the Jews

The translation of the Greek οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (hoi Ioudaioi), traditionally “the Jews” in English, is used particularly often in the Gospel of John and has been receiving attention in the last 50 years. Below you’ll find an overview of how some English translators and translation have translated it, why they did so and the solutions some other languages have chosen.

Starting in the late 1960s, at the time the English Today’s English Version (Good News Bible) and respective translations in other languages (see below) were published, many translators started to question the translation of hoi Ioudaioi with “the Jews.”

Robert Bratcher, the translator of the Today’s English Version New Testament describes why his translation uses four different translations for the same Greek words (in The Bible Translator 1975, p. 401ff.): “Jewish people,” “Judeans,” “people hostile to Jesus,” and “the authorities in Jerusalem” (for more see here):

“In order to better understand the meaning of ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John, we must first look at the use and meaning of ‘the world’ in this Gospel. The author sees everything in terms of opposite forces: light and darkness, truth and error, life and death, God and the Devil. And he makes a sharp distinction between the world and Jesus and his followers, especially in the last half of the Gospel. Of course the world is the object of God’s love and of Christ’s saving mission (John 3:1617; 12:47; 17:21, 23), but it is not the object of the love of the followers of Jesus: they are not commanded to love the world. The disciples of Jesus are in the world (John 13:1), but they do not belong to it (John 15:19). The world hates Jesus and his disciples, because they do not belong to it (John 15:1819; 17:14, 15, 16). The world loves only those who belong to it (John 15:19). It does not know Jesus (John 1:10), or the Father (John 17:25), and cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). The world’s ruler is to be overthrown (John 12:31, 14:30; 16:11). When Jesus is parted from his disciples, they will be sad, but the world will be glad (John 16:20). Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33); his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). In the Gospel of John ‘the world’ stands in opposition to Jesus and his disciples.

“‘The Jews’ belong to ‘the world,’ as compared with Jesus and his followers. The Jews, like the world, do not know the Father. They have never heard his voice or seen his face, nor do they believe in the one whom he sent (John 5:37, 38). Jesus says to the Jews. ‘You come from this world, but I do not come from this world’ (John 8:23). (…)

“The author clearly places himself, and those whom he represents, as separate from the Jews. He speaks of ‘the Passover of the Jews’ (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55), the religious rules of the Jews about purification (John 2:6), a religious festival of the Jews (John 5:1), the Festival of Shelters of the Jews (John 7:2), the Day of Preparation of the Jews (John 19:42), and the way in which Jews prepare a body for burial (19:40).

“And quite as clearly he regards Jesus as not ‘a Jew’. In talking to the Jews. Jesus speaks of ‘your Law’ (John 7:19; 8:17; 10:34) and ‘your circumcision’ (John 7:22). Abraham is ‘your father’ (John 8:56). When the Jews say to him. ‘Our ancestors ate manna in the desert’ (John 6:31), Jesus replies, ‘What Moses gave you was not the bread from heaven’ (John 6:32), and later on says, ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert’ (John 6:49).

“It is true that twice Jesus is called a Jew: by the Samaritan woman (John 4:9) and by Pilate (John 18:35). But in both instances the term is used in its sense of ‘person of Judah’, contrasted with the Samaritan and the Roman. The same applies in John 4:22, where Jesus says to the Samaritan woman. ‘You (Samaritans) do not really know whom you worship; we (Jews) know whom we worship, for salvation comes from the Jews.’

“Apart from those two instances, it is only in John 1:11 that Jesus is identified as a Jew. in the statement that he came to ‘his own country’, but ‘his own people’ did not receive him. This passage, however, does not go against the Gospel as a whole, in which Jesus is shown as not being a part of ‘the Jews.’

“What accounts for this? It seems clear that the deep differences shown between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ of his time reflect the hostility between Church and Synagogue at the time the author wrote his Gospel. He has moved back the disputes and arguments of his own time into the time of Jesus, and they are represented as taking place between Jesus and the people of his time.

“The prominent part played by the Pharisees in the opposition to Jesus is worthy of note here. The High Priest and the chief priests are mentioned often, especially in chapters 18-19, as we would expect. They were, after all, the religious authorities responsible for arresting Jesus and turning hint over to Pilate. What is surprising is that the Pharisees appear so often in the Gospel (see John 1:24; 4:1; 7:32, 47, 48; 8:13; 9:13, 15, 16, 40; 11:46; 12:19, 42), and are at times identified as ‘the Jews’, that is, the authorities. Their part in relation to Jesus in the Gospel of John is different from the part they play in the other Gospels. In John it is their refusal to believe in Jesus and his claims that brings them into conflict with him. They are not, as in the other Gospels, condemned by Jesus because of their hypocrisy or their understanding of the Law. (…)

“The translator is bound to represent faithfully the way in which the author describes the ministry of Jesus. But the way in which he will translate the Greek hoi loudaioi every time it appears in the Gospel is not an easy matter to decide. (1) Should he not, always and everywhere, translate it by ‘the Jews’? This certainly may be argued, since the author does not use the expression in a precise national or racial sense of the people of Israel in the years A.D. 30-33, but of the opponents of his own time who denied the claims the Church makes about Jesus the Messiah. If the translator did this, however, he would almost be forced to use quotation marks — ‘the Jews’ — to show the strangeness of the phrase. (2) But since the author has placed these disputes in the time of Jesus, it is at this level that the translation must take place, so that ‘the Jews’ must be identified in terms of the people of Jesus’ own time. But as a matter of fact Jesus was a Jew, and to translate a passage, for example. ‘Jesus, in Jerusalem, said to the Jews’, is as unnatural as to say, ‘The President, in Washington, said to the Americans’, or, ‘The Queen, in London, said to the British.’

“In translating on this ‘historical’ level, however, does not the translator somehow distort the meaning of the text? The answer depends on whether we believe that the author intended his readers to understand his Gospel as reporting historical events which took place in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the early part of the first century. Assuming that he did, it seems to me that the translator does not have much of a choice, unless he says something like ‘the enemies of Jesus’, or ‘the unbelievers’ every time ‘the Jews’ is used of the opponents of Jesus.

“Consequently, in following the course which I think is the only right one to take, the translator must carefully observe the different senses in which ‘the Jews’ is used in the Gospel of John—and this is what will be done in this study, with an examination of every occurrence of the phrase and its meaning in the ‘historical’ setting of the Gospel. (…)

“According to this review, ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John may have four different meanings:

  • its natural sense, meaning simply Jewish people
  • Judeans, people who live in and near Jerusalem
  • people hostile to Jesus
  • the authorities in Jerusalem

For the Contemporary English Version in the 1990s, similar translation strategies were taken, as explained by David Burke, a member of the translation team (see the reprint from an original article in TIC TALK 24, 1993, right here). Other English translations that use varied translations for hoi Ioudaioi include the Living Bible, New International Version, Common English Bible, New Living Translation, The Inclusive New Testament, and others.

For a recent translation of the New Testament, its translator and Eastern Orthodox scholar David B. Hart (2017) explains why he chose to use ‘Judaean’ for every occurrence of the singular Ioudaios or the plural Ioudaioi throughout the New Testament (for more see here):

“The next term is Ioudaios — or Ioudaioi in the plural — which is usually rendered ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews,’ except in places where ‘Judaean’ or ‘Judaeans’ seems better to fit the context: again a perfectly justifiable practice, but also one that inadvertently introduces a distinction into the text that would not have been entirely intended by the authors. The books of the New Testament were written in an age in which national, ethnic, religious, and racial identities were not arranged in the often pernicious categories that came to hold sway in subsequent centuries; and it would be a severe distortion of the texts of the New Testament to allow these later developments to cast a shadow backward onto a time innocent of the evils of mediaeval or modern history. For example—and the most striking example — the Gospel of John has often been accused of anti-Semitism, despite the anachronism of the very concept. Where English readers are accustomed to reading the Gospel as referring, often opprobriously, to ‘the Jews,’ the original text is usually referring to the indigenous Temple and synagogue authorities of Judaea, or to Judaeans living outside Judaea, or even to ‘Judaeans’ as opposed to ‘Galileans’ (see, for instance, John 7:1). The Gospel definitely reflects the disenchantment of Jewish Christians in Asia Minor with those they saw as having expelled them from the synagogue, and later Christian culture certainly often took this as an excuse for anti-Jewish violence and injustice, but it would be absurd to impute to the Gospel the sort of religious prejudices born in later generations, or certainly the racial ideologies that are so much a part of the special legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. I have rendered the word as ‘Judaean’ or ‘Judaeans’ throughout, even where that sounds somewhat awkward, and even in places where ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews’ would be an utterly anodyne or bracingly affirmative translation. After all, the general extension of the term ‘Jews’ to all who worshipped Israel’s God meant principally that their cultic life was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. Again, my rationale for doing this, and for ignoring my own twinge of reluctance whenever it produced a somewhat inept construction, is that I thought it better to preserve the unity of the word and the concept in the language of the ancient authors than to impose distinctions that would make the texts conform more readily to our cultural categories (and historical sins). (source: Hart 2017, p. 548f.)

Other English translations that use Judeans in most passages in John for Ioudaioi include N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament (in the UK: New Testament for Everyone), the Messianic Jewish Bible Project’s Tree of Life translation, and David Stern’s Jewish New Testament.

In The Jewish Gospel of John its translator explains why he chose to not translate but instead transliterate virtually ever occurrence of Ioudaioi (for more see here):

“The Gospel of John was initially written for a particular audience consisting of a variety of intra-Israelite groups, one of the main ones being the Samaritan Israelites. To them, unlike for us today, the word Ioudaioi did not mean ‘the People of Israel,’ i.e. ‘the Jewish people’ as we call them today. For these people, the people I propose are one of the main audiences for the Gospel of John, the Ioudaioi, meant something different.

“One modern example that illustrates this ancient dynamic comes from an Eastern European setting. The Ukrainians often called Russians, with whom they had an uneasy relationship to say the least, ‘Maskali.’ The Ukrainian word ‘Maskal’ comes from the name of the Russian Imperial Capital — Moscow. Those who were either of Russian ethnic descent, or who even as much as acknowledged Moscow’s authority or leading role in the region, could be referred to as ‘Maskal.’ In fact, the Maskal did not have to be from Moscow or be ethnically Russian at all. The individual simply needed to be (or be perceived to be) a supporter of a Moscow-led political agenda. Other peoples outside of the Russian-Ukrainian political conflict, who were familiar with the issues, never used the designation ‘Maskali’ themselves, knowing that it was a Ukrainian term for the Russians and Russia’s affiliates.

“Therefore, using a similar analogy, those who acknowledged the Jerusalem-approved authorities in Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) and Cana, which were far from Jerusalem, were also referred to by the principal name for the Jerusalemite formal rulers and leading sect — the Ioudaioi. All members of the Jerusalem-led system became the Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John. This is very similar to the way ‘Russians’ became ‘Maskali’ to Ukrainians and to others who witnessed their polemic. So when the audience for John’s Gospel heard these anti-Ioudaioi statements (like John 7:1-2), whom did they think the author/s had in mind? This is the key question.

“To Samaritan Israelites, whatever else the Ioudaioi may have been, they were certainly Judeans –- members of the former Southern Kingdom of Israel who had adopted a wide variety of innovations that were contrary to the Torah as Samaritans understood it. Judging from this Gospel, the original audience understood that, as well as simply being Judeans, the Ioudaioi were: i) Judean authorities, and (ii) affiliated members of this authority structure living outside of Judea.

“These affiliates were located both in the territories of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel (Galilee) and in the large Israelite diaspora outside the Land of Israel, both in the Roman Empire and beyond. In this way, the Gospel of John, like the other Gospels, portrayed Jesus’ antagonists as representatives of sub-groups within Israel, and not the people of Israel as a whole. In other words Ioudaioi (‘the Jews’ in most translations) in this Gospel are not ‘the Jewish People’ in the modern sense of the word.

“The translation of Ioudaioi always and only as ‘Jews’ sends the reader in the opposite direction from what the author intended. While the translation of this word simply as ‘Judeans,’ is a more accurate choice than ‘Jews,’ it is still not fully adequate –- for three reasons that come to mind:

  • The English word Jews evokes, in the minds of modern peoples, the idea of Jewish religion (i.e. Jews are people who profess a religion called Judaism) and therefore cannot be used indiscriminately to translate the term Ioudaioi, since, in the first century, there was no separate category for religion (Judaism, when it was used, meant something much more all-encompassing than what it means to us today). In a sense, it was only when non-Israelite Christ-followers, in an attempt to self-establish and self-define, created the category called Christianity, that the category called Judaism, as we know it today, was also born. Since then most Christian theologians and most Jewish theologians after them project our modern definition of Judaism back into the New Testament.
  • On the other hand, the English word Judean evokes in the minds of modern people, oftentimes, an almost exclusively geographical definition (a Judean is the person who lives in Judea or used to live in Judea) and hence cannot be used indiscriminately either, since today it does not imply everything it intended to imply in late antiquity.
  • The word Judean, without clarification and nuancing, does not account for the complex relationship of the outside-of-Judea affiliates with the Jerusalem authorities either.

“Because of the lack of a perfect word to describe what was meant by Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John, I suggest that the word is best left untranslated.” (source: Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 2015, p. XIff.)

In other languages, many common language versions (approximate equivalents to the English Today’s English Version (Good News Bible) or other simplified translations (as well as non-simplified versions) use varied translations for Ioudaioi in John as well. Below are some examples of translations of hoi Ioudaioi in John 1:19:

  • Portuguese: líderes judeus (Jewish leaders) (in Nova Tradução na Linguagem de Hoje — New Translation in Today’s Language)
  • French: autórités juives (Jewish authorities) (in Bible en français courant — Bible in Modern French) or chefs juifs (Jewish leaders) (in Parole de Vie — Word of Life)
  • Spanish: autiridades des judias (Jewish authorities) (in Dios Habla Hoy — God Speaks Today)
  • Italian: autorità ebraiche (Jewish authorities) (in Traduzione Interconfessionale in Lingua Corrente — Interconfessional Translation into Modern Language)
  • Dutch: Joodse leiders (Jewish leaders) (in BasisBijbel — Basic Bible)
  • German: führende Männer (leading men) (in Die Gute Nachricht: Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch — Good News: The Bible in Today’s German), führende Männer des jüdischen Volkes (leading men of the Jewish people) (in Neue Genfer Übersetzung — New Geneva Translation), or jüdische Behörden (Jewish authorities) (in BasisBibel — Basic Bible)
  • Indonesian: penguasa Yahudi (Jewish authorities) (in Alkitab dalam Bahasa Indonesia Masa Kini — The Bible in Today’s Indonesian)
  • Hindi: यहूदी धर्म-गुरुओं ने Yahūdī dharma-guruoan ne (Jewish religious leaders (in पवित्र बाइबिल CL — Holy Bible CL)
  • Nepali: यहूदी अगुवाहरूले Yahūdī aguvāharūlē (Jewish leaders) (in सरल नेपाली पवित्र बाइबल (Simple Nepali Holy Bible)
  • Hebrew: רָאשֵׁי הַיְּהוּדִים rashei hayehudim (heads of the Jews) (Modern Hebrew New Testament)

Wendland (1998, p. 93) gives a large range of translations that was used in Chichewa interconfessional translation (publ. 1999): “Jewish leaders” (John 2:18); “people” (John 7:35); Jewish guards of the Temple (John 18:12); “Jewish elders/authorities” (John 18:28); “tribe/nation of Jews” (John 18:33); “whole crowd” (John 18:38).

burnt-offering

The Hebrew olah (עֹלָה) originally means “that which goes up (in smoke).” English Bibles often translates it as “burnt-offering” or “whole burnt-offering,” focusing on the aspect of the complete burning of the offering.

The Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate Bibles translate it as holokautōma / holocautōsis (ὁλοκαύτωμα / ὁλοκαύτωσις) and holocaustum, respectively, meaning “wholly burnt.” While a form of this term is widely used in many Romance languages (Spanish: holocaustos, French: holocaustes, Italian: olocausti, Portuguese: holocaustos) and originally also in the Catholic tradition of English Bible translations, it is largely not used in English anymore today (the preface of the revised edition of the Catholic New American Bible of 2011: “There have been changes in vocabulary; for example, the term ‘holocaust’ is now normally reserved for the sacrilegious attempt to destroy the Jewish people by the Third Reich.”)

Since Georgian translation traditionally was done on the basis of the Greek Septuagint, a transliteration of holokautōma was used as well, which was changed to a translation with the meaning of “burnt offering” when the Old Testament was retranslated in the 1980’s on the basis of the Hebrew text.

The English translation of Everett Fox uses offering-up (similarly, the German translation by Buber-Rosenzweig has Darhöhung and the French translation by Chouraqui montée).

See also offering (qorban).

in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius

The Greek that is typically translated in English as “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” is translated by the Italian La Sua Parola è Vita translation as Passarono circa due decenni. Era adesso il quindicesimo anno del regno dell’imperatore Tiberio Cesare or “About two decades passed. It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Caesar.” Cotrozzi (2019) explains: “There is a time gap between the last events recounted in 2:52 and those in 3:1. Jesus was 12 at the end of chapter 2 but about 30 years old when he began his work (3:23). As a result, some 18 years must have elapsed since 2:51-52. However, this is not readily apparent to most modern readers. All the more so since the gap coincides with a break at chapter level and is followed by the same name (Herod) as in 1:5 which seems to indicate continuity. What most readers are not aware of is that the same name refers in Luke to two different historical figures, Herod the Great (1:5) and his son Herod Antipas (3:1). Only a few Bibles — Danish Bibelen på Hverdagsdansk and Den Nye Aftale, English New Living Translation, French La Parole de Vie, German Die Gute Nachricht and Neues Leben Übersetzung, and Spanish Traducción en lenguaje actual — make this clear in the text.”

hell

The Greek that is translated in English versions as “hell” (or “Gehenna”) is translated (1) by borrowing a term from a trade or national language (this is done in a number of Indian languages in Latin America, which have borrowed Spanish “infierno” — from Latin “infernus”: “of the lower regions”), (2) by using an expression denoting judgment or punishment, e.g. “place of punishment” (Loma), “place of suffering” (Highland Totonac, San Blas Kuna) and (3) by describing a significant characteristic: (a) the presence of fire or burning, e.g. “place of fire” (Kipsigis, Mossi), “the large bonfire” (Shipibo-Conibo), or (b) the traditionally presumed location, e.g. “the lowest place” (a well-known term in Ngäbere), “the place inside” long used to designate hell, as a place inside the earth (Aymara). (Source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)

In Nyongar it is translated as Djinbaminyap or “Punishing place” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang).

not on talk but on power

The Greek that is translated “not on talk but on power” or similar in English is translated with a alliteration in the common language version of the Spanish Biblia Dios Habla Hoy (“no es cuestión de palabras, sino de poder“) and the French Parole de Vie (“pas une affaire de paroles mais de puissance“). An early version of the German Gute Nachricht also had an alliteration with “Wort” and “Wirkung” (source: Barclay Newman in The Bible Translator 1978, p. 225ff.)

one and only son, only begotten son, only son

A particularly interesting development in the history of Christianity [related to translation] took place with respect to the Greek term monogenés, literally, ‘only, unique, one of kind.’ It was used of Isaac as the son of Abraham [see Gen. 22:2], though Isaac was not the only son of Abraham, for he had a son Ishmael, and with a later wife Keturah, several sons. But Isaac was the only son of a particular kind, that is to say, the unique son of the promise. The term monogenés was translated into Latin as unigenitus, meaning literally ‘only begotten’ [in English — or likewise traditionally in Chinese: “dúshēng 獨 生,” Italian: “unigenito,” Spanish “unigénito,” or German: “eingeboren”] but in Greek the equivalent of ‘only begotten’ would have two n’s and not just one. Nevertheless, the Latin misinterpretation of monogenés has constituted such a long tradition that any attempt to speak of Jesus as the ‘unique son of God’ rather than the ‘only begotten son’ is often announced as a case of blatant heresy. (Source: Nida 1984, p. 114.)

In Waiwai, the Greek that is translated as “only begotten Son” in English in John 3:16 is translated as cewnan tumumururosa okwe, where the “particle okwe indicates dearness, and it must be included in Waiwai for the expression ‘only begotten Son’ to mean anything like what it means to God or to us as Christians.” (Source: Robert Hawkins (in The Bible Translator 1962, pp. 164ff.)

See also complete verse (John 3:16), firstborn and begotten you / become your father.

Peter - rock

The word pun that Jesus makes in Matthew 16:18 in Greek (using similar words for “Peter” and “rock”: πετρος and πετρα) is lost in most languages (such as in English) but is naturally preserved in some languages, such as French (Pierre and pierre), Portuguese (Pedro and pedra), Italian (Pietro and pietra), Latin (Petrus and petram), Modern Greek (Πέτρος and πέτρα), and — to a lesser degree — in Spanish (Pedro and piedra) and in Romanian (Petru and piatră).

Despite the similarity between the words in those languages, readers might not automatically catch the word play, as Carlo Buzzetti (in The Bible Translator 1983, p. 308ff.) explains for Italian (click here to read more)

“In many languages it is not possible to repeat the same word, because the equivalent of Petros has become a personal name, while the equivalent of petra is a common noun, the gender of which may be different from that of the equivalent of Petros. The Italian linguistic situation seems at first sight to be very similar to the Greek: to translate Petrospetra we can use Pietropietra. But unfortunately this conveys a different meaning to the average Italian reader: first, because Pietro is now not a new nickname, but a common traditional personal name; and second, because pietra is a feminine noun similar in form to Pietro, but carrying no suggestion that the two have the same meaning. Indeed, Pietro, like ‘Peter’ and most personal names, carries no meaning at all for the average reader or speaker.

“The common language translators felt that it was possible to make the identification between Petros and petra explicit, and at the same time exploit the similarity between the two words. We thus translated: tu sei Pietro e su di te, come su una pietra, io costruirò la mia comunità [in the original Common Language Version: Chiesa] (‘you are Peter and on you, as on a rock, I will build my community [originally: ‘Church’]. Our te (‘you’) connected Pietro and pietra. while our come (‘as’) expressed the fact that the connection was based on an image. In this way we suggested the meaning of Pietro.”

Like the Peshitta translation in Syriac Aramaic (Classical Syriac) with the term ܟܹܐܦܵܐ (kēpā), the Neo-Aramaic languages of Assyrian and Chaldean use terms for both “Peter” and “rock” (and “Cephas”) that are identical (ܟܹܐܦܵܐ and كِيپَا, both pronounced kēpā) so the word pun is preserved in those translations as well. (Source: Ken Bunge)

See also Cephas.

Sabbath

The Greek that is translated as “Sabbath” in English is rendered as “day we rest” in Tzotzil, in Mairasi as “Jew’s Rest Day,” in Quiotepec Chinantec as “day when people of Israel rested,” in Shilluk as “day of God,” and in Obolo as Usen Mbuban or “Holy Day.”

(Sources: Tzotzil: Marion Cowan in Notes on Translation with Drill, p. 169ff; Mairasi: Enggavoter 2004; Quiotepec Chinantec: B. Moore / G. Turner in Notes on Translation 1967, p. 1ff.; Shilluk: Nida 1964, p. 237; Obolo: Enene Enene)

In the old Khmer version as well as in the first new translation this term was rendered as “day of rest” (Thngai Chhup Somrak). Considered inadequate to convey its religious meaning (not only about cessation of work, but also in honour of Yahweh as the Creator), the committee has decided to keep the Hebrew word and use its transliterated form Thgnai Sabath. The Buddhist word Thngai Seil “day of merits” used by some Catholics was once under consideration but was rejected because it did not receive unanimous support.” (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 233ff.)

In Spanish, the translation is either día de reposo (“day of rest”) or sábado (usually: “Saturday,” derived from the Greek and Hebrew original. Nida (1947, p. 239f.) explains that problem for Spanish and other languages in its sphere of influence: “In translation “Sabbath” into various aboriginal languages of Latin America, a considerable number of translators have used the Spanish sábado, ‘Saturday,’ because it is derived from the Hebrew sabbath and seems to correspond to English usage as well. The difficulty is that sábado means only ‘Saturday’ for most people. There is no religious significance about this word as the is with ‘Sabbath’ in English. Accordingly the [readers] cannot understand the significance of the persecution of Jesus because he worked on ‘Saturday.’ It has been found quite advantageous to use the translation ‘day of rest,’ for this accurately translated the Hebrew meaning of the term and resolves the problem in connection with the prohibitions placed upon some types of activities.”

hope

“Hope is sometimes one of the most difficult terms to translate in the entire Bible. It is not because people do not hope for things, but so often they speak of hoping as simply ‘waiting.’ In fact, even in Spanish, the word esperar means both ‘to wait’ and ‘to hope.’ However, in many instances the purely neutral term meaning ‘to wait’ may be modified in such a way that people will understand something more of its significance. For example, in Tepeuxila Cuicatec hope is called ‘wait-desire.’ Hope is thus a blend of two activities: waiting and desiring. This is substantially the type of expectancy of which hope consists.

In Yucateco the dependence of hope is described by the phrase ‘on what it hangs.’ ‘Our hope in God’ means that ‘we hang onto God.’ The object of hope is the support of one’s expectant waiting.

In Ngäbere the phrase “resting the mind” is used. This “implies waiting and confidence, and what is a better definition of hope than ‘confident waiting’.” (Source for this and above: Nida 1952, p. 20, 133)

Other languages translate as follows:

  • Mairasi: “vision resting place” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Enlhet: “waitings of (our) innermost” (“innermost” or valhoc is a term that is frequently used in Enlhet to describe a large variety of emotions or states of mind — for other examples see here) (source: Jacob Loewen in The Bible Translator 1969, p. 24ff.)
  • Kwang: “one’s future is restored to one’s soul like a fresh, cool breeze on a hot day.” (Source: Mark Vanderkooi right here)
  • Nyongar: koort-kwidiny or “heart waiting” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Anjam: “looking through the horizon” (source: Albert Hoffmann in his memoirs from 1948, quoted in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 7)
  • Highland Totonac “wait with expectation” (to offset it from the every-day meaning of hope or wait — source: Hermann Aschmann in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 171ff.).
  • Alekano: “wait not hearing two ears” (meaning to “wait without being double-minded” — source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation June 1986, p. 36ff.)
  • Marathi aasha (आशा) with a stronger emphasis on desire
  • Tamil: nampikkai (நம்பிக்கை) with a stronger emphasis on expectation (source for this and above: J.S.M. Hooper in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 2ff.)

C.M. Doke looks at a number of Bantu languages and their respective translations of “hope” with slightly varying connotations (in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 9ff.):

  • Xhosa and Zulu: themba “hope, expect,” also “have faith in, rely upon”
  • Tswana: tsholofelo “hope, expect, look for confidently”
  • Southern Sotho: tshepo “trust, rely on, believe in, have confidence in”
  • Kuanyama: eteelelo “waiting for”
  • Swahili: tumaini “confidence, trust, expectation, hope” (as a verb: “hope, trust, expect, be confident, be truthful, rely on”
  • Ganda: okusuubira “hope, trust, expect” also “look forward to, rely upon, anticipate, reckon”
  • Chichewa: chiyembekezo “wait for, wait, expect”
  • Koongo: vuvu “hope, expectancy, expectation, anticipation”
Syntyche D. Dahou (in Christianity Today, January 2021) reports on the two different terms that are being used in French (click or tap here to see the details):

“Unlike English, which uses the word hope broadly, the French language uses two words that derive from the word espérer (to hope): espoir and espérance. Both can first refer to something hoped for. In this sense, the word espoir usually refers to an uncertain object; that is, someone who hopes for something in this way does not have the certainty that it will happen (“I hope the weather will be nice tomorrow”). On the other hand, espérance describes what, rightly or wrongly, is hoped for or expected with certainty. It often refers to a philosophical or eschatological object (‘I hope in the goodness of human beings’; ‘I hope for the return of Jesus Christ’).

“When we speak of espoir or espérance, we then have in mind different types of objects hoped for. This difference matters, because both terms also commonly refer to the state of mind that characterizes the hopeful. And this state of mind will be different precisely according to the object hoped for.

“Having espoir for an uncertain yet better future in these difficult times may be a good thing, but it is not enough. Such hope can be disappointed and easily fade away when our wishes and expectations (our hopes) do not materialize.

“The opposite is true with espérance, which is deeper than our desire and wish for an end to a crisis or a future without pain and suffering. To face the trials of life, we need peace and joy in our hearts that come from expecting certain happiness. This is what espérance is: a profound and stable disposition resulting from faith in the coming of what we expect. In this sense, it is similar in meaning to the English word hopefulness.

“If we have believed in the Son of the living God, we have such a hope. It rests on the infallible promises of our God, who knows the plans he has for us, his children—plans of peace and not misfortune, to give us a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11). By using the two meanings of the word, we can say that the espérance that the fulfillment of his promises represents (the object hoped for) fills us with espérance (the state of mind).”

Holy Spirit

In English, the Greek term Pneûma tò Hagion is translated as “Holy Ghost” or “Holy Spirit.” The English terms referring to Pneûma are synonyms: “ghost” is derived from Old English gast (“breath” or “good or bad spirit”) and “spirit” from Latin spiritus (“breath” or “supernatural immaterial creature”). Until the late 19th century, English translators of all traditions used “Holy Ghost” (or “holy Ghost”1) but generally switched to “Holy Spirit” (or “holy Spirit”) thereafter, likely because the meaning of “ghost” had transitioned to predominantly refer to the spirit of a dead person.

Other languages with a long tradition in Bible translation translate Pneûma (for “holy” see holy) as follows (click or tap here to see more):

  • While a few Germanic languages still use terms derived from gast (see above) including German and Dutch (Geist and Geest respectively), the majority use forms of Proto*-Germanic anadô (“breath,” “spirit,” “zeal” — used in Latin as anima), including Danish (Ånden), Swedish (Ande/ande — for more on the gender of the Swedish translation, see below), Icelandic (andi), and Norwegian (Ånd/ånd). (*”Proto” refers to the most recent common, often hypothetical language ancestor).
  • The majority of Romance languages use a form of the Latin Spiritus (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan among others).
  • Slavic languages derive their translation from the Proto-Slavic dȗxъ (“breath,” “wind,” “spirit”), including Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian (all: Дух)
  • Most Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, Chaldean — with the exception of Maltese which uses the Latin-based l-Ispirtu s-Santu), Iranian languages (Urdu, Tajik, Dari, Persian, Pashto), Turkic languages (Uzbek, Turkish), Malayic languages (Indonesian, Balinese, Sangir, and Malay — for further information on Malay, see below) use a derivative of the Proto-Semitic rūḥ- (“to blow,” “breathe”). Compare the Hebrew term ruach (רוּחַ: “breath,” “wind,” “spirit”) in the Old Testament. (For the use of Roho in Swahili, see below)
  • Many Indo-Aryan languages have chosen translations derived from Sanskrit आत्मन् ātman, meaning “soul,” “life,” “self,” including Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Panjabi, Santali, and Telugu — source: Hooper, p. 176f.

Bratcher / Nida say this about the translation into languages that do not have an existing Bible translation (click or tap here to see more):

“Undoubtedly no word has given quite so much trouble to the Bible translator as spirit, for (1) it includes such a wide range of meaning, from ‘evil spirit’ to ‘poor in spirit’ to ‘Holy Spirit’ and (2) it touches so vitally the crucial comparison and contrast between Christianity and so-called ‘animism.’

“There are four principal dangers in the choice of a word for Holy Spirit: (1) the term may identify an essential malevolent spirit, and no mere addition of the word ‘holy’ or ‘good’ is likely to change the basic connotation of the word, (2) the word may mean primarily the spirit of a deceased person (hence God must have died — a not infrequent error in Bible translations), (3) the expression used to mean ‘spirit’ may denote only an impersonal life force, a sort of soul-stuff which may be conceived as indwelling all plant, animal, and human substances (therefore, to say that ‘God is spirit’ is to deny His essential personality), and (4) a borrowed term may signify next to nothing to the people, and can only be explained by another term or terms, which, if they are adequate to explain the borrowing, should have been used in the first place. It is true that in some instances a borrowed word has seemed to be the only alternative, but it should be chosen only as a last resort.

“There is no easy formula to be employed in finding an adequate equivalent for Holy Spirit, for what seems to work quite well in one area may not serve in another. One thing, however, is certain: one should not select a term before making a comprehensive study of all kinds of words for spirits and for parts or aspects of personality and thus having as complete a view as possible of all indigenous beliefs about supernatural beings.”

Following are ways that languages without a long tradition Bible translation have translated Pneûma (click or tap here to see more):

  • Western Highland Chatino: “God’s perfect heart” J. Hefley (1968, p. 210) tells this story (click or tap here to read more):

    “Ninu [a Chatino translation assistant] told his translator that the word ‘holy’ could be used to modify an idol, a household god, the witch doctor, an altar, a lion, the sea which had caused a flood and disaster, a sacred mushroom, and several other things. The translator and his consultant deduced that holy had two main components of meanings for Chatinos. It referred to persons purported to hold supernatural powers, and to objects which, if not properly respected, would bring evil upon one. With this and other information, they agreed that they could not use the Chatino word for ‘holy’ and ‘spirit’ in defining the third person of the Trinity. Their approved translation for Holy Spirit became ‘God’s perfect heart’ (referring primarily to the life principles of one who is living).”

  • Malay (Today’s Malay Version, publ. 1987): Roh Allah: “Spirit of God.” Barclay Newman (in The Bible Translator 1974, p. 432ff.) explains this as follows (click or tap here to see more):

    “A third difficult phrase that had to be dealt with was ‘Holy Spirit,’ since in popular Islamic theology there are many ‘holy spirits.’ In order to overcome this problem it was decided that ‘the Holy Spirit’ would always be rendered ‘God’s Spirit,’ and that wherever ‘Spirit’ or ‘the Spirit’ was used as a reference to God’s Spirit this would be clearly marked.

    “Other illustrations could be given of the clearing up of ambiguous and difficult phrases, but only one more will be selected, and it will serve as a transition to the next major section of this article. In John 6:63 the phrase ‘Spirit and life’ (in the expression ‘the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life’) is taken to refer to one thing not two. That is, even though the words are connected by the conjunction ‘and’ they are not in the relationship to one another that ‘and’ normally suggests. Moreover, ‘spirit’ in John’s Gospel, unless otherwise indicated, always refers to God’s Spirit. So then, the Common Malay has translated with the meaning, ‘the words which I speak come from God’s Spirit and bring life.’ This exegesis also has the advantage of tying in the meaning closely to the previous verse.

    “As previously indicated, except in the passages where the context clearly indicates otherwise (John 11:33; John 13:21; John 19:30), it was assumed that ‘spirit’ or ‘the spirit’ refer to God’s Spirit, and so the translator always made this information explicit. For example, John the Baptist’s words in John 1:32 become ‘I saw God’s Spirit come down like a dove from heaven.’ The one exception to this rule is in 3:8a, where there is a play on words. In Greek, as in Hebrew, the same word may mean either ‘wind’ or ‘spirit.’ In this context most translations take ‘wind’ to be the basic comparison, and so have translated in this way; and some have even provided a footnote, indicating the play on words. Since the basic comparison here is seen to be ‘wind,’ the Malay New Testament translated the text in this way.”

  • Shipibo-Conibo: “Spotless Spirit” — James Lauriault (in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 56ff) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “The Shipibo consider all spirits evil, with the exception of certain entities making up a human personality. It would be a manifest contradiction to say ‘Good Evil-Spirit’ for ‘Holy Spirit,’ and it would be completely misinterpreted if one should say that Jesus perceived in his evil-spirit that some of the scribes thus questioned within their hearts (Mark 2:8).

    “For these reasons we have translated this word (…) when it unmistakably refers to a disembodied evil personality yoshin ‘demon.’ (‘Unclean spirit’ we have translated ‘harmful demon.’)

    “When it refers to the ‘Holy Spirit,’ we have finally translated it ‘Spotless Spirit,’ using for ‘Spirit’ a word designating one of the larger entities of human personality, the one which includes most of the others and which is always used of a live person.”

  • Sranan Tongo: Santa Yeye (from previously Santa Winti). Marlon Winedt explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “One of the translators in Sranan Tongo followed the historically and scientifically correct analysis that the word for Holy Spirit should be ‘Santa Winti.’ However, the churches had traditionally used ‘Santa Yeye.’ Although in the spiritual world-mapping of the afro-descendants of the country Santa Yeye refers to a more limited spirit, it was the most acceptable choice because ‘winti’ besides meaning ‘spirit, wind’ also refers to the afro-Caribbean religion /spiritual practice ‘winti’ which can be compared to voodoo or other forms in the Caribbean. The Catholic lectionary used this translation (Santa Winti) though there was a heated debate about the use. The then-bishop of Paramaribo advised the faithful to choose whether they wanted to say Santa Winti or Santa Yeye when reading the text. In the interior of Suriname, Catholic catechists actually burned the lectionary because they found the term Santa Winti to be blasphemous.

    “When the Sranan Tongo New Testament translation project was underway an attempt to merge two teams did not succeed partially based on this issue. Ultimately the remaining SIL/Bible Society of Suriname team did not chose to use Santa Winti but the accepted Santa Yeye. [This version was published in 2002.]”

  • Anuak: with a term that means ‘that which comes from God’ Eugene Nida (in The Bible Translator 1955, p. 63) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “In Anuak there is no term for ‘spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit.

    “There is a word (ywey) which may be used to translate human soul or spirit, but which is essentially the ‘life principle.’ One cannot speak of the ywey of God, for the Anuaks insist that God does not have a ywey and that He is not a ywey. It is God who has given ywey to all people, animals and plants, but He Himself is of a different order of existence.

    “To speak of the ywey of God would be to equate him with earthly creation. There seems to be no easy solution to this problem, but for the time being ‘Spirit’ is to be translated as ‘that which comes from God’, in the sense of that which emanates from or has its origin in God.”

  • Kaingang: Topẽ kuprĩg (God’s Spirit — kuprĩg is often to the spirit of a dead person). Ursula Wiesemann (in Notes on Translation 1978, p. 32ff.) explains how the translation team reached that conclusion (click or tap here to see more):

    “All human beings have a kãnhvég which has as an outward manifestation the shadow or the reflection of that person. It is closely linked to the body and cannot leave it. It is an indication of life in the body. According to one language helper, it lives in our chest (that is, heart), but this may be a carry-over from his Christian teaching.

    “The kãnhvég at death becomes vẽnh kuprĩg. Vẽnh is a pronoun meaning ‘someone’s’. The vẽnh kuprĩg seem to live in groups and can be heard at night making a peculiar humming noise. They may do mischievous things like throwing dirt on the house which scares the inhabitants. A vẽnh kuprĩg may also appear to an individual, be recognized by him for whose spirit he is, speak kindly to him, and even touch him. The purpose is to take the living person along to the place where the dead live. It is reported that in this way the vẽnh kuprĩg cause death, or that they might even choke babies to death during the night. In describing an encounter with a vẽnh kuprĩg, the Indians say: ‘I saw a vẽnh kuprĩg. It was so-and-so.’ Whereas kãnhvég collocates with all pronouns and names (that is, can be directly identified as belonging to a specific person), kuprĩg collocates most naturally with vẽnh when it refers to the spirit of a dead person.

    “Such conflicting reports on the meaning of the terms is difficult to choose the right terms for the Spirit of God. In Rio das Cobras and in Guarita, God is said to have a kuprĩg and a kãnhvég, but it is His kuprĩg who has a life of his own without being tied to God’s body. In both localities (and some others, where, however, the question was not looked into in detail as in the three areas identified), the definite and unquestioned choice of all people asked was to identify the ‘Holy Spirit’ as Topẽ kuprĩg ‘Spirit of God’. In Nonoai (same dialect area as Guarita but different dialect area from Rio das Cobras), however, the definite and unquestioned choice is Topẽ kãnhvég ‘because kuprĩg refers to the spirit of one who died.’ So it will be necessary to use both terms in a paraphrase to satisfy everyone. The objection to kãnhvég is its close tie to a body, and only in Nonoai this connection seems to be broken.

    “Postscript: Since writing the above, several years have passed, and the New Testament has been completed, and the revision committee, composed of three Indians from as many dialect areas, unanimously chose Topẽ kuprĩg for ‘Spirit of God,’ rejecting the word kãnhvég as being ‘too weak and not meaningful’ — that is, the kãnhvég is not a spirit at all but just a sign of life, so it has been dropped in the last revision, as well as the reference to the ‘kãnhvég not dying’ as eternal life.”

  • Papiamento: Spiritu. Since the term on its own means “bad spirit,” in any case that no modifier is used (such as “Holy” or “of truth”), the translators used Spiritu di Dios (“Spirit of God”) to differentiate it from the negative connotation (source: Marlon Winedt).
  • Ditammari: “air of God.” Loewen (in The Bible Translator 1983, p. 213ff.) explains that a search for the term “spirit” was conducted (especially as in “Holy Spirit”). Since faith healers often avoided using the name of unclean spirits by saying “impure air” a suggestion was made to call Holy Spirit “clean/pure air”. This was accepted but changed to “air of God” to avoid ambiguity with air that we breath.
  • Warlpiri: Pirlirrpa Kaatu-kurlangu: “God’s Eternal Spirit,” since “holy’ carries the meaning of taboo and cannot be used (source: Stephen Swartz (SIL) in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: God’s Good Spirit (source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22.)
  • Kahua: the term for “Spirit” is a generic term for a spirit which never had a body (i.e., not the spirit of a dead ancestor). (Source: David Clark)
  • Keapara: Vea’a Palaguna (“Holy Spirit” but can also be “Holy God” or “angels” — “there is not a strong contrast between the meaning of God and Holy Spirit” since “God” is translated with “Palagu”) (source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 222f.)
  • Naro: Tc’ẽe: a word that refers to the “thinking/willing part” of one’s personality. (Source: van Steenbergen)
  • Mairasi: Janav Enggwarjer Nanen Oroug (“Great Above One’s Clean Spirit”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Seediq: Biyax Utux Baraw (“Power of God”)
  • Paiwan: “Most Excellent Spirit” (source for this and above: Covell 1998, p. 246f.)
  • Cheyenne: Ma’heonemȧhta’sooma or “Sacred Shadow” (source: Wayne Leman)
  • Supyire Senoufo: Munaa (“nose/spirit/breath”) (source: Michael Jemphrey)
  • Many Bantu languages translate Pneûma with a word that originally means “soul,” including Ganda and Haya (both: mwoyo), Ndebele (uMoya), Chichewa (mzimu), Sotho (Moya). Fang uses Nsísim: “shadow” or “separate soul” (anima separata) (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176)

The grammatical gender of the Greek Pneûma is neuter (and the Hebrew ruach has a feminine gender). While many languages either do not have a grammatical gender or have a word for Pneûma that grammatically is masculine, other languages found various ways of dealing with this. (Click or tap here to read more):

The earliest example is Classical Syriac which, like Hebrew, used a term — Ruhä — that was of feminine gender. According to Ashbrook (1993), in early documents the feminine gender was not only used in a grammatical sense but the Spirit was often described with feminine imagery as well. “Around the year 400 [though], a change emerges in our texts. Starting in the fifth century, and almost universally by the sixth, the Spirit is masculine in Syriac writers. Ruhä when referring to wind or spirit continues to follow rules of grammar and to be construed in the feminine; but when referring to the Holy Spirit, it is now construed as masculine, although this does violence to the fabric of the language.” (Source: Ashbrook 1993)

A similar process of ungrammatical usage was attempted in Asháninka. The “Good Spirit of God” required a feminine, inanimate pronoun which was artificially changed to masculine. After a while this was changed back to its true grammatical form with no perceptible difference in the understanding of the Trinity. Will Kindberg (in The Bible Translator 1964, 197f.) tells that story (click or tap here to read more):

“For the past several years Mr Sylvester Dirks of the Mennonite Brethren Mission and I have been engaged in missionary work with the Asháninka sub-group of the Campa tribe in Peru, and have collaborated on Christian vocabulary items and translation as well as other phases of our missionary activities. For the ‘Holy Spirit’ we are using ‘the Good Spirit of God’. The normal pronominal reference for spirit, whether it be a human spirit or the spirit of a god, is third person feminine inanimate. Long ago, Sylvester and I agreed that we would force the use of the third person masculine animate pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit, although we recognized it was contrary to the grammatical system of Asháninka. We did this because of a theological bias: the Holy Spirit is referred to in English as masculine, and we think of the Spirit as a masculine member of the Godhead. We ignored the fact that it has a neuter reference in Greek.

“In the Gospel of Mark and also in the book of Acts, my translation consistently uses the third person masculine pronoun to refer to the feminine inanimate spirit. There has been a reaction against this by the people as they hear or read these portions of Scripture, though some of the believers have accepted it when it was explained to them why it had been done.

“This past year while I was continuing working on other portions of Scripture, I was again troubled by the non-grammatical use of the pronominal referent.

“I checked again with some of my colleagues here in Peru and they agreed with me that it might be wise to switch back to the correct grammatical usage. So I checked with Mr Dirks and he did not object to the change.

“Because of the importance of the issue, I also wrote to Dr Eugene Nida and Dr John Beekman for their opinions. They both suggested the use of the grammatically correct forms. The following is a quote from Dr Beekman’s letter :

“‘There is a distinction between animate and inanimate reference in one of the Zapoteco dialects of Mexico. All spirits fall into the inanimate class. The weight of theological considerations led the translators to use the animate form contrary to usage. In consultation, however, it was agreed that it would be preferable not to violate the grammatical pattern especially since the informants felt that the use of the inanimate form did not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit was not a person. The translators are now using the inanimate form to the satisfaction of all of the believers.’

“I have switched the pronominal reference throughout John and it has just been printed. The reaction of the few people with whom I have checked this has been good. The question has been asked: ‘How does having two masculine members and a feminine-inanimate member affect the Asháninka’s idea of a triune God?’

“One day I was talking to my informant (still a relatively untrained believer) about the different gods in which his fellow tribesmen believe. And I said, ‘What does the Bible teach about God? How many are there?’ (Note that I used the unmarked form that might be either singular or plural.) He answered, ‘There is one God’. Then after thinking a minute, he said, ‘There are two—there’s Jesus. Then afterwards he said, ‘There are three— there’s God’s Spirit’. It seems to me he has understood the doctrine of the Trinity about as well as most Christians. For the last few months we have been using a feminine inanimate referent for the Holy Spirit and this has not seemed to hinder his understanding of the Trinity. Time will tell the reaction of the rest of the people.”

In Swahili, the translation of Pneûma tò Hagion is Roho Mtakatifu. Roho, derived from the Semitic / Arabic Rūḥ, should be in the noun class for loan words but to prevent the misunderstanding of Roho as an inanimate object, it is (grammatically incorrectly) used in the first class of nouns which is specifically reserved for people (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176). While some Bantu languages use similar strategies, Lamba left Umupasi Uswetelele in the third noun class that is also used for trees and plants, making a grammatically a non-person. But, as C. M. Doke (in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.) remarks, “it is [left] to numerous references in the Scriptures to establish that the Holy Spirit is a person, the third person of the Trinity.”

While Swedish used to have three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), modern Swedish only uses two genders (common [utrum] and neuter). Until the Bibel 2000, “Holy Spirit” was translated as helige Ande which used a masculine adjective and paired it with ande (“Spirit”), which historically could be read as masculine. With the merging of the masculine gender into the common gender it is now translated as the common-gendered heliga ande, matching a more widely-used gender-equal language practice in Swedish. (Source: Mikael Winninge and Sara Rösare)

See also “God’s Gender” under God.

formal 2nd person pronoun (Spanish)

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Spanish uses a formal vs. informal second-person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Spanish Bibles all use only the informal second-person pronoun (), with the exception of Dios Habla Hoy (DHH) (third edition: 1996) which also uses the formal pronoun (usted). In the referenced verses, the formal form is used.

Sources and for more information: P. Ellingworth in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 143ff. and R. Ross in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 217ff.

See also the use of the formal vs. the informal pronoun in the Gospels in Tuvan.

tetragrammaton, YHWH

The translation of the tetragrammaton (YHWH or יהוה‎) is easily the most often discussed issue in Bible translation. This is exemplified by the fact that there is virtually no translation of the Bible — regardless of language — where the position of the respective translator or translation team on how to translate the name of God into the respective language is not clearly stated in the preface or introduction.

Click or tap here to read about the different ways the tetragrammaton is and has been translated

The literature on this topic is overwhelming, both as far as the meaning of YHWH and the translation of it by itself and in combination with other terms (including Elohim and Adonai). There is no reason or room to rehash those discussions. Aside from various insightful translations of YHWH into various languages (see below), what’s of interest in the context of the TIPs project are official and semi-official statements regarding the translation by Bible translation agencies and churches. These include the 1992 statement by United Bible Societies’ “Names of God” Study Group (see The Bible Translator 1992, p. 403-407) or the “Letter to the Bishops’ Conference on ‘The Name of God'” by the Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Discriplina Sacramentorum of 2008 (see here et al.).

In summary, the UBS study group gives six different options on how to translate YHWH: 1) transliterate (some form of “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” if this is an already established term); 2) translate (along the lines of kurios — κύριος in the Septuagint); 3) translate the meaning of YHWH; 4) use a culture-specific name; 5) translate Elohim and YHWH in the same way; or 6) use a combination of any of these options.

The official Catholic directive states that for liturgical purposes YHWH is to be translated as an equivalent of Kurios (“Lord”) unless when appearing in combination with Elohim (“God”) or Adonai (“lord”), in which case it’s to be translated with “God.”

In the following collection of examples, any of the above-mentioned strategies are used.

Use of Typographical Means to Offset the Name of God

A large number of Bible translations in many Western European languages have used a similar strategy to translate YHWH as an equivalent of Kurios or Adonai (“lord” in Greek in Hebrew) but have used either small caps or all caps to denote these occurrences as an equivalent to a proper name. Here are some examples:

  • English: Lord
  • Danish: Herren (In recent editions: Herren and Gud (“God”))
  • Swedish: Herren (traditionally: YHWH Herren and Elohim Herren)
  • French: SEIGNEUR (in the Traduction œcuménique de la Bible)
  • German: Herr or Herr (see also the translation by Buber/Rosenzweig below)
  • Dutch: HERE
  • Portuguese: Senhor
  • Welsh: ARGLWYDD
  • Spanish: Señor

None of the European languages have found a “cultural-linguistic equivalent” with the possible exception of Eternal or l’Éternel (see below).

The rendering of the translation of YHWH in bold (and uppercase) characters is for instance used in Guhu-Samane: QOBEROBA (a term of address for a respected person and also connotes “forever”) (for “forever”, see below under Translations of the Name of God) and the upper-casing in Bible translations in several other languages in Papua New Guinea:

  • Bola: BAKOVI DAGI (“BIG MAN”)
  • Sinaugoro: VEREGAUKA (“BIG ONE”)
  • Kamano: RA ANUMAZA (“BIG STRONG”)
  • Dedua: KEBU (“LORD”)
  • Nukna: TÁWI (“BIG ONE”)
  • Gizrra: LOD (“LORD”)
  • Ubir: BADA (“BIG MAN/CHIEF”)
  • Mailu: GUBINA (“MASTER”) (Source: Phil King in The Bible Translator 2014, p. 194ff.)

In Cebuano (Ang Pulong sa Dios edition, 2010) and Hiligaynon (all versions), Ginoo, a typographical variant of Ginoo (“Lord”) is used. Bible translation consultant Kermit Titrud (SIL): “‘Yahweh’ is too close to Yahwa, their word for ‘Satan.’ We were afraid that in the pulpits readers might misread ‘Yahweh’ and say ‘Yahwa.’ So we went with the tradition found in most English translations. Ginoo for ‘Yahweh’ and Ginoo for ‘adonai.'”

In languages where capitalization is not a typographical option, other options are available and used, such as in Japanese, where the generic term shu for “Lord” is bolded in some translations to offset its meaning (Source: Omanson, p. 17).

A graphical way of representation beyond typography was used by André Chouraqui in his French La Bible hebraique et le Nouveau Testament (publ. 1974-1977) for which he superimposed adonai and Elohim over (the French rendition) of the tetragrammaton:

(Source: Andy Warren-Rothlin in Noss / Houser, p. 618ff.)

Translations of the Name of God

A translation of YHWH with a rendering of the meaning of “Eternal” was done in English by James Moffatt (between 1926 and 1935) with Eternal, The Voice translation with Eternal One (2012), in French versions as L’ÉTERNEL by J. F. Ostervald in 1904 or l’Éternel by L. Segond (1910-1938) and Zadoc Kahn (1964) (for the French translation, see also LORD of hosts), or in Obolo as Okumugwem: “The Ever-Living” (source: Enene Enene).

Similarly and at the same time expanding its meaning, the Nzima translation of 1998 translated YHWH as Ɛdεnkεma, the “Eternal All-Powerful Creator and Sustainer” (Source: David Ekem, The Bible Translator 2005, p. 72).

Nepali, Bengali, and Hindi are all derived from Sanskrit and have (eventually) all found similar translations of YHWH. In Bengali “God” is translated as Ishwar (ঈশ্বর) (widely used in Hindu scriptures, where it’s used as a title, usually associated with “Siva”) and YHWH as Shodaphrobhu (সদাপ্রভু) — “Eternal Lord”; in Nepali YHWH is translated as Paramaprabhu (परमप्रभु)– “Supreme Lord”; and Hindi translates YHWH as Phrabu (प्रभु) — “Lord.”. In earlier translations all three languages used transliterations of Jehovah or Yahweh. (Source: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Barrick, p. 124).

  • The influential German Jewish translation of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (between 1925 and 1961) translates YHWH in Exodus 3:15 with “Ich bin da” (“I exist” or “I am”) and in all other instances with pronouns in small caps (Er, Ihm, Ihn, Ich — “he,” “him,” “his,” “I”).
  • Akan uses “Forever-Owner” (Source: Jacob Loewen, The Bible Translator 1985, p. 401ff.).
  • Warlpiri uses Kaatu Jukurrarnu (Kaatu is a transcription of “God” and Jukurrarnu means “timelessness” and shares a root with jukurrpa — dreamings) (Source: Stephen Swartz, The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.).
  • The translation of YHWH into Weri with Aniak Tupup or “man of the holy house” intends “to maintain the Jewish practice of not uttering God’s name [with] the use of another vernacular phrase that signals that a ‘taboo’ name is being referred [which] could give a cue that would be recognizable in written or oral communication” (Source: P. King, The Bible Translator 2014, p. 195ff.).
  • Aruamu translates it as Ikiavɨra Itir God or “Ever Present God” (source: project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
  • Ruund uses Chinawej a term that is otherwise used as a response of approval. Anna Lerbak (in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 84ff.) tells the genesis of this term (click or tap to see an explanation):

    “The name ‘Jehovah’ had been used in some contexts, but I had the feeling that it did not mean much to the people, and when I asked the pastors they all said it didn’t, and worse, it very often confused people, especially in the villages. During the conversation it was suggested that the name Chinawej be used in the place of ‘Jehovah’, and this met with immediate approval. A few days later I was working on a Psalm in which ‘Jehovah’ was used frequently, so I wrote Chinawej in its place and then read the Psalm to them. The response was about like this: “That is it, now people will understand, that is how Chinawej is. The Jews call God ‘Jehovah’, we call Him Chinawej, it is the same God. but we know Him as Chinawej as the Jews know Him as ‘Jehovah’ “. They often call God Chinawej in prayer, it seems to indicate warmth and intimacy.

    The same word is used in two other ways. It is the name of a snake which never attacks human beings. And it is used as a response of approval. When told of something they are pleased to hear, something they find good, just, helpful, generous, they often respond by saying, Chinawej. When they call God Chinawej, it indicates that they think of Him as One Who is good and just and generous towards them. When it was suggested at the committee that we use Chinawej in place of ‘Jehovah’ it was accepted immediately and unanimously.

  • Ebira has Eneyimavara. Eneyimavara was created by merging a praise phrase that was only used for the traditional deity Ohomorihi (see here), that had become the word for the Christian God: ene e yi ma vara or “the one that never changes.” “The translators came to the agreement that this praise name that describes the unchangeableness of God is very close in meaning to the probable meaning of YHWH.” (Source: David O Moomo in Scriptura 88 (2005), p. 151ff.)
  • The Uzbek Bible uses the term Ega (Эга) — “master, owner” in various forms (including Egam / Эгам for “my Owner” or Egamiz / Эгамиз for “our Owner.” (Click or tap to see an explanation):

    Jim Zvara (2019, p. 6) explains: “The Uzbek term ega means owner or master (‘master,’ in the historical context of an owner-slave relationship). By extension, it is natural for an Uzbek to speak to or refer to God as Egam (‘my owner’/’master’). In the Uzbek context to be God’s slave is a positive way of understanding one’s relation to him. It suggests that one is in a dependent and obedient relationship to God. The team felt that this relational connection and what it implies fits well with the concept of YHWH as the God who is in a covenant relationship with his people. In the Uzbek context, the choice of Ega was deemed to be the best balance of natural language with meaningful translation.”

  • The Seediq Bible translation team chose Utux Tmninun (“the weaving god”) for their translation of YHWH. (Click or tap to see a retelling of the process of how that decision was reached):

    “(…) The Seediq team requested that we spend time with them on key terms. They had compiled a list of key terms that they wanted input on, and we went through the list item by item. The most important item was how to deal with the divine name. They had tentatively translated it as Yehoba, transliterated from Jehovah, but they were also aware that this transliteration may not be accurate, and they were keen to explore other options.

    “We explored various alternatives. Were they interested in following the ancient Jewish practice of substituting ‘Lord’ for the divine name? Would capitalising the letters help? Would they be bold enough to use ‘Yahweh,’ following the opinion of most Old Testament scholars who regard this as the correct pronunciation? Was it feasible to adopt a mixed approach in dealing with the divine name (…)? Each option had its advantages as well as disadvantages.

    “In the midst of the discussion, a participant said, ‘Our ancestors, as well as we today, always call God by the term Utux Tmninun. I suggest we use this term.’ The term Utux Tmninun in the Seediq culture means ‘the weaving God.’ In their culture, God is the weaver, the one who weaves life together. All the participants were excited about this proposal. They tried this term with all the composite terms that involve the divine name, and it seemed to work well, so they decided tentatively to adopt this term. After the workshop, the participants went back to their villages and sought feedback from the wider community, and eventually they confirmed the use of the term Utux Tmninun as the rendering of the divine name.

    Translating the divine name as Utux Tmninun, the weaving God, is a creative solution. This term is viewed very positively in the Seediq community. It also correlates well with the concept of God as the creator (Gen. 1-2) and as the weaver who formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13). It also has the advantage of portraying God beyond the traditional masculine form.

    “Some may argue that since names are usually transliterated, we should do the same with YHWH, most likely pronounced ‘Yahweh.’ Unfortunately, due to the influence of Chinese Union Version for almost one hundred years now, Chinese Christians only know God as Yehehua. Attempts to change the term Yehehua to Yahweh have not been successful. This is a reality that the Seediq Christians have to live with.

    “Others may argue on theological grounds that YHWH is not only the creator, but also the God of the covenant, hence any attempt to substitute another term for YHWH will not do justice to the Hebrew text. In the case of the Seediq translation, there are significant similarities between Utux Tmninun and YHWH, though the terms are not identical. This is a reality translators often have to struggle with. Exact correspondence is hard to come by. Often it is a matter of approximation, give and take. Besides theological considerations, one has to deal with the constraints of past traditions (‘Jehovah,’ in this instance), the biblical cultures and one’s own culture, and audience acceptance. Hopefully, by using Utux Tmninun for YHWH, the Seediq term will be transformed and take on the aspect of the covenant God as well.” (Source: Yu Suee Yan, The Bible Translator 2015, p. 316ff.)

  • In Tok Pisin it is translated as Bikpela: “the Big One” or “the Great One.” (See: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 442ff. See also under LORD God / Lord God)
  • For a major new translation into Chichewa, we have a detailed retelling of why the term Chauta (“Great-One-of-the-Bow”) was chosen for YHWH (Click or tap to see the detailed story):

    “The name Chauta, literally ‘Great-One-of-the-Bow’, i.e. [is] either the rainbow (descriptively termed uta-wa-Leza ‘the-bow-of-God’) or, less likely, the hunter’s bow. And yet Chauta was also distinct from Mulungu [“God”] in that it has reference to the specific tribal deity of the Chewa people — the God who ‘owns’ yet also ‘belongs to’ them — and hence it carries additional positive emotive overtones. Although research indicated that in an ancient traditional setting, Chauta too was probably associated with the indigenous ancestral rain cult, in the Christian era it has been progressively generalized to encompass virtually all religious contexts in which God may be either appealed to, proclaimed, or praised. After prolonged deliberation, therefore, the translation committee determined Chauta to be the closest functional equivalent to YHWH of the Hebrew Scriptures. The choice of this name is not without its difficulties, however, and these were carefully considered by the Chewa committee. For example, the use of a more specific local term, as opposed to the generic Mulungu, carries a greater likelihood of bringing along with it certain senses, connotations, and situations that were (and no doubt still are) associated with the indigenous, pre-Christian system of worship. If these happened to remain strong in any contemporary sacred setting, then of course the dangers connected with conceptual syncretism might well arise. In the case of Chauta, however, it appeared that the process of positive Christian contextualization had already reached an advanced stage, that is, judging from the widespread use of this name in all aspects of religious life and practice. A more scholarly argument against Chauta takes the position that there is too great a female component associated with this term because it was traditionally applied (by figurative metonymy) to refer also to the ritual ‘wife of God’, i.e. the chief officiant at a traditional rain shrine and worship sanctuary. However, this usage seems to be quite remote, and most people questioned do not even recognize the connection anymore. Besides, in a matrilineal society such as the Chewa, it does not seem inappropriate to have this aspect of meaning lying in the background, particularly since it is not completely foreign to the notion of God in the Bible (cf. Ps. 36:7; 73:15; Isa. 49:14-15; Mt. 23:37). In terms of ‘connotative fit’ or emotive identification and appeal, there can be little doubt that the name Chauta is by far the closest natural equivalent to YHWH in the contemporary Chewa cultural and religious environment. This aspect of meaning was probably also utmost from the ancient Jewish perspective as well; in other words, “for them the associated meaning of this special name [YHWH], in terms of their history and culture, far outweighed any meaning it may have suggested because of its form or derivation”. To be sure, this ‘new’ divine name — that is, new as far as the Scriptures are concerned — may take some getting used to, especially in the formal setting of public worship. But this is not a foreign god whom we are talking about; rather, he is certainly by now regarded as the national deity of the Chewa nation. Chauta is the great God who for one reason or another ‘did not make himself known to them by his holy name, the LORD’ (Exod. 6:3), that is, in the prior translations of his Word into Chewa. He is, however, and always has been “a God who saves … the LORD (Chauta), our Lord, who rescues us from death” (Ps. 68:20, Good News Bible)!” (Source: Wendland 1998, 120f.; see also The Bible Translator 1992, 430ff.)

Transliteration of YHWH

A 12th century reading of the Masoretic vowel points around יהוה‎ (יְהֹוָה) was interpreted to be pronounced as Yehowah from which Iehouah and Jehovah were derived. This was reflected in the English versions of Tyndale (publ. 1530) and the Geneva Bible (significantly based on Tyndale and publ. in 1560) and again the King James Version (Authorized Version) (publ. 1611) which all used Iehouah or Jehovah in 7 different verses in the Old Testament. The translators and editors of the American Standard Version (publ. 1901), a review of the King James Version used Jehovah for all appearances of the tetragrammaton something that the Spanish Reina-Valera (publ. 1602) had already done as well.

In English versions, Yahweh as a transliteration of the tetragrammaton is used by the Catholic Jerusalem Bible (publ. 1966), the Protestant Holman Christian Standard Bible (publ. 2004) and the Legacy Standard Bible (publ. 2021).

Mandinka for instance uses Yawe for YHWH. “The use of Yawe for YHWH is good and may be a trendsetter in this part of Africa.” (Source: Rob Koops)

In a group of related languages in another part of Africa an interesting development from a transliteration to a indigenous translation can be shown: In the Nandi Bible (1938) Jehovah was used as a translation for YHWH. Kamuktaindet (“The Powerful One”) was used as a translation for Elohim (“God”). This was taken over by a translation into the macrolanguage Kalenjin (1969) (intended to include the closely related Keiyo, Kipsigis, Markweeta, Nandi, Okiek, Sabaot, Terik, and Tugen). Sabaot, Markweeta, Tugen and Okiek later wanted there own translations. Both Sabaot and Markweeta use the indigenous word for “Creator” (Yēyiin in Sabaot and Iriin in Markweeta) to translate Elohim and YHWH of the Old Testament and Theos of the New Testament. The Kalenjin Bible has recently been revised to cater to Keiyo, Kipsigis, Nandi and Terik, and this revision has completely dropped Jehovah in favour of Kamuktaindet. (Source: Iver Larsen)

Early translations into Gilbertese faced a problem when transliterating “Jehovah” (a form of “Jehovah” was first used in Spanish Bible translations in 1569 and 1602): “There are only thirteen letters in the Kiribati alphabet: A, E, I, O, U, M, N, NG, B, K, R, T (pronounced [s] when followed by ‘i’), W For instance, ‘Jehovah’ is rendered Iehova, but Kiribati speakers can only pronounce it as ‘Iowa,’ since the phonemes [h] and [v] do not exist in Kiribati.” (source: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)

Other transliterations include Yoba (Kovai), Iaue (Mussau-Emira), Jawe (Waskia), Iave (Maiadomu), Iawe (Waboda) (source: P. King, The Bible Translator 2014, p. 194ff.), Yawi (Western Tawbuid, Eastern Tawbuid), or Yihowah (Kapingamarangi).

In a recent edition of a Thai translation (Thai Standard Version, publ. 2011) a combination of translation and transliteration is used: phra’ ya(h)we (h) (พระยาห์เวห์) (“Divine Yawe”). (Source: Stephen Pattemore)

In Nyarafolo Senoufo the transliteration is Yewe which also means “the being one” or “he that is.” David DeGraaf (in: Notes on Translation 3/1999, p. 34ff.) explains: “Since it is widely recognized that the vowels of the name are uncertain, another possible transliteration is Yewe. This proposal is in accord with the Nyarafolo rules of vowel harmony and is thus open to being understood as a normal nominalization in the language. Second, Yewe is exactly the word that would be formed by nominalizing the verb ‘to be’ in the class that includes sentient beings. Thus, Yewe can be understood as ‘the being one’ or ‘he that is’. This solution accords well with YHWH’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3:14, ‘I am who I am.'”

In the Chinese (Protestant) tradition the transliteration of “Jehovah” is historically deeply rooted, even though there are also some historical burdens (Click or tap to see more details):

“YHWH” is rendered in the Chinese Union Version—the most widely used Bible translation in China—as well as most other Chinese Bible translations as yehehua 耶和華. According to Chinese naming conventions, yehehua could be interpreted as Ye Hehua, in which Ye would be the family name and Hehua — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, Ye would be the family name of Jesus (transliterated as yesu 耶穌) and Su would be the given name. Because in China the children inherit the family name from the father, the sonship of Jesus to God the Father, yehehua, would be illustrated through this. Though this line of argumentation sounds theologically unsound, it is indeed used effectively in the Chinese church.” (see Wright 1953, p. 298, see also Jesus).

Ye 耶, an interrogative particle in classical Chinese, is part of the same phonetic series as ye 爺, which gives it a certain exchangeability. Ye 爺 carries the meaning “father” or is used as an honorable form of address. The choice of the first Bible translators to use the transliteration yehehua 爺火華 for Jehovah had a remarkable and sobering influence on the history of the 19th century in China by possibly helping to shape the fatal Taiping ideology, a rebellion that ended up costing an estimated 20 million lives.

“The founder of the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, was given a tract (…) [that he used to] interpret a nervous breakdown he had had in 1837 as his “call” to be the “Messiah.” This “vision” that Hong experienced is likely to have had a direct correlation with the name of “God” in that tract. Shen yehuohua 神爺火華 (directly translated: ‘God (or: spirit); old man (or: father); fire; bright)” was the term that was used in that tract for ‘God Jehovah,’ but this was not indicated as a (in its second part) transliteration of a proper name. In his vision, Hong saw ‘a man venerable in years (corresponding with ye), with golden (corresponding with huo and hua) beard and dressed in a black robe,’ an image likely to have been inspired by a direct translation from that name for ‘God,’ especially as it appeared at the beginning of the tract. That this term was considered to be a term of some relevance to the Taiping ideology is demonstrated by the fact that both yehuohua 爺火華 as the personal name of God and ye 爺 as “God the Father” later appeared in Taiping writings.” (Source: Zetzsche in Malek 2002, p. 141ff.)

For further reading on the translation of YHWH, see Rosin 1956, p. 89-125 and Andy Warren-Rothlin in Noss / Houser, p. 618ff.

See also Lord, God, and Exod. 3:14-15.