Peace is the quality of the soul; patience is the behavior of the soul. The Aymara of Bolivia have described patience well by the phrase ‘a waiting heart.’

“The Ngäbere of Panama describe patience in more vivid terms. They say that it is ‘chasing down your temper.’ The impatient person lets his temper run away with him. Patience requires one to “chase down his temper” and get it under control.

“The Yucateco describe patience as ‘strength not to fall.’ This seems to include almost more than patience, but it is important to note that this Yucateco translation recognizes that impatience means ‘falling.’ For some of us, who tend to take a certain secret pride in our impatience—describing it as energetic drive—it might be well to recognize that impatience is failure, while patience is strength.

“The San Blas Kuna in Panama use a rather strange phrase to depict patience. They say ‘not caring what happens.’ But this is not meant as condoning foolhardy indifference to life and danger. It reflects a kind of reckless confidence in God, a confidence not bred of desperation but of utter reliance. The patient person is not concerned about what happens; he is willing to wait in confidence.”

foolish people

The Greek that is translated as “(you) foolish people” or “(you) foolish ones” is (back-) translated in a number of ways:

  • Ekari: “thought not (having) people”
  • Kituba, Sinhala, Marathi, Javanese: “people without sense/understanding/intelligence”
  • San Blas Kuna: “people having a dark liver” (“incapable of intelligent, thoughtful behavior”) (See Seat of the Mind for traditional views of “ways of knowing, thinking, and feeling.”)
  • Batak Toba: “those short-of-mind” (“mostly referring to stupidity or ignorance in general”)
  • Zarma: a word indicating a person who refuses to use the intelligence he has
  • Nyanja, Yao: expressions implying intractability and willful opposition to common interests or commonly accepted ideas