I am the good shepherd

The Greek that is translated in English typically as “I am the good shepherd” is difficult to translate into Lak.

Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“In Lak culture, shepherds are considered low-class. On an emotional/connotational level, it’s somewhat akin to calling a person a swineherd or muckraker in English; these employments don’t earn much respect from the average person. In the original context in which Jesus made this statement, a Jewish person who heard Jesus would likely have made the association with the Old Testament use of “shepherd’ for the Lord God Himself (see Isa 40:11, Ezek 34:11) or for earthly kings and rulers of the people (see Isa 44:28, Ezek 34:23). Thus, there’s a fairly big disconnect between the conclusions which the original audience would have probably drawn from Jesus’ words and the conclusion that Lak readers are likely to draw from His words. What to do about this? The Lak team will try adding an interpretive footnote to fill in this knowledge gap. But many (most?) people don’t bother to read footnotes. And if a Lak person listens to an audio recording of this passage, they definitely won’t hear any footnote. Should this be left for preachers to interpret for the audience? But there are almost no Lak pastors, and no Lak church to speak of yet. So this rendering is currently a problem without a really great solution. We accept it and go on, but always have it in the back of our minds until a better solution arises.”

See also shepherd.


The Greek that is translated in English typically as “vine” is translated in Lak as къюмайтӀутӀул мурхьра: “the (grape-)cluster tree.”

Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“Laks (who live in the mountainous regions of Dagestan) historically have had no experience with planting and tending vineyards. They buy grapes at the market or the store, but that’s about all they know of grape growing. Thus, in field testing, none of the readers could picture the primary image of this chapter. The translator’s initial attempt of rendering ‘vine’ as ‘grape stalk’ met with complete non-understanding. After much discussion of the problem and potential solutions, we settled on what one of the field testing respondents suggested to remedy the problem: ‘vine’ was rendered as ‘the (grape-)cluster tree’ (къюмайтӀутӀул мурхьра). Technically grapes of course don’t grow on trees, but something had to be put in the text, and it had to be said in a way that the average reader/hearer could understand it. The Lak team could have borrowed the Russian word for ‘vine’ (лоза), but since this is a very low-frequency word in the Russian language, it’s likely that many Laks wouldn’t know the Russian word either. So the team settled for a reduction of accuracy in order to achieve greater clarity. After all, the primary point of importance in this passage is not a horticultural analysis, but a metaphorical comparison to the spiritual world, to the relationship between the Father, His Son, and the followers of Jesus. This rendering allows readers to get to the core of this meaning without getting tangled up in unknown terms.”


The Greek that is translated in English as “devil” is sometimes translated with indigenous specific names, such as “the avaricious one” in Tetelcingo Nahuatl or “the malicious deity” in Toraja-Sa’dan. (Source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)

In Yoruba it is translated as èṣù. “Èṣù is thought of as bringing evil, but also as giving protection. The birth of a child may be attributed to him, as the names given to some babies show, Èṣùbiyi (Èṣù brought this forth), and Èṣùtoyin (Èṣù is worthy of praise).” (Source: John Hargreaves in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 39ff. )

In Muna, it is translated as Kafeompu’ando seetani: “Master of the evil-spirits” (source: René van den Berg) and in Mairasi as owe er epar nan: “headman of malevolent spirits” (source: Enggavoter 2004), in Huehuetla Tepehua as “chief of demons,” and in Ojitlán Chinantec as “head of the worldlings” (source for the last two: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125).

In Mandarin Chinese móguǐ (魔鬼), literally “magical ghost,” is used. This is a term that was adopted from Buddhist sources into early Catholic writings and later also by Protestant translators. (Source: Zetzsche 1996, p. 32)

In Lak and Shughni it is translated with terms of feminine gender. Vitaly Voinov tells this story (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“In the Lak language of Dagestan, the names ‘Iblis’ and ‘sheytan’ (referring to Satan and his minions, respectively) in this language were borrowed from the Arabic Islamic tradition, but they entered Lak as feminine nouns, not masculine nouns. This means that they grammatically function like nouns referring to females in Lak; in other words, Laks are likely to think of Iblis as a woman, not a man, because of the obligatory grammatical patterning of Lak noun classes. Thus, when the team explained (in Russian) what the Lak translation of Jesus’ wilderness temptation narrative at the beginning of Matthew 4 said, it sounded something like the following: ‘After this, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Iblis… .The temptress came to Jesus, and she said to Him…’

“Since this information (that the devil is a female spirit) is part of the very name used for Satan in Lak, nothing can really be done about this in the translation. The Lak translator did not think that the feminine gender of Iblis should cause any serious misunderstandings among readers, so we agreed to leave it in the translation. Prior to this, I had never heard about languages in which the devil is pictured as a woman, but recently I was told by a speaker of the Shughni language that in their language Sheytan is also feminine. This puts an interesting spin on things. The devil is of course a spirit, neither male nor female in a biologically-meaningful sense. But Bible translators are by nature very risk-aversive and, where possible, want to avoid any translation that might feed misleading information to readers. So what can a translator do about this? In many cases, such as the present one, one has to just accept the existing language structure and go on.”

I am the door (gate)

The Greek that is translated in English typically as “I am the door (or: gate)” is translated in Lak as “I am the entrance.”

Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“Field testing showed that some readers might find it hard to understand how a person could say about themselves that they are a door or gate. What exactly this metaphor means in this context was not well understood and caused what linguists call ‘processing difficulty.’ Even when it was explicated by ‘I am the door/gate for the sheep,’ it still caused problems in understanding. In other languages that have experienced a similar problem with this metaphor, translators have sometimes resorted to turning it into a simile, ‘I am like a door/gate.’ But in the Lak case, this would still leave unanswered the basic question of what the exact point of similarity is between Jesus and a door/gate. After much discussion, the team decided to try a different synonym, ‘I am the entrance.’ Further field testing should show whether this has solved the problem or not.”

Likewise, in Chichewa, “‘door’ is ‘that which shuts in,’ so naturally no one is going to be able to ‘enter by’ it. The solution in this case is not too hard to find: Christ is the ‘doorway,’ or entrance, to the house, building, stockpen, or whatever. When ‘open,’ he allows free passage; when ‘closed,’ one’s entry is barred.” (Source: Wendland 1987, p. 121)