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.”

complete verse (1John 3:3)

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

Yatzachi Zapotec: “And each of us if weare expecting that God will cause us to become like Christ is, we will do so that our hearts will constantly be clean like the heart of Jesus is clean.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “And each one who when he remembers that he himself will be like Christ, habitually fixes his own heart, intending for it to be good, like Christ.”

Tzotzil: “If we are waiting for God to cause us to become like Christ, we give ourselves for cleansing. Thus good-hearted (no sin) we will become like Christ is good-hearted.”

Sayula Popoluca: “And whoever waits for what will happen when Jesus Christ comes, he cleans himself as Jesus Christ is clean.”

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

one is tempted by one’s own desire

The Greek that is translated as “one is tempted by one’s own desire” or similar is translated in Sayula Popoluca as “Because every man is tempted when his heart begs him to do evil, and that evil pulls at our hearts.” (Source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)

complete verse (1John 3:4)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 3:4:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “Each one of us if we (are accustomed to) do evil we do not receive from (obey) the law because the evil we are doing goes contrary to the law.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “He who does sin, he just disobeys what God says. When we disobey the law of God, it is sin.”

Tzotzil: “If we seek our sin, we break his commandments. When we break his commandments we sin.”

Sayula Popoluca: “Whoever sins, he doesn’t obey God’s law. Because when we sin, we don’t obey God’s law.”

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

complete verse (James 1:15)

Following are some back-translations of James 1:15:

  • Guhu-Samane: “Then it overwhelms the man and the sin becomes reality, and in return the man encounters death.”
  • Tzotzil: “If we let the coveting of our hearts grab its strength, thus we will seek our sin; if sin has grabbed its strength, we will be lost because of it.”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “If we obey our evil hearts, we are doing evil; and if we continue doing evil the day will come when God will desert us.”
  • Sayula Popoluca: “”When that evil he wants stays in him, it gives room for sin to grow in him, and that sin when it grows big, then it kills him.”

(Source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)

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.

submit to God

The Greek that is translated as “submit to God” in English is translated as “let God be in charge of your hearts” in Tzotzil, “calm down before God” in Guhu-Samane, “obey God” in Mezquital Otomi, “give oneself over to God” in Sayula Popoluca, and “stick close to God” in Alekano (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).

complete verse (1John 4:10)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 4:10:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “We did not love God, he surprisingly loved us and he sent his son who died to pay for our guilt in order that we may be at peace with God.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “God showed us love that is true, because he sent here his Son who delivered-up himself to pay for our sins. And however much we love (think on) God, we can never love (think on) him as he thinks on us.”

Tzotzil: “See how it is God loves us(in). It is not because we first loved God. It was first he loved us. Therefore he sent his Son. He paid for our sins on the cross.”

Sayula Popoluca: “In this way we know that God loves us: it is not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and he sent his son to die for our sins so God would pity us.”

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

elders of the church

The Greek that is typically translated as “the elders of the church” in English is translated as “the old men who believe” in Sayula Popoluca, “those who care for the assembly of Christ” in Rincón Zapotec, “those in authority among the brothers” in Central Mazahua, and “the supervisors of the creed” in Guhu-Samane (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).

See also elder.

complete verse (1John 4:18)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 4:18:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “If we love God there is nothing for us to fear. And if we love God as we ought, there is nothing left for us to fear, because it is like a punishment for us when we are afraid. And if we fear anything, we do not love God as we ought.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “He who fears the judgment, he fears it because he hasn’t yet known well the love that God does to him. God’s love removes fear. When we fear, we think God will punish us.”

Tzotzil: “If we believe that God loves us, therefore we are not afraid. Because if we are afraid, it is because we think that God is going to punish us. If we believe that God really and truly loves us, not thus we think. Therefore if we are afraid it is because we have not believed that God loves us.”

Sayula Popoluca: “He who loves God, doesn’t fear. Because he who truly loves God will not fear anything. Because he who fears will suffer. He who fears, he doesn’t truly love God.” (Source for all above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.

Eastern Arrernte “The person who knows that God loves him does not fear God. But the person who fears that God will punish him, he does not yet know that God loves him very much.” (Source: Carl Gross)

righteous (person)

The Greek that is translated “righteous” in this verse is rendered as “did what he should” (Eastern Highland Otomi), “walked straight” (Sayula Popoluca), “was a man with a good heart” (Huichol), “his life was straight” (Southern Bobo Madaré), “was completely good” (San Mateo del Mar Huave) (the translation into San Mateo del Mar Huave does not imply sinless perfection) (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida), “those who say, ‘I don’t do evil’” (Navajo) (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel).

For other translations of this term see righteous / righteousness.

complete verse (1John 5:10)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 5:10:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “If we trust in God’s son, God speaks about his son in our head-hearts. If we do not believe God’s words, we treat God like a liar, because we do not believe his words which he speaks about his son.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “He who believes God’s Son, has been given understanding, and knows, himself, in his heart what is true. But he who doesn’t believe God, he looks on God as a liar, because he didn’t believe what God said about his Son.”

Tzotzil: “If we believe the word of the Son of God, thus we know that it is true what God has told us about his Son. If we do not believe the word of God’s Son, we think wrongly that God lies because we do not believe what God has told us about his Son.”

Sayula Popoluca: “He who believes God’s Son, he knows that it is true that which God says. And he who doesn’t believe God, he says that God lies, because he doesn’t believe what God says so we can know his Son.”

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