vain (worship)

The Greek that is translated into English as “vain” or “in vain” in English is (back-) translated in various ways:

  • Cashibo-Cacataibo: “say I am important, but they do not believe it”
  • Kekchí: “has no meaning when they praise me”
  • Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona: “uselessly”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “uselessly they remember”
  • Farefare: “their religion is their mouth”
  • Southern Subanen: “their worship has no meaning”
  • Tzotzil: “they say they love me, but this means nothing”
  • Southern Bobo Madaré: “they worship me but they do not mean what they say”
  • Central Mazahua: “it is of no value that they honor me”
  • San Blas Kuna: “their thinking is not in their hearts” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Mairasi: “tribute of theirs for me [which] will-be-on-their-own” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Guhu-Samane: “with the front teeth of their mouths they worship me” (“‘In vain’ caused puzzlement [because] why should their efforts to worship God produce no results, try as they may? [But the idiom] ‘with the front teeth of their mouths they worship me’ comes from the picture of one who is making a pretense at eating food, hence their deceit is apparent.’ Source: Ernest L. Richert in Notes on Translation December 1963: p. 4-7; reprinted in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 198ff.)

peace (absence of strife)

The Greek that is translated as “peace” in English, and like the English can refer to a mental state as well as a lack of strife or absence or cessation of war, needs to be expressed with distinguished terms in other languages. For the meaning of peace when referring to absence of strife, Northern Grebo renders “the palaver has passed,” Highland Totonac “well arranged” (implying reconciliation), Tae’ and Toraja-Sa’dan “being-good-with-each-other” (in Luke 12:51, the 1933 edition of Tae’ has “land and water are well”) or Sranan Tongo “free” (in the sense of “to conclude peace”).

See also peace (absence of conflict).

gospel

In choosing a word for the Greek that is typically translated as “gospel” in English, a number of languages construct a phrase meaning “good news,” “joyful report” or “happiness-bringing words.” In some instances such a phrase may be slightly expanded in order to convey the proper meaning, e.g. “new good word” (Tzotzil), or it may involve some special local usage, e.g. “good story” (Navajo), “joyful telling” (Tausug), “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida), or “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237)

Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul:

“In Rutul, it was only during the most recent consultant checking session that I realized that the Rutul word for Gospel – Incir (from Arabic إنجيل — Injil) — sounds and looks exactly like the word that means ‘fig’ in Rutul. This is a case of homonymy, in which two completely non-related words from differing historical sources have come to sound exactly alike. Most Rutul speakers know that incir means ‘fig’ because they grow this fruit in their yard or buy it at the market every week. However, because the religious sphere of discourse was heavily disparaged during the Soviet era, most people simply never encountered Incir with the meaning of ‘Gospel.’ This meaning of the word, which Rutuls of the pre-Soviet era knew from the Koran, simply fell into disuse and never had much reason for returning into contemporary Rutul since there is no Christian church established among the people. So if the translator continues to use the term Incir as the rendering for ‘Gospel,’ he runs the risk that most readers will, at best, read the word with a smile because they know that it also means ‘fig,’ and, at worst, will completely misunderstand the word. The seemingly ‘easy’ solution in this case is for the translator to use a Rutul neologism meaning ‘Joyful Message’ or ‘Good News,’ [see above] instead of Incir; but in fact it is not all that easy to make this change if the translator himself insists on using the historical word because at least some Rutuls still understand it as meaning ‘Gospel.’ This is a situation in which the translation team has to gradually grow into the understanding that a fully intelligible translation of Scripture is preferable to one that maintains old words at the cost of alienating much of the readership.”

Seat of Emotions, Seat of the Mind

Cultures and languages equate different parts of the human body with the seat of the mind. Following is a theoretical framework that categorizes different approaches:

“[We] use the word ‘mind’ as a shorthand term for ‘ways of knowing, thinking, and feeling’ of which different cultures, or different periods of the same culture, may have different understandings. (…) Cultural models of the mind and more scientific approaches in philosophy and/or medicine have in various cultures invoked central parts of the human body as the locus of the mind. The major loci have been the abdomen region, the heart region and the head region or, more particularly, the brain region. These three types of conceptualizations can be labeled ‘abdominocentrism’, ‘cardiocentrism’, and ‘cerebrocentrism’ (or ‘cephalocentrism’), respectively. These three labels only intend to capture the idea that the region in question is the main centre, which does not exclude a similar role for body parts in other regions.”

(Source: Sharifian, Farzad et al. (eds.) Culture, Body, and Language: Conceptualizations of Internal Body Organs across Cultures and Languages. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2008. p. 3f.)

Equally, and related to that, the seat of emotions is located in many different, culture-specific parts of the body. Bratcher / Nida (p. 78) say: “Though the heart is spoken of in the Bible as the center of intellectual and emotive elements of human experience, in other languages the heart may have no such value. In some languages the corresponding centers are the viscera (Western Kanjobal), the liver (Laka), the stomach (Uduk), the gall (Toraja-Sa’dan) and the head (Anuak), though in the neighboring Shilluk demons may be in one’s head, but the liver and heart are the center of most other psychological activities. Whether one is to use ‘heart’ or some other part or organ of the body depends entirely upon the manner in which in any language such psychological experiences are described.”

devil

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 Lak and Shughni it is translated with terms of feminine gender. Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“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.”

endure for a while, temporary

The Greek that is translated as “endure for a while” or “temporary” in English versions is idiomatically translated in Kekchí as “they are like passers by,” an apt description of the transient enthusiast for Christianity. In Toraja-Sa’dan it is translated as “their heart is shallow.” in Javanese as “they are not steadfast,” and in Pamona as “only a moment is their heart quiet.”

adjure (by God), implore (by God)

The Greek that is translated into English as “(I) implore (or: adjure) (you) by God” is translated as “tell you before God” (Copainalá Zoque), “ask in front of God” (Huautla Mazatec) “ask you by God” (Eastern Highland Otomi), “ask you in God’s presence” (Southern Subanen), “I swear, calling on the name of God, requesting you” (Toraja-Sa’dan), “I want your oath by God” (Indonesian), “will assure me by using a curse on yourself calling on the name of God” (Pamona), and “ask you; God has seen it” (Tzotzil).

cross

The Greek that is translated as “cross” in English is often referred to a description of the shape (in Chinese, for instance it is translated as 十字架 shízìjià — “10-character-frame” because the character for “10” has the shape of a cross), elsewhere it refers to the function, e.g. a coined term, made up of two Sanskrit words, meaning “killing-pole” (Marathi NT revision of 1964), “wood to-stretch-out-with” (Toraja-Sa’dan), or “nailing pole” (Zarma). A combination of the two seems to be used in Balinese, which employs a word for the crossbeams in a house, derived from a verb that can refer both to a beam that stretches from side to side under a roof, and to a person stretched out for torture (source for this and above: Reling / Swellengrebel). Similarly, in Lamba it is translated “with umutaliko — ‘a pole with a cross-piece, on which maize was normally tied’ from the verb ‘talika’ which, strangely enough, is used of ‘holding down a man with arms and legs stretched out, someone gripping each limb.'” (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.)

“In Mongolian, the term that is used is togonoltchi mott, which is found in the top of a tent. The people on the steppes live in round felt-yurts and the round opening on the top of the tent serves as a window. The crosswood in that opening is called togonoltchi mott. ‘Crucified’ is translated ‘nailed on the crosswood.’ This term is very simple, but deep and interesting too. Light comes to men through the Cross. What a privilege to be able to proclaim such a message.” (Source: A. W. Marthinson in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 74ff.)

In Mairasi it is translated as iwo nasin ae: “chest measurement wood.” “This term refers to the process of making a coffin when a person dies. The man making the coffin takes a piece of bamboo and measures the body from head to heel. He then breaks the stick off at the appropriate point. For the width he measures the shoulders and then ties the two sticks together in the shape of a cross. As he works, he continually measures to make sure the coffin is the correct size. At the gravesite, the coffin is lowered. Then the gravecloth, palm leaves, and finally the chest measurement stick are laid on top of the coffin before the dirt is piled on. This term is full of meaning, because it is in the shape of a cross, and each person will have one. The meaning is vividly associated with death.” (Source: Enggavoter, 2004)

See also crucify.

tradition

The Greek that is translated as “tradition” in English is translated in Kekchí as “the old root-trunk” (in which the life of a people is likened to a tree), in Central Tarahumara, as “to live as the ancients did,” in Inupiaq as “sayings passed down from long-ago times,” in Navajo as “what their fathers of old told them to follow,” in Toraja-Sa’dan as “the ordinance maintained by the forefathers,” in Tzeltal as “word that has been kept from the ancients” (source for this and all above Bratcher / Nida), and in Gumuz as “the life of your fathers” (source: Loren Bliese).

In Obolo it is translated as orọmijọn̄: “the deeds of the ground” (source: Enene Enene).

on a journey, traveled

The Greek that is translated as “as he journeyed” or “(who) was on a journey” in English is translated as “a man from afar” (literally for “on a far journey”) in Toraja-Sa’dan, which implies that the Samaritan was a foreigner, which the priest and Levite were not.

adultery

The Greek that is translated as “adultery” (typically understood as “marital infidelity”) in English is (back-) translated in the following ways:

  • Highland Totonac: “to do something together”
  • Yucateco: “pair-sin”
  • Ngäbere: “robbing another’s half self-possession” (compare “fornication” which is “robbing self-possession,” that is, to rob what belongs to a person)
  • Kaqchikel, Chol: “to act like a dog”
  • Toraja-Sa’dan: “to measure the depth of the river of (another’s) marriage.”
  • Inupiaq; “married people using what is not theirs” (compare “fornication” which is “unmarried people using what is not theirs” (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • In Purari: “play hands with” or “play eyes with”
  • In Hakha Chin the usual term for “adultery” applies only to women, so the translation for the Greek term that is translated into English as “adultery” was translated in Hakha Chin as “do not take another man’s wife and do not commit adultery.”
  • In Falam Chin the term for “adultery” is the phrase for “to share breast” which relates to adultery by either sex. (Source for this and three above: David Clark)
  • In Ixcatlán Mazatec a specification needs to be made to include both genders. (Source: Robert Bascom)

See also adulterer and adulteress.